The Angels’ Path to Contention by Jeff Sullivan November 8, 2016 Two relevant facts here are indisputable. One, in this most recent season, the Angels were bad. They won 74 games. By BaseRuns, they “should have” won 71 games. That made them about as good as the Twins and the Braves. Horrible season. Two, baseball fans love a blockbuster. It’s not even unique to baseball. Sports fans love a blockbuster. They love seeing them, they love thinking about them, and they love talking about them. Big trades might be even more exciting than big games. Connect the points and you end up with Mike Trout trade proposals. The Angels narrative is being driven by the Mike Trout fantasy — that is, the fantasy of Mike Trout being available. This comes up in every one of my chats, and my chats aren’t special. As the reasoning goes, the Angels are bad, and they’re probably going to stay bad, so why don’t they trade Trout to re-stock an empty system? It’s actually kind of convincing. The Angels’ system is in legitimately bad shape. Yet the major-league product isn’t so terrible. Something not enough people seem to understand: The Angels are under no obligation to blow things up. In large part because of Trout, the Angels are in half-decent shape. Perhaps even better than that. They have a real path to the playoffs as soon as next year. I’ve mentioned the Angels’ preliminary 2017 projection a few times. Admittedly, even I’ve been surprised. It’s just one projection, based on imperfect depth charts that will change every week for the next several months, but the projections for the moment make the Angels look solid. By projected WAR, and projected WAR alone, the Angels are presently ninth in baseball, between the Cardinals and the Mets. They’re fourth in the American League, and second in the AL West. In other words, they could project as a playoff team even right now. I doubt many expected the Angels to project better than the Mariners and Rangers. I bet some people are surprised to even see them better than the A’s. But — well maybe this is a good reminder. Before last year, the Angels ranked 16th in projected WAR. In the end, they were 21st in wins. The year before that, they were 10th and 11th, respectively. The year before that, they were 10th and first. A similar Angels team in 2015 nearly made the playoffs. This past year was particularly dreadful. Even then, the Angels finished ninth in baseball in WAR on the position-player side. That’s pretty good! They were 29th in pitcher WAR. Broken out, their starters were 28th, and their relievers were 28th. The Angels couldn’t pitch. The Angels were hurt. Next year’s Angels could easily end up in better shape. And this is probably where everything turns. I mean, yeah, the Angels would be crippled if something bad happened to Trout. But the realistic risk is in the projected rotation. Because, three of the expected starters are Matt Shoemaker, Garrett Richards, and Tyler Skaggs. Shoemaker’s season ended after surgery on his head. Richards chose to rehab from a torn UCL. Skaggs is himself putting a torn UCL in his rear-view mirror. He actually had the surgery, but down the stretch he did experience something of an arm problem. All of these guys are going to be important. They all, obviously, have question marks. Something the Angels don’t have is rotation depth. So they need for their arms to stay healthy. Now, I think Shoemaker’s going to be all right. I don’t see any reason to believe he’s going to suffer physical or psychological after-effects. Skaggs has some risk, but the last time they imaged his UCL, it was clean. Pitchers come back from Tommy John surgery all the time. The Richards case is the most fascinating, because he received a stem-cell therapy. That promoted healing in his elbow ligament. Andrew Heaney had the same procedure, and it didn’t work, so he went under the knife. With Richards, it’s worked, at least to this point. He’s passed all the tests, and he’s thrown, reaching high-90s velocity. We’re conditioned to be skeptical about these things, but, remember how skeptical everyone was about Masahiro Tanaka? Richards could very well be fine. He might be ready to start 30 games. Give the Angels some pitchers and it’s just not a bad roster. For the sake of comparison, we all feel pretty good about the Indians, yes? Their top-10 projected players right now combine for 32 projected WAR. The top-10 projected Red Sox players also combine for 32 projected WAR. The top-10 projected Angels players combine for 31 projected WAR. They’re effectively even, and it shouldn’t be held against them that so much of that just comes from Trout. That’s an advantage that they have, where one star player is basically two star players. The Angels aren’t so deep. I’m sure even they understand that. Right now, they project in the top 10, positionally, at only center field, shortstop, right field, and DH. They’re almost at the bottom at third base, they’re tied for the bottom at second base, and no team projects to have a worse bullpen. This team is thin, which means there’s a narrow margin of error. There’s not so much on the farm the Angels could call up to plug any developing holes. So what resources there are are financial. As I build out a projected 25-man roster, I get an estimated team payroll of $142 million. The average of their last three payrolls is about $155 million. Last year’s payroll was about $165 million. That suggests what the Angels have to work with, and they say they’d like to find boosts at catcher, second, and the pitching staff. They’ve already put $9 million toward Cameron Maybin, to plug a hole in left. I don’t see the Angels hanging around the top of the market. They don’t have the prospects for the trades, and they don’t have the money for splashes. I’m just not convinced they *need* splashes. What they need are tweaks, depth, support for the star center fielder. This isn’t how anyone would choose to build a roster, I don’t think, and I’m guessing that’s part of the reason for why people think the Angels should tear it all apart. The don’t have a Cubs or Astros thing going on, so, why even bother? I get it; the system is lacking, and the product is thin and vulnerable. But the roster can still be competitive. It was competitive two years ago. Yeah, it could come undone if a starter or two get hurt, but wouldn’t that be true for almost anyone? We can’t assume Richards is screwed. We can’t assume Skaggs is screwed. And if the Angels have them both, they’re going to prevent more runs than they did. At this moment in time, the Angels don’t need to blow it up. Just 11 months from now, they could be a playoff team, and it wouldn’t take a miracle. I wouldn’t say they’re in enviable shape, but, are the Rangers? Are the Mariners? Are the A’s? No, no, and no. The Angels can try to do their best in the majors while slowly addressing the improvement of the levels below. It’s a difficult process, but all of them are.