With a 62-64 record, the Angels are facing the possibility of a sixth consecutive losing season, which would match the 1971-77 Angels for the longest stretch of sub-.500 seasons in franchise history. Naturally, not having Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon healthy for almost the entire year is the biggest reason for the Angels’ woes in 2021, though the club has once again failed to receive consistent results from its pitching staff. Entering Monday’s play, Anaheim pitchers have combined for a 4.70 ERA, tied for the seventh-highest mark of any team in baseball.
Both the rotation and bullpen are pretty equally culpable for these struggles, yet in looking at the list of names on the roster, there are actually quite a few hurlers enjoying solid-to-great seasons. Shohei Ohtani and Raisel Iglesias have been excellent, while the likes of Patrick Sandoval, Alex Cobb, Mike Mayers, Jose Suarez, and Steve Cishek have all delivered quality numbers. Several pitchers have certainly delivered subpar performances to balance out the better arms, and yet it isn’t as if the Angels are bereft of pitching talent — shouldn’t they be better than this?
The real problem goes beyond just the bottom-line number of that 4.70 ERA. While it’s hard to argue against Los Angeles adding a significant pitching upgrade or two this winter, the team’s issue isn’t just with pitching, but with run prevention. The Angels’ pitching may not be very good, yet there’s no argument that the defense has been anything but bad in 2021.
The Halos rank 29th of 30 teams in UZR/150 (-7.3), and 27th in both Defensive Runs Saved (-29) and Outs Above Average (-6). The result is that Angels pitchers have a collective .302 BABIP, the fifth-highest mark of any team in baseball. Going beyond the team ERA category, Angels pitchers actually crack the top half of the league in SIERA, with a 4.14 mark that ranks 15th of 30 teams. Anaheim has one of the bigger gaps of any team between their pitching staff’s wOBA (.320) and xwOBA (.309), and the pitching corps is also doing a solid job of limiting hard contact.
Since finding good defense is generally cheaper than finding good pitching on the open market, perhaps the easiest way for the Angels to keep runs off the board in 2022 is to tighten up the glovework. There are some challenges on this front considering that the Halos seemingly have much of their 2022 position player mix already in place, and Ohtani has the designated hitter spot on lockdown. Looking at the settled positions in the infield, it’s safe to assume that the Angels will line up with Max Stassi getting at least half of the playing time at catcher, Jared Walsh at first base, David Fletcher at second base, and Rendon back and hopefully healthy at third base.
Of this group, only Stassi has been a clear defensive standout in 2021, and he has quietly been one of the game’s better-fielding catchers for a few years now, both in terms of his work behind the plate and pitch-framing. Since Kurt Suzuki’s defensive numbers have never been particularly impressive, the Halos could let Suzuki walk in free agency and add more of a defense-first backup behind Stassi, whose offensive breakout has likely earned him the majority of the catching duties next year.
Walsh is nothing special as a first baseman, but he is a better fit at first base than as an outfielder, and Walsh’s bat has definitely earned a spot in the lineup. Depending on which defensive metric you prefer, Fletcher has either been quite good (+4 DRS), average (0 Outs Above Average) or subpar (-5.3 UZR/150) over his 910 2/3 innings at the keystone this season. Considering Rendon has been a strong defender for much of his career, it is quite possible that his below-average numbers this year were due to his injuries, and he’ll return to normal in 2022.
This leaves shortstop as the glaring hole, which is ironic since the acquisition of Jose Iglesias last offseason was supposed to be the move that shored up the defense. Instead, Iglesias’ usually strong glovework dropped off considerably, as he has -17 DRS and a -8.9 UZR/150 over 935 2/3 innings at shortstop. OAA rates Iglesias as exactly average, yet even that represents a decline, and certainly less what the Angels expected when they obtained Iglesias from the Orioles.
Since the 2021-22 free agent class is loaded with star shortstops, the obvious move for the Angels would be to make another big-ticket position player signing and bring one of those headline names (i.e. Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Chris Taylor, Javier Baez) to Anaheim. However, with Trout and Rendon locked up to long-term deals, Justin Upton owed $28MM in 2022, and future funds required for a potential Ohtani extension, the Angels might not have the budget to add yet another big contract to the lineup.
