The Angels Believe In the Youth in Their Outfield

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The plight of the Los Angeles Angels is well known by now. Despite employing two generational talents in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, they’ve made the playoffs just once in the last 12 seasons. Even worse, they’ve had a winning record in just four of those 12 seasons, and haven’t finished above .500 since going 85-77 in 2015. It’s not for lack of trying either. They’ve signed plenty of big name free agents to massive contracts to try and get them over the hump. Those efforts haven’t paid off yet, however, and the latest veteran to get kicked to the curb before hitting free agency is Justin Upton, who was designated for assignment on Sunday with a year left on his contract.

Since 2011, the Angels have signed four free agents to contracts that are five years or longer, with four additional extensions of similar length. The track record for those signings has been pretty ghastly:

Angels Long-Term Contracts
Player Years Contract Total WAR
Jered Weaver 2012–16 5 yrs, $85M 7.7
C.J. Wilson 2012–15 5 yrs, $77.5M 7.5
Albert Pujols 2012–21 10 yrs, $240M 5.4
Josh Hamilton 2013–14 5 yrs, $125M 2.4
Mike Trout 2015–18 6 yrs, $144.5M 35.4
Justin Upton 2018–21 5 yrs, $106M 2.9
Mike Trout 2019–present 10 yrs, $360M 13.2
Anthony Rendon 2020–present 7 yrs, $245M 3.3

C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, and Upton didn’t finish out their contract term with the Angels, while the jury is still out on Rendon; Mike Trout’s deals can comfortably be scored wins. Injuries cut Wilson’s career short while a combination of injury and off-field issues led the Angels to trade Hamilton just two years into his huge contract. Pujols’s production in Anaheim was a shadow of his career-defining tenure in St. Louis, though he did manage some late season magic for the Dodgers last year. He’ll finish out his career where it started. By signing all of these players to large, long-term contracts, the Angels were doing exactly what you’d expect them to do in their position: spend to supplement their established stars. Its unfortunate, then, that the majority of these contracts didn’t pan out, particularly when pitching remained such a consistent need.

Upton’s five-year deal with the Angels wasn’t worst they’ve signed in the last decade, but it certainly didn’t help their cause. His best season in Anaheim was 2018, his first full year in Angel red after being acquired from the Tigers mid-season in ‘17. He blasted 30 home runs while posting a very good .257/.344/.463 line (121 wRC+) and accumulating 2.9 WAR. The next three seasons were marred by a host of injuries, including a recurring lower back problem, a knee issue, and a bout of turf toe. He managed to appear in just 194 games over the last three years, just 50% of the potential total games during those seasons, and he wasn’t all that productive when he was on the field. He struggled to a cumulative .211/.299/.414 line between 2019 and ‘21, good for just a 91 wRC+, while costing the Angels plenty of runs in the field as a poor corner outfielder too.

It’s a disappointing end to a long and productive career for Upton — though a resurgence with another team is still a possibility. Over a 10 year span from 2009–18, Upton accumulated 36.8 WAR, the 18th most for a position player during that period. He hit his 300th career home run in 2020 and has swiped more than 150 bases in the big leagues, making him one of just 34 players to reach those two milestones since 1969.

The Angels were working Upton out at first base to give them a bit more flexibility but ultimately decided to clear a spot on their roster in favor of some more youthful options. The 34-year-old could still latch on with another team, especially since the Angels will be responsible for the bulk of his $28 million salary this year. He’s hit the ball well this spring and could be a nice option off the bench for a team that needs some right-handed power. Last year, he posted a .361 wOBA against left-handing pitching, giving him an 80 point platoon split. Over the last three years, that split has been a little less pronounced — just a 13 point gap — but he should be able to provide some production from the right side, provided he’s healthy.

With Upton out of the picture, the door is open for Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh to get regular playing time in the outfield corners, flanking Trout. Angels general manager Perry Minasian cited the play of those two former top prospects this spring as the deciding factor in their decision to release Upton.

