AL West

The Angels could be very good very soon

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. Image by Erik Drost via Flickr Creative Commons.

Mike Trout has been in the big leagues since 2011. In 2012 he won the American League Rookie of the Year award — and the only reason he didn’t win the MVP award was because Miguel Cabrera decided to hit for the Triple Crown. He “finally” won his own MVP award two seasons later, in 2014. Then he won it again in 2016. And 2019.

In Trout’s nine full seasons in the bigs, he’s never finished lower than fifth in AL MVP voting, and that was in the 60-game 2020 season. He finished fourth once, in 2017, and that year he only played 114 games. That’s right, he still finished ahead of all but three people despite missing 48 games. He also led the majors in OPS that year, so if he didn’t get hurt, there’s a decent chance he would have won it that year as well. 

He’s been the runner-up an astounding four times, and then, of course, has his three wins. He’s won eight Silver Sluggers and made eight All-Star games, picking up the game’s MVP award in two of them. The only time he wasn’t an All-Star was in 2020, when no one was.

Trout has a career bWAR of 75.1, which is already more than the average Hall-of-Fame center fielder. He only became eligible for the Hall last season. He has been the best player in baseball for almost the last decade, and has already cemented himself as an all-time great.

He has also played in just three playoff games in his entire career. The Angels lost all three, getting swept by the eventual AL Champion Kansas City Royals.

This is no slight against Trout. If anything, it’s evidence as to why baseball, more than any other sport, is a team game, and no one player can solely will their team to the playoffs. As great as Trout is, he can only take about 4.4 plate appearances per game.

The inability of the Angels to build a winning team around Mike Trout has been one of the greatest injustices in baseball over the past decade. Los Angeles has an all-time great on their hands and just haven’t been able to do anything with him. However, that may be changing soon.

The Angels are off to a hot start this season, sitting at 7-4 11 games in, atop the AL West. The Angels are crushing the ball, currently sitting at No. 6 in OPS, No. 7 in OPS+ and No. 7 in home runs in the young season.

This is one of the best lineups the Angels have had in the Trout era, but that’s never really been their big issue. It’s been the pitching. This year, that’s proving to be the case again, ranking in the bottom-10 teams in the league in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP. It’s clear the Angels don’t have the pitching to make a deep run in the postseason this season. 

But they could make it, a rarity since Trout has been in the bigs. 

The AL West isn’t one of the stronger divisions in the league. The Rangers are one of the worst teams in baseball and will almost certainly finish in the cellar. The Mariners, while promising, are still clearly a few years out. The A’s are solid, but have had a hard time making that jump from fringe playoff team to legitimate contender. The Astros figure to be the Angels’ biggest threat, but they are far from unbeatable. The door is open for the Halos, and it looks like they at least have a chance to burst through it.

That’s not really the point of this column though. Yes, the Angels are a really solid team, one with great hitting and a pitching staff, that while subpar, could maybe be just good enough to get it done.

No, the point of this column is to show why the Angels could be one of the best teams in baseball very, very soon.

Let’s start with the building blocks.

We’ve already covered Trout, who is the best player in baseball, no debate about it. Then there’s Anthony Rendon, who signed a 7-year, $265 million contract with the Angels before the 2020 season. He’s a consensus top-5 third baseman with the potential to be a top-5 player in the league regardless of position in any given year. He’s good enough to be the best player on most teams, which makes it that much more ridiculous that he’s the clear second-best hitter on the team.

The Angels also have second baseman David Fletcher who just inked a 5-year, $26 million extension this offseason. Fletcher is a bit of a cult hero, and he’s one of the highest average hitters in the league.

First baseman, corner outfielder and potential two-way player Jared Walsh also looks like the real deal. The two-way potential for Walsh is very limited — he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since his rookie season in 2019, and even then it was just five appearances. He was solid, putting up a 1.80 ERA, but had a FIP of 4.81 and struggled with his control, walking six in five innings. His value comes at the plate, and while he has played a bit of the corner outfield, it’s mainly been because Albert Pujols is still at first. Walsh is clearly the heir-apparent.

Speaking of two-way players, it’s about time we talked about Shohei Ohtani. The two-way superstar is probably the most exciting player in baseball, as he has the potential to be one of the best pitchers and hitters in the league at the same time. He made headlines earlier this season when he hit 100 mph with a pitch in the top half of an inning and then smacked a home run 450-plus feet in the bottom half. On Tuesday, he hit a double that registered an exit velocity of 119.0 mph, becoming just the fifth player to do that in the Statcast era per @MLBStats on Twitter. Then on Wednesday, he beat out a routine ground ball to shortstop for a single. Later that game, literally as I was writing this, he crushed his fourth homer of the season. He’s truly remarkable.

