The Angels Have Cleared the Way for Shohei Ohtani

Chris Young provides outfield depth the club was sorely lacking. (Photo: Keith Allison)

The Los Angeles Angels aren’t responsible for any of the biggest moves of the past few days. They didn’t sign Eric Hosmer or J.D. Martinez. They didn’t trade for Jake Odorizzi. They didn’t even DFA Corey Dickerson.

That said, the Angels have taken a few steps recently towards improving their club — and, not coincidentally, towards clearing a path for Shohei Ohtani to receive playing time when he is not on the mound.

A brief review of their latest transactions:

  • Traded C.J. Cron to the Tampa Bay Rays for a player to be named later.
  • Signed outfielder Chris Young to a one-year deal for $2 million.
  • Signed Chris Carter to a minor-league deal.

Over a series of three moves, the team essentially swapped out first-base/designated-hitter depth for outfield depth and then addressed the 1B/DH depth, too. Chris Young and C.J. Cron possess several similarities and a few obvious differences. At 34, Young is six years older than Cron. Young plays the outfield while Cron can only play first base. As for the similarities, both have been slightly above-average right-handed hitters over the last two seasons. They will earn roughly $2 million each in 2018, and both are projected as average hitters next season. For the Angels, swapping in Young for Cron has several advantages despite Cron’s youth and team control though 2020.

The Angels already possess solid infield depth with the versatile Luis Valbuena on the roster. The club, meanwhile, has few outfield options besides starters Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton. Prior to bringing in Young, Michael Hermosillo was the only outfielder on the 40-man roster after those three. The 23-year-old Hermosillo advanced to Triple-A last season after starting the year in High-A, but he gained his spot on the 40-man for protection from last December’s Rule 5 Draft. In his write-up on the Angels system, Eric Longenhagen placed Hermosillo’s major-league ETA in 2019. Likewise, projection systems Steamer and ZiPS do not see Hermosillo as a major leaguer right now.

The Angels have invited outfielders Rymer Liriano and Eric Young Jr. — plus prospect Jahmai Jones — to spring training, but none of them provide much in the way of certainty should an outfielder go down or even take occasional days off. Jones — ranked 69th on the FanGraphs Top-100 prospect list — is in camp to get exposure to the big-league club, but he remains some distance from the majors. Liriano missed all of 2016 after a pitch to the head stopped his season before it started. He returned with a successful 2017 season in the White Sox organization, including some time in the majors, but he’s projected as a replacement-level player. Young Jr., meanwhile, is an MLB veteran who put up a solid 108 wRC+ in 125 plate appearances last season with 12 steals in 15 tries. He’s also 32 years old with a 76 wRC+ in nearly 2,000 career plate appearances, though. The Angels very much needed a fourth outfielder, and Chris Young fits the bill.

In addition to Young’s experience in all three outfield spots, his handedness allows him to potentially partner with Kole Calhoun’s lefty bat. Calhoun doesn’t have huge platoon splits, having recorded a 103 wRC+ in his career against lefties compared to a 113 wRC+ against righties, but he did have a down year last season with the bat. If he doesn’t bounce back, there will be an opportunity to rest Calhoun against some lefties, a move that should help not only the stat lines of Calhoun and Young but also the Angels in general.

The organization’s needs in the outfield and their need to find playing time for Shohei Ohtani ultimately converged, leading to the club’s decision to move C.J. Cron. Los Angeles’s full 40-man roster necessitated a move with the potential addition of Young. Given Cron’s lack of versatility, and Albert Pujols immobility — both physically and in terms of his contract — the Angels took the path of least resistance. Cron was the odd man out.

The Angels and Pujols have both suggested that the latter might be healthy enough to play first base, clearing time for Ohtani at designated hitter. Pujols played just 34 games at first base in 2016 and 2017 but would only need to play the field a couple times per week to make himself a full-time player. Pujols was very bad as a hitter last season, but if he could rebound to something closer to average, that would put him on level ground with the departing Cron and Luis Valbuena, who is also likely to see a lot of starts at first base.

There are any number of circumstances under which the team could ultimately regret dealing Cron. Counting on Pujols to play the field on a semi-regular basis doesn’t seem like great strategy. If Pujols were to get hurt, prove unable to play first, or hit so badly that the club needs to bench him, the absence of Cron will sting. Likewise, if Valbuena or another infielder get hurt — who Valbuena would then replace — there would be a hole at first. If it turns out Ohtani isn’t quite ready for major-league pitching, then Cron’s departure would also haunt the team.

The addition of Chris Carter mitigates the risk of those scenarios, however. Last seen in the majors with the Yankees, Carter hit himself out of a role and out of the organization in New York with a 73 wRC+ the first half of last season. Carter played fairly well for the Oakland A’s Triple-A club in Nashville the rest of the way, however, even if he never made it back to the bigs. The four seasons before 2017, Carter averaged 33 homers and was an above-average hitter every year, but his value was limited by striking out in nearly one-third of his plate appearances and being limited defensively. Carter is only 31, so there is some chance of a bounce-back. As an insurance policy for Pujols, Carter fits the bill.

Was the impetus for moving Cron the need to sign Young or the need to get Ohtani playing time? Why not both? The Angels made three smaller moves that addressed depth and moved the great Ohtani Experiment forward. That’s a minor win for the Angels and a bigger win for all baseball fans, who are about to see an amazing attempt at a legitimate two-way player.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

Does Ohtani take up two roster spots on the Angels’ 40 man?

6 years ago
Reply to  luke.shigeo

Ugh, I hate when Rotographs bleeds through into Fangraphs.

6 years ago
Reply to  luke.shigeo

Of course. 40 man roster spots are assigned by number of positions you play. This is why Ben Zobrist took up three separate 40-man spots back in the day. It also why the Angels DFA’d two different players the day they signed Ohtani. And why so many teams have moved away from signing versatile players, and prefer single-position players like CJ Cron instead.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I was making a joke about Yahoo fantasy baseball.

6 years ago
Reply to  luke.shigeo

Is that some kind of funky RPG? Where you can have Orcs as your pitcher or something?

Ryan DCmember
6 years ago
Reply to  luke.shigeo

I thought it was funny

6 years ago
Reply to  Ryan DC

How dare you think that?! One thumbs down for you, Bub!