Meet the New Favorites In the West

Given all the controversies they’ve been through this year, you’d almost want to think the Angels were having a bad season. Only a few months ago, ownership ran Josh Hamilton out of town, and while it did so figuratively, you get the sense it would’ve done it literally. Not very long after that, a team executive was dismissed after using words like “segregation” in an interview about ticket policies and attendance. And of course, the other week, the general manager packed up his office and left, his relationship with Mike Scioscia finally reaching the breaking point. From a PR perspective, for the Angels, it’s been a year to forget. Except for this recent stretch of winning, that’s moved the Angels into first place.

The baseball season will suck you in. It’s 162 games long, and it wants you to feel every single one of them. It wants you to celebrate every runner left stranded; it wants you to curse every failed call to the bullpen. The baseball season pitches itself as an election — every game matters. And it’s true, that every game does matter. But it’s terribly easy to get too wrapped up in the day-to-day trivialities. Ultimately, every team will win a bunch of games, and every team will lose a bunch of games. Baseball is best consumed every day, but it might be best understood every week or two. An ordinary standings page will include an “L10” column. You can learn a lot from one glance. Forget, for a moment, about all of the details; over their past 10 games, the Angels are 7-3. The Astros and Rangers are both 2-8. The A’s and the Mariners are a harmless 5-5. Divide a season into 10-game blocks, and over the most recent block, the Angels have made their move.

Of course there have been obstacles, elements that haven’t gone according to plan. These things are easier to notice when a team isn’t in first place, but if you believe that teams will go on runs and that teams will slump, a good goal should be to always remain within striking distance. And so, even through lean times, the Angels hung around, and they’ve had a mini-surge while the Astros have slumped, and now everything’s peaches. For a different way of understanding the same concept, let’s agree to set an arbitrary endpoint.

On Friday, June 26, the Angels lost to the Mariners and dropped to 37-37. There’s nothing otherwise special about that date, and I’ve just chosen it to make this graph look the most dramatic, but that doesn’t make any of it a lie. Here’s what’s happened with regard to team playoff odds, as the Angels have played another 14 games leading into the break:


The Angels’ position has improved by 36 percentage points. Next-best are the Pirates, at +18 percentage points. A couple weeks ago, the Angels had roughly a one-in-three shot at the postseason, ranking them seventh in the American League. Today they’re at almost three-in-four, ranking them third in the American League. The Astros’ playoff odds have dropped from 70% to 54%. The Astros’ division odds have dropped from 58% to 33%. Though the Angels right now hold the narrowest of leads, they’re not to be thought of as a surprising underdog. They are to be considered the AL West favorites.

It’s an interesting position, not just because of where the Angels recently were, but also because the current general manager is having to split responsibilities with an assistant because until the other week he was kind of out of the loop. The trade deadline is now two and a half weeks away, and more than ever this year, the Angels are in position to think about making an upgrade or two. Not anymore are they simply too close to sell. Now it’s about solidifying a team that could advance to the World Series.

One could pretty easily mock the Angels’ roster construction. They are, overall, a thoroughly mediocre baseball team, plus one Mike Trout. While Trout isn’t the only thing they have, he’s certainly the savior, the player responsible for keeping the Angels out of the basement. So maybe it feels like the Angels are incomplete, but there’s nothing wrong with their current model. They’re taking advantage of the player they drafted and developed. There are benefits and risks to having one obvious superstar player. There are different benefits and risks to spreading the talent around. That the Angels could be sunk by a Trout injury doesn’t address that the likelihood of a Trout injury is small.

From here on out, the Angels are tied for seventh in baseball in projected WAR. They’re 10th in projected winning percentage, sandwiched between the Yankees and Blue Jays. The Angels aren’t a statistical juggernaut, but they’re good enough to remain relevant, and they project out better than the Astros. The mission for the front office in the coming weeks will be to evaluate whether the potential upgrades are worth the price of acquisition. While the Angels aren’t looking to move many high-end prospects, there will be players available for less than that, and it’s not hard to find where the Angels might improve.

For example, Angels lefties have hit just 18 home runs, with a .646 OPS. It’s no secret that it hasn’t been Matt Joyce’s season, and while he’s looked more like himself in recent weeks, he’s still more of a role player than a regular. With Collin Cowgill still hurt, Daniel Robertson is filling the role of fourth outfielder. C.J. Cron has had a good couple weeks, but he’s sitting on three times as many strikeouts as walks. And though Johnny Giavotella has delivered on some of his offensive potential, defensively he’s been more problematic.

For what feels like months, the Angels have been connected to Ben Revere and Adam Lind. And that makes a little sense, because the Phillies and the Brewers have been out of it from the season’s first week. Lind would certainly improve the lineup against right-handed pitchers. Revere isn’t quite the left-handed smasher the Angels might be looking for, but he’d be a team-control player who’d allow Scioscia to use more of that running game he likes. The fits are easy enough to see.

And if Revere would be a fit, Will Venable could be a fit. Gerardo Parra could be a fit. But there are bigger-power options, should the Angels choose to go that route. Jay Bruce has turned himself back into an asset, and the Reds have had him on the market for weeks. And there continues to be some talk about Andre Ethier, and then perhaps C.J. Wilson going the other way. The Angels wouldn’t want to just up and deplete their rotation depth, but if they were to exchange a starter for a hitter, they could then get involved in the starter market they might now be mostly ignoring.

A particularly ballsy acquisition would be Chase Utley, if he could be persuaded to waive his no-trade clause. As bad as he’s been, a season ago he was a 5-win player, and he still projects to be decent. It’d be a shot at rejuvenation. A more perfect acquisition would be Ben Zobrist, and while that’s a true statement for a whole lot of teams, the Angels could play Zobrist at second base against righties, and in left field against lefties. So then they’d keep Giavotella, and they’d keep Joyce, but they’d keep them in limited roles. The problem with getting Zobrist is everyone wants him. But there’s a reason that’s the case.

And there’s just one more factor: the Astros are probably going to upgrade. They have the resources, they have the needs, and they have the will. So the Angels aren’t contending against the current Astros — they’re trying to hold off whatever version of the Astros might exist on the other side of the deadline. Maybe it isn’t Johnny Cueto, but perhaps the Astros pick up Scott Kazmir or someone along those lines. There’s generally a decent argument for standing pat, but the Angels should add at least a little depth.

If the depth comes in the form of Zobrist, it’s a considerable splash. If it looks more like a Lind, it helps. If it’s Revere, it at least adds a new dimension. The argument for a trade for the Mets is basically, why would you want to waste this starting pitching? For the Angels, why would you want to waste these years of Mike Trout? He makes them a contender almost on his own. Now the Angels get to decide how much they want to invest in contention.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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$cott Bora$
8 years ago

You said this so beautifully Jeff. If you want an unpaid internship writing the 800-page glossy bios for my 2015 free agents, I’d be happy to discuss it.

$cott Bora$
8 years ago
Reply to  $cott Bora$

Read the post below instead. That’s what I get for letting some dude from India handle my HTML training.