Ohtani doesn’t even need to be Cy Young Award caliber on the bump and Hank Aaron Award caliber at the plate to be great. If he’s just good on both sides of the ball, he’s probably the single most valuable player in the league.

The core of hitters the Angels have — Trout, Rendon, Ohtani, Walsh and Fletcher — is already one of the best cores in baseball.

The issue is, as it has always been, the pitching. Currently, the Angels have one starter under contract for 2022 aside from Ohtani, and that is Griffin Canning. He’s fine, but probably nothing more than a back-end guy. Aside from that, the rest of their staff will hit the free-agent market. The Angels should try to re-sign Dylan Bundy, but only for a reasonable price for the will-be 29-year-old. Bundy is a quality starter, but not worth breaking the bank for. Alex Cobb, Jose Quintana and Andrew Heaney can all be let walk.

Luckily for the Angels, it’s a loaded free-agent starting pitcher class coming up. Some of the headliners include Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, though the first three will all be 38 years old or older and it’s hard to imagine Kershaw leaving the Dodgers, much less for the cross-town Angels. The really interesting names on this list are Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Gausman, Zach Davies and Eduardo Rodriguez. The Angels will have a real chance to revamp their rotation through free agency, and there’s always the possibility to snag one via trade.

The Angels should also have the money to do so. Owner Arte Moreno hasn’t been afraid to spend money to lock up talent, dishing out a contract extension to Trout worth about $430 million in 2019, an MLB record, before giving Rendon a $265 million contract the very next offseason. He also gave Albert Pujols $240 million before the 2012 season in one of the most infamous deals in MLB history. He’s even green-lighted trades for big contracts, acquiring Justin Upton in mid-2017 before quickly giving him a $106 million extension.

Not only that, but the Angels also have a lot of money coming off the books after this season — nearly $70 million worth. That includes $30 million from Pujols, whose contract is finally up. Pujols is a legend of the game and a clear first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, but his days of being a productive player are long behind him. Not only does it give the Angels a huge chunk of change to reinvest, but it also opens up a spot for Walsh to play first base full time.

In total, it brings the payroll down to about $111 million per Spotrac, and it would be a shock if it stays there. A lot of that has to go into the pitching staff, and it would be huge if the Angels could pick up one or maybe even two of the names mentioned above. However, the spending doesn’t have to stop there. 

It’s a relatively strong free-agent class across the board, not just when it comes to starting pitching. One position that is absolutely loaded is shortstop, and the Angels are one team that fits the criteria for signing one — money to spend and an opening at short. Jose Iglesias, while still a wizard defensively, is clearly just a stop-gap, and his contract is up after this season. 

That opens up the perfect opportunity to sign one of the big four shortstops: Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javy Baez and Carlos Correa. Seager is probably the best, but odds are the Dodgers manage to keep him around. Story, Baez and Correa however all very well could be on the move, and the best of that trio, Story, is all but a lock to be leaving Colorado. If the Angels can lock up one of the top free-agent shortstops and revamp the pitching staff, it could set them up to be one of the best teams in the American League.

The outfield needs help, and while there are some good options on the free-agent market, they don’t need to go there. With Dexter Fowler’s contract up after this season and Upton’s contract up after 2022, the Angels will need two more starters very soon. Fortunately, that’s just what the Angels have in major-league-ready talent waiting in the wings.

Jo Adell entered last season as the No. 4 prospect in baseball per Fangraphs, and he has the potential to turn into a perennial All-Star at the major league level. Adell is now off the prospects lists and currently at the Angels’ alternate site. There’s a chance he gets called up and given the starting role this year, especially with Fowler done for the season due to a torn ACL.

Brandon Marsh is still on the prospects lists and is the No. 15 prospect entering this season per Fangraphs. His ETA to the majors is listed as 2021, so he and Adell could both very well be making their debuts very soon.

The Angels lineup is already really good, but it could be deadly in the very near future. Imagine a lineup of Fletcher, Ohtani, Trout, Rendon, Story/Baez/Correa, Walsh, Adell, Marsh and Max Stassi behind the dish. It would be one of, if not the best lineup in baseball. That, combined with an improved pitching staff, makes the Angels insanely dangerous.

Obviously, this is all just a bunch of ifs. IF the Angels finally fix the rotation. IF the Angels sign a shortstop. IF Ohtani can be productive for a full season as both a pitcher and hitter. Nothing is guaranteed, and the Angels have a lot more question marks than the average team so far.

But there is SO MUCH potential here. The Angels have a huge opportunity to finally put a winning team around Trout to prevent wasting an all-time career. This is also probably the last chance for the Halos to do so before age catches up to their core as it does to everybody. They can’t blow it.

Get some pitching. Sign a shortstop. Put Mike Trout in the playoffs.


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