Of the major names, Baez is perhaps the most intriguing as a potential fit. Baez struggled at the plate in 2020 and has been roughly a league-average hitter this year, providing a less-than-stellar platform as he enters free agency. It isn’t out the question that Baez accepts a one-year pillow contract in order to rebuild his value in 2022, so he can then re-enter a free agent market that isn’t so heavy in prominent shortstops. Baez and Angels manager Joe Maddon know each other well from their days with the Cubs, so Baez could see Anaheim as a nice spot to rediscover his hitting stroke. It is worth noting that both OAA and UZR/150 indicate a defensive decline for Baez from 2020 to 2021, though at the right price on a one-year contract, Baez could be a risk the Angels are willing to take.
If not a bigger name, L.A. could attempt to acquire another lower-cost, glove-first option as they did with Iglesias last winter. (Even a reunion with Iglesias himself might not be out of the question, though likely as a part-time option at most.) Signing a player like Jonathan Villar could add to the Angels’ overall bench versatility, as the team could then mix and match Fletcher and Villar at either middle infield position.
While Anaheim fans may balk at the idea of passing on all these major shortstops, the Angels could still benefit from the 2021-22 shortstop class in a more indirect manner. For instance, if a team that already has a quality shortstop decides to make a big splash by adding a new signing, the Angels could step in as a trade partner to acquire the former incumbent.
Turning to the outfield, the Angels will have Trout, Upton, and highly-touted youngsters Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh all in line for regular time, with Taylor Ward providing some additional depth. From a pure glovework perspective, the ideal everyday alignment would have Marsh up the middle in center field, with Trout moving to a corner outfield slot and only getting occasional action in center field (or maybe a bigger role in his normal center field job if Marsh isn’t quite ready for prime time).
According to both DRS and UZR/150, Trout has been a below-average fielder in four of the last five seasons. A shift to a corner role could theoretically help preserve Trout’s legs in the wake of the calf injury that has cost him much of the 2021 season, and since Marsh already looks like he can handle center field, a position change might be the wisest move to both upgrade the Angels’ defense and help keep Trout on the field. The easiest timeshare would be to sit the left-handed hitting Marsh against opposing southpaws, giving the Angels an Upton/Trout/Adell outfield alignment whenever the Angels face a lefty starter.
After some very shaky outings as a rookie in 2020, Adell has at least looked passable in the small sample size of his outfield work this year. Upton has been roughly a replacement-level player for the last three seasons and it has been years since he has been even a decent left fielder. Since his big salary will be hard to move in a deal (and Upton has no-trade protection), he still has a role to play if either Adell or Marsh can’t get on track at the plate against big league pitching.
A defense-first backup would make a lot of sense for the Angels, so the team could look to bring back a familiar face in Juan Lagares. Los Angeles looked to Dexter Fowler as another veteran regular for the outfield before a torn ACL ended his season in early April, and if Fowler’s recovery is coming along, the Angels could also give him another look on an inexpensive contract.
(To address the inevitable Ohtani question, Maddon is on record as saying that Ohtani could easily handle regular outfield work if he devoted himself to the position. As much as we’ve learned to not count Ohtani out for anything, it doesn’t seem likely that the Angels would increase Ohtani’s workload and injury risk by making him anything more than a late-game fill-in outfielder.)
How do you improve a defense with mostly the same players? Installing a new shortstop, a new part-time/backup catcher, getting Rendon and Trout back, and then changing the alignment of the outfield might be all it takes to turn the Angels’ defense from lousy into at least average. With even decent team defense, there is a very strong chance that the Halos would likely not only have a winning record, but possibly still a chance at a playoff spot.
Between a lack of consistent pitching and the injury concerns that seem to befall the Halos rotation almost every season, the club should be taking a much broader approach to the problem of how to keep opposing lineups in check. In fairness to GM Perry Minasian, it seems like he tried to do just this by landing Iglesias, but more is needed in the wake of what is looking like another non-playoff year. The Angels haven’t signed a free agent starter to a multi-year contract in almost nine years (since Joe Blanton in December 2012), so if the team plans to continue shopping for only second- or third-tier starters, Anaheim will need a much better defensive effort to compensate.