Mike Trout has become this generation’s most underrated player, primarily due to his lack of postseason success. His only postseason experience came in 2014, when his Angels were swept by the eventual pennant-winning Kansas City Royals.
In ‘14, the Angels tallied a 98-64 record, and won the AL West. In the five seasons since, they have been the epitome of mediocrity, and have failed to qualify for a postseason berth. The Angels’ disappointing play as a club has not in any way correlated with Trout’s performance; he has been the single most valuable player in baseball during this period. Trout’s 44.2 fWAR from 2015 through the present is easily the highest total in all of baseball, as Mookie Betts comes in second with a 35.4 mark.
The truth that cannot be avoided is that the Angels have effectively wasted five years of Trout’s prime by toiling away with a below-average supporting cast. A closer look reveals some of the reasons why, as the massive contract of Albert Pujols, whose age has taken a massive toll on, and has aided in, handcuffing the franchise, limiting their spending flexibility. The Angels signed Pujols to a ten-year, $240,000,000 deal before the 2012 season, who at that point had spent the entirety of his illustrious career with the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, many had questioned how the Cardinals could let one of the best players in their franchise’s history walk away; in retrospect, their decision was a sound and forward-thinking one.
Pujols has become a complete liability for the Angels, as his rapid decline in production and the burden of his contract have weighed on the club for much of his time in Los Angeles. Pujols has been worth -2.6 fWAR over the last three seasons combined; his most recent season of 3.3 or more fWAR came in 2012, which was his first year as an Angel. In St. Louis, Pujols reached 5.4 or more fWAR in ten consecutive seasons, the streak beginning at the outset of his career in 2001 and lasting all the way until 2010. In his last year as a Cardinal, his total dipped to 3.9 fWAR – a sign of what was to come for the future hall-of-famer.
Pujols is essentially dead weight for the Angels, but nonetheless, they overcame this challenging situation and took a major step toward contention this offseason. Going into this winter, the Halos were seen as a favorite to sign ace Gerrit Cole, as the Southern California native was set to enter free agency for the first time in his career. The Angels ultimately fell short in their pursuit of the dominant right hander, as he signed a $324 million megadeal with the New York Yankees. Yet, their free agent consolation prize turned out to be fairly decent.
After learning that Cole would not be joining the Angels, the club swiftly shifted their focus to superstar third-baseman Anthony Rendon, the consensus number-one position player of this free agent class. In early December, Rendon agreed to a seven-year, $245 million pact with the Angels near the conclusion of the Winter Meetings, and just a few days after Cole had signed with the Yankees. At long last, the Angels had secured a fitting sidekick for Mike Trout; although it may be more fitting to consider each as complementary to one another.
Rendon, to this point, had spent his whole career with the Washington Nationals, winning the 2019 World Series after little postseason success in the years prior. The stud third-baseman had remained criminally underrated – and may still be in the eyes of the common baseball fan – but the national stage of the Fall Classic certainly aided in cementing his place as one of the game’s elite players. Rendon has been absolutely extraordinary for most of his career, but especially so in each of the last three seasons; he has recorded at least 6.2 fWAR in each campaign during this time. Rendon is a truly special player, and will be a perfect fit with fellow superstar Mike Trout – but the Angels’ top-tier talent goes even further than these two.
Shohei Ohtani is one of the most dynamic and talented players that baseball has ever seen. When he is healthy, he is capable of pitching at the level of an ace, with a blazing upper-nineties to low-hundreds fastball and a ridiculous splitter. What sets Ohtani apart from just about every player that has ever appeared in the Big Leagues is that he is also elite with his bat – which has drawn him some comparisons to Babe Ruth. Last season, Ohtani was sidelined from pitching after undergoing Tommy John surgery following the 2018 season, but was still able to take the field as a designated hitter for much of the year. In his two seasons combined as a hitter, Ohtani has slashed .286/.351/.532, with an .883 OPS and 40 homers. He is a unique asset in today’s game, as Ohtani provides elite value for a pitching staff and lineup alike.
Further, he is a perfect player to be managed by the eccentric Joe Maddon. The former manager of the Chicago Cubs, who won a World Series title in 2016, was signed by the Angels to a three-year deal immediately after he and Cubs parted ways at the conclusion of the ‘19 season. Maddon is sure to use even the most extreme means necessary to maximize the talents of Ohtani.
If Ohtani can pitch at the same level that he did during his rookie campaign – 3.31 ERA (3.57 FIP) in ten starts – and his bat maintains its immense value, Ohtani could very well find himself in the mix for the AL MVP Award in 2020.
