Baseball

Ohtani Alone Can’t Save the Angels from Themselves


Image credit: © Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Ohtani Week: a celebration of, well, Shohei Ohtani. There’s been no player more fascinating or exhilarating since Ohtani graced our shores in 2018. Over time, the initial curiosity and excitement surrounding MLB’s first true two-way player in a century morphed into something more: Pure, uncut awe derived a superstar breaking barriers previously thought unreachable. All week, we’ll be talking about the most lovable—and possibly most talented—man in baseball. So throw on your Angels cap, grab your laptop charger, and dig in.

“‘Those who fail to fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ —Winston Churchill” —
Michael Scott 

Let’s get the ugly part out of the way. Mike Trout has played in 1,288 career regular-season games. In those contests, he’s produced 66.2 WARP: more than some current Hall of Famers. Since 2012, Trout’s first full year in the Majors, he’s finished as a top-five position player per WARP in each and every season save for 2020, when he ranked all the way down at seventh. He won’t turn 30 until August. He’s on track to make the shortlist of the best baseball players of all time.

Lookout below; here comes that other shoe. Despite his unparalleled greatness, the Angels have made the playoffs once during Trout’s tenure—a highly-publicized fact every baseball fan is tired of hearing. Yet somehow, Los Angeles’ futility is more pronounced than you might think: the Angels are barely a .500 club since Trout graced them with his presence. That may seem impossible, but Trout’s entire career has been a torturous case study in how one player, no matter how great, cannot save a baseball franchise. 

But we’re not here to talk about Trout. We’re not even really here to discuss the man to whom we’ve dedicated this entire week, Shohei Ohtani. We’ve gathered today to discuss history repeating itself, or rather the ways in which it can avoid doing so. For once more, the Angels find themselves blessed with one of if not the most exciting young players in the game. Once more, they have a unique opportunity to build a perennial contender around a cost-controlled phenom. And once more they appear horribly unequipped to do so.

Odds dictate that Ohtani will not be anywhere near as consistent, healthy, and productive as Trout has been for the last decade-plus. But even if he is Trout-ian, and even if he does stay in L.A. for the long-haul—far from a given—Ohtani is going to need help from a supporting cast that extends well beyond Trout himself. If GM Perry Minasian and the rest of the Angels’ front office are to provide that sort of support, they’ve got a long, long way to go. 

So while we’ve spent most of the week asking just how good Ohtani can be and just how unique his skill set is, there are other questions even more pertinent to L.A’s long-term success: how did the Angels get to where they are today, and where do they go from here? 

Why Are the Angels Like This? 

It’s tough to condense a decade of mediocrity into a couple of paragraphs, but from a 30,000-foot view, the Angels have had two major issues during Trout’s tenure: they have not been able to develop pitching, and they’ve adamantly refused to build deep, balanced rosters.

Let’s start with their troubles on the mound. Over the past four years, the only young starters the Angels have been able to develop into meaningful Major-league players are Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning. Go back another four and the list extends to include … Matt Shoemaker and Garrett Richards. They’ve had moderately more success developing relievers, but generally of the medium-leverage variety. Yes, you can pick nits and point to Patrick Sandoval’s solid 2021 campaign or the odd meaningful season from Nick Tropeano. But the overall point stands: this org is worse at developing arms than a t-rex. 

Incredibly, 2021 is actually a good year by Angels pitching standards, as they currently rank 13th in DRA. But they’re 25th in ERA and 27th in runs allowed per game, which goes a long way toward explaining how they sport a -34 run differential and sub-.500 record despite being tied for the game’s sixth-best DRC+ (102). Injuries have played a role, but per our Injured List Ledger, the Angels have suffered only average injury luck. Plus, while you could argue this staff has been a bit unlucky, this has been a common theme for the Angels of the past several seasons: they have not ranked in the top-half of the league in team ERA since 2017. 

L.A. has done a better (if not magnificent) job on the offensive side of the ball, where it’s produced homegrown contributors like Kole Calhoun, C.J. Cron, David Fletcher, and now Jared Walsh to support Trout and his ever-evolving cast of expensive running-mates. But this leads us into the flawed roster construction that Tony Reagins, Jerry Dipoto, Billy Eppler, and Minasian all have some hand in creating. 

For the better part of a decade, the Angels have thrown massive contracts at aging superstars like Albert Pujols, Justin Upton, and most recently Anthony Rendon. They’ve seemed more intent on trying to find the Robin to Trout’s Batman than building a balanced roster. It’s as though every Angels GM since Bill Stoneman has looked at Dave Dombrowski’s stars-and-scrubs Tigers teams and thought “I want to do that,” but then forgotten about the pitching. 

Let’s give the Angels some credit: their decade of mediocrity has, for the most part, not been borne from a lack of trying. Since 2011, they have sported a top-10 payroll all but twice, and have twice entered the top-5. Owner Arte Moreno and co. have approved massive contracts for Trout, Pujols, Rendon, Upton, and others. With Pujols and Upton providing mostly disappointing returns on their deals and Rendon’s contract already appearing suspect, it *should* be obvious by now that they need to find a better way moving forward. 

Fortunately, they’ll have a chance to more or less hit the reset button very soon. 

