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2018 Preview: Los Angeles Angels


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Angels.

The Angels made some aggressive moves this offseason. They may have had the most active offseason of anyone, in fact. Specifically:

  • They signed Justin Upton to a five-year, $106 million contract extension;
  • The signed All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart and turned him into a third baseman;
  • They traded for Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler; and
  • They won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, giving them a potential ace and a potential power threat in one package.

But is that enough?

The Angels flirted with the Wild Card at times last season, ultimately falling five games short. They also had to do without baseball’s best player, Mike Trout for all of June and half of July. Some might say that made the difference, but the truth of the matter is that the Angels had a lot of problems beyond Trout’s time on the DL. Most notably, they were near the bottom of the AL in offense and, once again, the pitching staff suffered a slew of injuries.

What went right for them? The bullpen was unexpectedly good, Andrelton Simmons had his best year at the plate and, even with the time on the disabled list, Mike Trout was Mike Trout and that carries you a long way. Or, at least to 80 wins. For them to move beyond 80 wins and into serious playoff contention territory, they’re going to need a lot more.

For one thing they, more than most contenders, need some good luck with health in the rotation.

Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker, and JC Ramirez have all suffered serious injuries in recent years and all of them will need to be healthy this year for the Halos to be competitive. Between them, Ohtani, Andrew Heaney, Parker Bridwell and Nick Tropeano, there are seven or eight good starting pitchers hanging around. All of them will be necessary given that (a) there has been talk of the Angels using a six-man rotation; (b) even if they don’t, formally, go to a six-man, Ohtani’s workload will probably limit him, on average, to a start a week, requiring a lot of spot starts; and (c) with this bunch, someone is likely to be hurt again. As has often been the case in recent years, the pitching looks good on paper in March. Whether the arms all hold up in practice will be the real question.

Before we move on, let me offer a brief aside about Shohei Ohtani.

He got all of the offseason press, both because of his promise — he’s a two way star! — and because of the sweepstakes to get him. It’s important to put the hype aside now, though, and think of him as just a baseball player. As a pitcher he has a chance to be something special based on his scouting reports, but so far he hasn’t shown much in spring training. As a hitter he looks pretty overmatched so far, but that could be rust, as he only hit in 65 games last year. There will be adjustments for the young man, and those adjustments will likely take longer than the Angels will be in Tempe for spring training. All of which is to say that, even if I think he has a great future in major league baseball, it’s easy to expect too much of him in 2018. As such, view any Angels previews that place too much emphasis on how he does with a skeptical eye.

Let us continue.

As mentioned, the bullpen was a blessing for the Angels last year, with Yusmeiro Petit, Blake Parker and Bud Norris anchoring the late innings. Only Parker is back from that crew and joining him for eighth and ninth inning work will be Cam Bedrosian, who showed emerging greatness in 2016 and, some nagging injuries aside, some nice stretches last year. Filling out the group will be new acquisition Jim Johnson, Keynan Middleton, Jose Alvarez, Noe Ramirez and whoever isn’t in the rotation at any given time. It’s hard to see that group being as good as the Angels had last year — Johnson was downright terrible in Atlanta — but no one really thought what the Angels had last year would be as good as it was either. The good thing here is that Mike Scioscia showed last season that he was not as hidebound as many accuse of him of being. He used relievers in different roles at different times and that’s a good approach to take when you have a lot of unknowns.

Ultimately, though, the Angels will rise and fall based on how their lineup does.

Mike Trout is Mike Trout and, barring injury, will be a top MVP candidate again. Andrelton Simmons made himself a useful offensive player last year, posting an OPS+ of 103. With his glove, that makes him among the most valuable players in the league. It’ll be interesting to see if, in his age 28 season, he maintains that level or if 2017 was a fluke. Justin Upton came over in a trade last last season and gave the Angels a second offensive threat for the first time in a long time. Overall it was the second best offensive season of his career. If he’s that Justin Upton once again, good things are happening in the middle of the order.

New third baseman Zack Cozart had a breakout offensive year in 2017. Though there’s a good chance he falls back to earth a good bit in 2018, the converted shortstop should be a plus defender at the hot corner, making the left side of the Angels’ infield something special. New second baseman Ian Kinsler put up his worst season as a major leaguer last year. At age 36 a bounceback is not something to bet the mortgage on, but given the black hole that was the second base slot for the Angels last year, he’ll likely represent an improvement for the club, even at a diminished-for-him level. His glove remains solid.