The Angels’ supporting cast of position players is solid, if unspectacular. Andrelton Simmons is seen by many as the best defensive shortstop in the game; his bat has also developed since the Atlanta Braves traded him to Anaheim in 2015. Simmons’ offensive production did, however, dip last season, as his OPS fell to .673. He certainly fits into the niche of a third-or-fourth best player on a contending club.
Infielder Tommy La Stella proved to be a fantastic find for GM Billy Eppler and the Angels last season, as he was acquired from the Cubs for a minimal return. In 2019 – whether in large part due to the “juiced balls” or otherwise – La Stella broke out, destroying his career highs in homers (16) and slugging percentage (.486). Like La Stella, David Fletcher has become something of a folk hero for Angels fans, as the lovable infielder has developed into an excellent and versatile all-around player – he posted 3.4 fWAR in ‘19. The two help round out a solid starting infield for the Halos.
Outfielder Justin Upton will hope to rebound from a disappointing 2019 campaign that was almost entirely lost due to injury. The Angels traded for Upton in the middle of his fantastic 2017 season, in which he reached 5.2 fWAR. His return to form in 2020 would help lengthen and solidify this star-studded Angels lineup – as would any contribution from prospect Jo Adell, who is currently ranked sixth on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 List.
The potential trade for outfielder Joc Pederson just a few weeks ago would have added another powerful bat to this order, but unfortunately for the Halos, the deal in its initial form fell through. The crosstown Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, and Boston Red Sox were able to complete the trade that sent Mookie Betts to LA, but the Angels were excluded from the final version of the deal. They would have originally received Pederson and starting pitcher Ross Stripling, who would have been a pivotal member of this shallow rotation.
The Angels also added veteran catcher Jason Castro in free agency this winter, as he looks to be locked in as the club’s Opening Day backstop.
Moreover, the Halos’ pitching staff looms as a potential roadblock that could limit the club’s ceiling in 2020. Should Ohtani pitch at an elite level, the rotation should at least be respectable. However, they failed to add a high-end starter this offseason, as they missed on Gerrit Cole, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner, and Dallas Keuchel. They were able to acquire both Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran, but to count on viable performances from either would be foolish.
Bundy is a former first-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles, and was at one point considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Injuries have eaten at his velocity, but his stuff – especially his slider – do inspire some hope that he may turn into a salvageable Major Leaguer after all. On the surface, Teheran’s 2019 effort was satisfactory, but his underlying statistics show cause for concern; his ERA for the season was 3.81, but his FIP was nearly a full run higher, at 4.66. He will provide quality experience for the Angels, but he will be nothing more than a third or fourth starter, at best.
Andrew Heaney, Matt Andriese, and Patrick Sandoval are expected to make up the rest of the rotation. Heaney has had an up-and-down career, with superb stretches along with putrid ones. The 28-year-old lefty has accumulated a useful 4.0 fWAR over the last two seasons; according to Baseball Savant, his fastball spin was in the 95th percentile of MLB in 2019, and his strikeout percentage was in the 85th percentile of the league. If Heaney can put it all together, he could be a key part of the Angels’ rotation. As for Andriese and Sandoval, a best-case scenario would be for each to perform as back-end rotation options that can eat up innings every fifth day. The injured Griffin Canning, likely to start the year on the IL, should provide some reinforcement to the group when he is able to return.
While bullpens are almost always fluky and unpredictable, the Angels’ bullpen looks fairly weak on paper. Ty Buttrey is likely the best choice to close games, as his filthy stuff looks to be suitable for a late-inning reliever. Cam Bedrosian and Hansel Robles have been successful as middle-inning or end-of-game relievers in past seasons, but have both been quite streaky at times, so the 2020 campaign could truly go in either direction for each of them. The young Keynan Middleton, healthy at last, has a chance to win the closer’s role as well; the injured Justin Anderson should also factor into the bullpen mix eventually.
The coming seasons will be make-or-break for the Angels, as they try to finally take Mike Trout to the promised land. Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon headline a roster that may be the best Trout has ever had around him, and new manager Joe Maddon will look to tie it all together into a playoff berth.
88-74, (AL Wild Card Berth)
Projected Divisional Finish (AL West):
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Rotation (Fangraphs 2020 fWAR Projections for each player in parentheses):
Tommy La Stella 2B (1.0)
Mike Trout CF (7.9)
Shohei Ohtani DH (1.8)
Anthony Rendon 3B (4.8)
Justin Upton LF (1.3)
Andrelton Simmons SS (3.1)
Albert Pujols 1B (-0.5)
David Fletcher RF (1.6)
Jason Castro C (1.2)
Dylan Bundy (2.1)
Julio Teheran (0.9)
Andrew Heaney (2.5)
Matt Andriese (0.6)
Patrick Sandoval (1.7)