Yes, the offseason is just starting, and because of that, it might seem premature to begin considering which team has most improved its roster for 2018. Merely by winning the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, though, the Angels have probably already done enough to emerge victorious from winter. And more than that, the Angels remain active.
Over the last few days, they’ve added enough wins to make themselves favorites for a Wild Card berth, at the very least.
The Angels doesn’t necessarily deserve all the credit. Signing Ohtani is kind of like handing over $20 at a local convenience store and winning a Powerball jackpot. While the team’s front office no doubt made a compelling pitch, Ohtani’s decision seemed to be tied to geography and factors beyond many clubs’ control.
We can give the Angels far more praise for the vision and void-filling that comes along with coming to terms on a three-year, $38-million deal with Zack Cozart on Friday.
Source: Cozart deal with #Angels is for three years, $38M. LAA just announced signing.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 15, 2017
While FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections call for Cozart to “decline” from five to three wins in 2018, he’s a good bet to produce surplus value on the deal for the Angels with a win currently valued at about $9 million
With health, he’s a sure bet to fill the club’s glaring third-base void and improve its overall defense. The Angels were creative and opportunistic to target Cozart in a market where most contenders have no shortstop need. It’s the second major hole the Angels have addressed this week and third to date in the offseason, when including Ian Kinsler and Ohtani. And Ohtani is a candidate to address multiple needs simultaneously as a two-way player, Angels’ designated hitters having produced a combined -2.0 WAR in 2017, worst in the AL.
The Angels have probably upgraded four positions. Certainly three. The trio of Cozart, Kinsler, and Ohtani are going to cost a combined $36 million in 2018, including Ohtani’s bonus (but not the posting fee). That’s a modest price. There’s a lot surplus value potential there.
Angels GM Billy Eppler really likes defense. With the exception of first base, his infield defense is now really something.
Just two days after upgrading second base through a trade for Kinsler — the Angels ranked 28th in second base WAR with -0.3 last season — Cozart, an above-average defensive shortstop, will be shifting down the defensive spectrum to third base in deference to the game’s best defensive shortstop in Andrelton Simmons. The Angels ranked 21st in the majors in third base WAR last season (2.0). While we don’t know how Cozart’s defense will translate, necessarily, he seems like a good bet to make the transition.
The Angels ranked third among all clubs in UZR last season (31.7) and 11th in DRS (17). Cozart, meanwhile, has recorded a +45.9 UZR and +56 DRS over the course of his career at shortstop; Kinsler +40.4 and +108, respectively, at second base.
Their newest starting pitcher, Ohtani, produced a 52.2% ground-ball rate last season in Japan. With this new infield, the Angels would do well to add more ground-ball arms as they ranked 27th in ground-ball rate (41.6%) last season.
Even if Cozart regresses some with his bat (as is forecast in his 2018 projection), his glove makes him a worthwhile investment. If he consolidates some of his offensive gains, he’ll be a steal.
Cozart remarkably improved his wRC+ by 50 points from 2016 (91) to 2017 (141). He posted career bests across his triple-slash line .297/.385/.548 and in homers (24). He did this, however, while recording basically the same batted-ball profile, with GB/FB ratios of .91, .99, and .90 over the last three seasons. Cozart was an offensive beast in 2017 despite posting a below-average exit velocity (89.5 mph) on fly balls and line drives. He’s a player that benefited from playing in Cincinnati and hitting a juiced ball. (Though the Angels’ ballpark played similarly for right-handed home-run power last year.)
His exit velocity sat between Max Moroff and Luis Sardinas’s last season. He BABIP’d over .300 (.312) for the first time in a full season. He had the third-largest gap between his wOBA and expected wOBA. Cozart likely, almost certainly, just had the best offensive season of his career. But the Angels really wanted his glove. He doesn’t need to post a wRC+ of 140 again to have value, though the club is hoping he can exceed his career mark of 90 wRC+ for the moment.
The offseason is just getting started after a quiet period to date. The position-player market started to thaw Friday with the signing of Carlos Santana by the Phillies and Cozart’s move to the Angels. It’s still early in the offseason, but the Angels might have already won it.
The Angels are still far from catching the Astros. That might be impossible. But they entered the offseason on the bubble and now appear to be a Wild Card favorite. Not bad for December 15.