The Angels won the offseason, as you may have read. In years past, that has often meant only that a team sacrificed the most in future resources (salary commitments and/or pre-MLB talent) to improve its MLB roster. With regard to the 2018 Halos, though, it meant landing a great degree of major-league talent at a relative bargain — thanks, mostly, to the score of the century in Japanese wunderkind Shohei Ohtani.
We’ve already broken down the Angels’ offseason efforts in full. And we’ve now observed the team run out to a 25-18 start to the season that has kept it in range of the defending World Series champion Astros in the AL West. So, what are the key factors in the team’s quality opening play and can it be sustained?
How have the Angels succeeded thus far?
It’s not all about Ohtani, of course, but adding him at minimal cost has been everything the Halos hoped for and more. He’s settling in and looking increasingly dangerous on the mound, where he has provided 32 2/3 innings of 3.58 ERA pitching. And Ohtani has exceeded even the most optimistic projections at the plate, with a .348/.392/.652 output through 74 plate appearances.
The other significant position players the Angels added or retained over the winter, meanwhile, have been more solid than great. Justin Upton is hitting well but not exactly outproducing his hefty contract. Zack Cozart has been solid. Ian Kinsler is continuing to defend like a star but is off to a sluggish start at the plate.
The rock upon which all of this is built, of course, remains Mike Trout, who’s a merciless WAR machine. But Andrelton Simmons has somewhat quietly also been among the game’s very best players to this point in 2018. The all-world defender is rather amazingly walking at nearly twice the rate he has struck out (9.3% vs. 5.6%) while producing at about 50% better than league-average on offense.
With Ohtani in the mix, the rotation has been in the top third of the league by measure of ERA, FIP, and xFIP. In some ways, this is the most promising development of the young season. Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, Garrett Richards, and Nick Tropeano are all healthy and delivering quality results, while Jaime Barria has a 2.13 ERA through his first 25 1/3 MLB innings.
Is it sustainable?
On a team level, there’s no indication that the Angels are just lucking their way into victories by squeezing out close wins. Their Pythagorean and BaseRuns records are spot on to the actual results for a team with a +31 run differential to this point of the season. But that’s not to say there aren’t some underlying numbers worth considering.
Catchers Martin Maldonado and Rene Rivera have each hit at an average-or-better rate. Unfortunately, their career number suggest that’s unlikely to continue; each (particularly Rivera) has benefited from ball-in-play fortune. Of course, some other players have been on the other side of the BABIP gods. That’s particularly true of Kinsler, though he certainly has not stung the ball this year (.298 xwOBA). Similarly, Kole Calhoun’s miserable start has likely been the product of both bad luck and suboptimal contact (.173 wOBA vs. .271 xwOBA). Somewhat worryingly, reserves Chris Young (.246 wOBA vs. .237 xwOBA) and Luis Valbuena (.283 wOBA vs. .263 xwOBA) have even been a bit fortunate to produce at the middling rate they have to this point, though certainly both have broader track records of solid offensive output.
One issue remains the ongoing presence of Albert Pujols, whose fall-off at the plate has really not abated. He doesn’t strike out much but also doesn’t get on base or even hit for all that much power (.165 ISO). Limited to first base or the DH slot, he’s a replacement-level player. If you imagine he and Simmons swapping batting lines, perhaps it doesn’t sting us much. But there’s no indication that Pujols will get back to being an above-average hitter, while there’s likely good reason to believe that Simmons will begin to regress back toward his typical levels of average (or worse) outcomes with the bat. Likewise, it seems reasonable to bake in a bit of caution into projections for Ohtani’s work at the plate.
In the aggregate, the Halos may be outperforming their true talent on offense, but not dramatically so. Entering the season, though, that wasn’t the question. Instead, as we heard over and over in MLBTR chats, fans wondered: “Do the Angels have enough pitching to contend?”
There’s good news and bad news on that front. While Barria and Tropeano are outperforming their peripherals, the rotation as a whole has deserved its quality results. Ohtani and Heaney have each been much more impressive by measure of fielding-independent pitching than of actual earned runs. Promising as it is to see so many talented arms finally healthy and productive in the majors, there still has to be some concern about whether that’ll hold up all year long. The club has already lost JC Ramirez for the year, while there’s increasing concern for Matt Shoemaker.
It therefore seems that depth, more than quality, is a concern in the rotation. But what about that bullpen?
Areas of need and resources
The Halos’ somewhat dodgy relief unit leads to worry that the club won’t capture as many winnable contests as possible. Keynan Middleton had been effective (more so than his peripherals) but now seems destined to miss a big chunk of time. Blake Parker has continued to excel after his surprising 2017 showing, while Noe Ramirez is quietly breaking out (his peripherals are better than his 3.80 ERA). Jose Alvarez has been a solid southpaw presence. And veteran Jim Johnson is another useful arm to have around. But that’s not an overly impressive group of leading bullpen lights. Cam Bedrosian has come crashing back to earth; Justin Anderson is getting loads of whiffs but also doling out too many walks and dingers.
There’s little question, then, that the Angels are going to be prowling the waiver wire for arms over the next ten weeks. And they’ll likely be among the most relief-needy teams at this summer’s trade deadline. The club could justifiably target high-quality, high-leverage assets as well as useful middle-relief arms … to say nothing of whatever the needs in the rotation will be come July.
Otherwise, perhaps, there may not be much work to be done unless an injury intervenes. It’s certainly possible that the front office could weigh an outfield addition, but it’s hard to imagine Calhoun and Young will continue to be this bad. And relatively unknown reserve Jefry Marte has been on fire out of the gates, helping to ease the situation. While Pujols likely isn’t going anywhere, Valbuena is an increasing concern in his own right; he’s now striking out more and walking less than ever. With the possibility of some quality bats being available for little, it’s not inconceivable that the Angels could at some point jettison Valbuena and reduce Pujols’s role to fit another player on the roster.
With an improving farm system, GM Billy Eppler has an increasing slate of prospect assets from which to trade. Of course, he’ll surely be hesitant to part with any of the team’s most treasured young players. It seems likely the Angels will attempt to utilize their financial flexibility to the extent possible. With nearly $25MM in space beneath the luxury line, there is some room to work with. But there are limits to how much talent you can get without giving up talent in return. The organization could well end up facing some tough questions over the summer.
All things considered, the Angels have performed up to expectations and seem to be positioned to continue to do so. That said, the club is somewhat more exposed to injury risk than others and may need to be creative to land mid-season improvements given that it is still rebuilding its talent pipeline.