What’s the Near-Term Future Look Like?

The good news is that the Angels have more than $70 million coming off the books at the end of this season and are due to shed another $30 million following 2022. Past-their-prime reclamation projects such as Dexter Fowler, Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy, and Jose Quintana are all set to see their contracts expire, as is the already released Pujols. The Angels will be in a much better position to attract a variety of badly needed free agents once those six players are no longer on payroll. 

The less good news? The Angels have a lot of holes to fill heading into 2022. In addition to the players mentioned above, Heaney, Raisel Iglesias and Jose Iglesias are all in their walks years. So too are players on the periphery of the roster like Juan Lagares, the newly acquired Adam Eaton, Tony Watson, Alex Claudio, Steve Cishek, and Kurt Suzuki. None of the players from that last group will be particularly hard to replace individually, of course. But collectively? Well, that’s a more daunting task than it may seem. 

As the organization stands today, the 2022 Angels need a new starting shortstop, right fielder, three or four starting pitchers, and essentially an entire bullpen and bench. If you’re an optimist, you can argue that means they can remake about half their team in one offseason, and that $70 million can go a long way toward patching all the holes. If you’re a pessimist—or perhaps a realist, given the team’s recent track record in free agency—visions of many 8-6 losses are already dancing in your head. 

If there’s a silver lining here it’s that the Angels do have some talent in the upper minors. They entered the season with just the 25th-ranked farm system in the game, per our prospect team, but while the overall performance of their top prospects has been a mixed bag, there are players to get excited about. Brandon Marsh was recently summoned to the majors and has all the tools to be a good everyday starter. Pitchers Reid Detmers and Chris Rodriguez could start 2022 in Triple-A. And then of course, there’s Jo Adell: BP’s resident post-prospect darling, who’s significantly cut his strikeout rate in Triple-A. He’s still whiffing nearly 30% of the time, but hey—progress is progress, and at 22 years of age, Adell’s ceiling remains sky-high.  

Not all of those young players will work out, of course. In fact, none of them might. But even one or two evolving into reasonable major-league contributors will go a long way to shortening Minasian’s lengthy to-do list.  

How Can the Angels Avoid Groundhog Day?

Minasian and co. are admittedly in a precarious position. They clearly need to take a longer-term view: one that involves strategies beyond their extreme stars-and-scrubs approach to roster-building and what from the outside-in sure looks a lot like drafting for need. At the same time, Trout likely only has a few years left in his absolute prime, and Ohtani is only under contract for two seasons beyond this one. The Angels don’t have the “luxury” of entering a long rebuild. They need to thread the needle. 

They can start by doing the obvious: trading anyone and anything that isn’t nailed down at the deadline to try and flush out a bottom-third farm system. Though they lack any pending free agents likely to return an elite prospect, they should be able to extract meaningful value from Raisel Iglesias. Jose Iglesias, Heaney, and *stares incredulously* Cobb might bring back lottery tickets as well. It’s unlikely they’ll make a truly franchise-altering acquisition in the next week or so, but they’ve still got to try. 

Next, the Angels should forgo a massive free-agent signing and should spread the wealth instead. This team doesn’t want for a Kris Bryant in right field or Trevor Story at shortstop so much as they desperately need a stable of reasonable pitching options. An ideal offseason for the Angels might include them landing one of, say, Lance Lynn or Kevin Gausman, one of Eduardo Rodriguez, Anthony Desclafani, or Carlos Rodon, and then a few high-upside starters who can be had for high-AAV one-or-two year deals: a Noah Syndergaard or a James Paxton, etc. They should take a similar approach to rebuilding their bullpen: the Angels are not a Kenley Jansen away from having a good unit. They need to go for depth. Add in a modest deal for a shortstop—a reunion with Iglesias or Andrelton Simmons may make sense—and a bench bat or two, and you should have a team that can at least vie for a wild card spot without nuking its (deep sigh) financial flexibility. 

Finally—and arguably most importantly—the Angels need to take a long, hard look at their player development system. Minasian has already started down this path, hiring former Cardinals staffer Joey Prebynski to take over as Director of Player Development this spring. That can only be a good thing, for though they’ve come a long way from their laughably bad systems of five or six years ago, the Angels still have yet to develop any sort of meaningful pipeline of minor league talent, especially in terms of pitching. Adell, Jordyn Adams, and hidden gems like Walsh aside, there is truly nowhere for this minor league system to go but up. 

One player can’t save a franchise … even if he plays two positions. And as we’ve seen during the brief instances in which Trout and this version of Ohtani have been on the diamond together, two elite players isn’t quite enough, either. 

They form a hell of a start, though, and they give the Angels faster and more obvious paths to contention than most other teams are afforded. With better health, a smart offseason, and, well, an entire new pitching staff, the Angels can be quasi-contenders as soon as next season. That’s something to build on, and it might just be enough to convince Ohtani to stay in L.A. (and in red) past his current contract.  Let us all hope that Minasian and co. walk away from the mega-deals and failed Orioles starters and toward moderate deals and a functioning farm, because every baseball fan deserves to see Ohtani and Trout playing in October. 

More importantly, Ohtani and Trout deserve to experience it. 

Thank you for reading

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