“It was more about [them] and what they’ve done this spring. Jo, I think anybody that’s seen him play this spring [would think he’s] been pretty impressive on both sides of the ball. And obviously Brandon, too, especially the last couple of days swinging the bat — left-handed bat. Defensively, the athleticism they both bring and, on the bases, they both give us a different dynamic that we haven’t had in the past. So we felt like there they were really good fits. The better you get as a club, the more depth you have as a club. This was a really, really difficult decision we spent a lot of time on, thought about and talked about. We just felt like Jo and Brandon are both ready to go.”

The Angels also have Taylor Ward on their roster to deploy in either outfield corner to spell Marsh or Adell, and manager Joe Maddon has said that he wants to get each of those youngsters 450 to 500 at-bats in 2022.

Collectively, that trio has plenty of potential but very little actual production at the game’s highest level. Both Adell and Marsh struggled to varying degrees in their first taste of the big leagues. The former debuted in 2020 during the shortened season and it was a complete disaster. He struck out 41.7% of the time, preventing him from really utilizing his trademark power. He posted a 27 wRC+ and -1.4 WAR and started off last year back in Triple-A. He continued to tinker with his swing and approach and made it back to the majors by August. Impressively, he cut his strikeout rate to just 22.9% in 2021, though he still struggled to hit for as much power as he showed as a prospect. With his contact issues seemingly solved, his ability to get his raw power to show up in game situations will be his biggest hurdle in 2022. He’ll turn 23 the day after Opening Day, which gives him plenty of time to get his feet under him and make the right adjustments.

Marsh’s first taste of the majors went a little better than Adell’s. He posted a so-so line of .254/.317/.356 (86 wRC+) in 260 plate appearances with an Adell-esque 35.0% strikeout rate. His excellent defense in the outfield buoyed his overall value and he ended up accumulating 1.0 WAR last year. Marsh’s strikeout rate is certainly a red flag, but as Justin Choi showed in February, his batted ball data combined with his elite sprint speed was really encouraging. His 51.7% hard hit rate sat in the 93rd percentile among all batters with at least 100 batted ball events last season. He doesn’t have the prodigious raw power that Adell features — his swing is geared towards line drive contact — but his 10.9% barrel rate suggests the potential for more than just gap power.

Ward doesn’t have the prospect pedigree of Adell or Marsh but he is a former first-round draft pick who made his debut back in 2018. Initially a catcher, he moved out from behind the plate as a third baseman and then to the outfield once Rendon was installed at the hot corner in 2020. He quietly put up a 111 wRC+ last season, showing good power and a much improved strikeout rate, down to 23.2% from 30.6% during his rookie year. His 10.3% barrel rate backs up his .188 ISO and he was particularly productive against left-handed pitching.

Angels Outfielders, Depth Charts Projections
Player PA wRC+ Fld WAR
Jo Adell 560 98 -3.0 0.8
Brandon Marsh 497 91 3.4 1.2
Taylor Ward 357 110 -1.9 1.1

The problem for the Angels is that they’ll be relying on these young outfielders to take big steps forward as they try to challenge the Astros for the AL West crown. Without Upton on the roster, it puts a ton of pressure on Adell and Marsh to produce right now. At some point, the keys to the outfield would have been handed over to Adell and Marsh anyway, but they’re being thrust into the spotlight now whether or not they’re truly ready. The success of the Angels season will likely hinge on the health of Trout, Ohtani, and Rendon, and the success of their pitching staff, but a competent supporting cast surrounding their trio of stars would go a long way towards helping them break out of the mediocrity they’ve been mired in over the last decade.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

So we are saying all three are predicted to have higher WAR than Upton’s last 3 years combined. I’ll take 5 WAR from the 3 combined and be very happy.

1 year ago
Reply to  socalkdg

Not sure where you’re getting/seeing that 5 WAR from those 3 combined, but yeah, that seems very plausible, especially since the projection for Adell (and maybe also Marsh) probably ends up underselling him.

Afterall, Adell definitely has the upside to be much more than that projected 0.8 WAR — and although ST results should generally be taken w/ some large blocks of salt, it’s still very encouraging that he’s continued to keep a lid on his K% and have some good results to show for it (and his tools) so far…

Last edited 1 year ago by TheUncool