Speaking of diminished, Albert Pujols is still there. He only played six games at first base last year, but will likely see more time there in 2018 due to the plan to let Ohtani DH a couple of times a week. If Pujols doesn’t cover first on those days Luis Valbuena will stay there and Pujols will ride pine. That’ll be the right thing to do regardless given how Pujols is mostly cooked as a hitter, though Pujols’ contract and status may see him playing more than he deserves to at this point in his career. Martin Maldonado and Kole Calhoun round things out. Neither are dangerous hitters, but Calhoun at least has shown more in the past than he did in 2017.

Overall, it’s reasonable to assume that the Angels offense will improve in 2018. Maybe not a ton, but if Trout stays in the lineup, Upton, Cozart and Kinsler provide the upgrades they figure to be and everyone else at least maintains, things should come up from where they were offensively speaking in 2017. With that, some health in the rotation and the upgraded defense on what was already an above average defensive team, the Angels should be pretty interesting.

Interesting enough to catch the Astros? Nah. Not seeing that at all. This is, at best, I think, a 90 win team, perhaps, if things break well and maybe an 85-win team if they don’t break well but they avoid disasters. That’ll play, though. It’ll be enough to challenge the runners up in the AL Central and AL East for one of the two Wild Card slots.

Prediction: Second Place, AL West.

Nats’ success shouldn’t be about Bryce Harper

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Bryce Harper turns 27 years old today. As an early birthday present, he got to watch his former team reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. His new team finished exactly at .500 in fourth place, missing the playoffs. These were facts that did not go unnoticed as the Nationals completed an NLCS sweep of the Cardinals at home last night.

Harper spent seven seasons with the Nationals before hitting free agency and ultimately signing with the Phillies on a 13-million, $330 million contract. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2018 regular season, but about $100 million of that was deferred until he was 65 which lowered the present-day value of the offer. The Nats’ offer wasn’t even in the same ballpark, really.

Nevertheless, Nationals fans were upset that their prodigy jilted them to go to the Phillies. He was mercilessly booed whenever the Phillies played in D.C. Nats fans’ Harper jerseys were destroyed, or at least taped over.

Harper, of course, was phenomenal with the Nationals. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, then won the NL MVP Award several years later with an historically outstanding 1.109 OPS while leading the league with 42 homers and 118 runs scored. Overall, as a National, he had a .900 OPS. Pretty good. He was also productive in the postseason, posting an .801 OPS across 19 games, mostly against playoff teams’ best starters and best relievers. Furthermore, if the Nats had Harper this year, he would have been in right field in lieu of Adam Eaton. Harper out OPS’d Eaton by 90 points and posted 2.5 more WAR in a similar amount of playing time. The Nationals would have been even better if they had Harper this year.

The Nationals lost all four Division Series they appeared in during the Harper era. 3-2 to the Cardinals in 2012, 3-1 to the Giants in ’14, 3-2 to the Dodgers in ’16, and 3-2 to the Cubs in ’17. They finally get over the hump the first year they’re without Harper, that’s the difference, right? I saw the phrase “addition by subtraction” repeatedly last night, referring to Harper and the Nats’ subsequent success without him.

Harper, though, didn’t fork over four runs to the Cardinals in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 in 2012. He didn’t allow the Dodgers to rally for four runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 in ’16 before ultimately losing 4-3. He didn’t use a gassed Max Scherzer in relief in 2017’s Game 5, when he allowed five of the seven Cubs he faced to reach base, leading to three runs which loomed large in a 9-8 loss. If certain rolls of the dice in those years had gone the Nationals’ way, they would have appeared in the NLCS. They might’ve even been able to win a World Series.

The Nationals saw how that looks this year. It was the opposing manager this time, Dave Roberts, who mismanaged his bullpen. Howie Kendrick then hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the 10th inning off of Joe Kelly to win the NLDS for the Nats. The playoffs are random. Sometimes a ball bounces your way, sometimes an umpire’s call goes your way, and sometimes the opposing manager makes several unforced errors to throw Game 5 in your lap.

Reaching the World Series, then thumbing your nose while sticking out your tongue at Harper feels like a guy tagging his ex-girlfriend on his new wedding photos. It’s time to move on.