The Los Angeles Angels have been in the doldrums recently – four straight losing seasons and just one playoff appearance in the Mike Trout era. Enter Joe Maddon, who guided the Cubs to four postseasons in five years and their first World Series win since Teddy Roosevelt was president. Could Maddon lead the Angels to Cubs-like success in 2020?
How much a manager actually influences a baseball team’s win-loss record is a never-ending topic of debate for fans and bloggers. Did the team succeed thanks to their skipper’s field generalship? On the other hand, was it a talented roster? For me, the answer is it’s usually a blend of both.
No manager could’ve made the hapless Detroit Tigers a winner last year. But a skipper could potentially be a positive or negative difference-maker for teams on the fringe of contention. The issue at hand is whether Maddon’s new squad has the talent to contend this year.
Certainly, Angels GM Billy Eppler tried his best to give Maddon more to work with than predecessor Brad Ausmus had in 2019. In the offseason, Eppler signed all-star third baseman Anthony Rendon, thanks to owner Arte Moreno opening his checkbook. The fifth-year GM also managed to add several other recognizable veterans – pitchers Dylan Bundy, Julio Teheran, and Matt Andriese, plus catcher Jason Castro.
So, did Eppler give Maddon the necessary pieces to make the Angels a viable contender in 2020? Let’s walk through the roster the 66-year-old skipper will be working with to determine the answer.
Availability was an ongoing problem for the Angels in 2019. No starter remained in the rotation for the entire season with this year’s Opening Day starter, Andrew Heaney, leading the staff with 18 starts and 95.1 innings.
Compounding matters, Angel pitchers made just 22 quality starts – fewest by a team in any season, including campaigns shortened by work stoppage. The league-average for quality starts last season was 51 with the Astros leading MLB with 89. In fact, six pitchers made more quality starts than the Halos.
Pitchers With More Quality Starts Than Angels in 2019
|26||Justin Verlander / Gerrit Cole|
|24||Zack Greinke / Patrick Corbin / Shane Bieber|
|22||Los Angeles Angels|
Before Summer Camp began, the projected rotation included Heaney, Shohei Ohtani, Julio Teheran, Dylan Bundy, and Griffin Canning. With Ohtani coming off Tommy John surgery, the Angels will employ a six-man rotation with a gaggle of pitchers vying for the final spot. Initially in the mix were Matt Andriese, Félix Peña, Dillon Peters, plus a trio of youngsters – Jaime Barría, Patrick Sandoval, and José Suarez. But things have already changed.
As already noted, injuries played a significant role in the Angels’ rotation woes in 2019. Health issues are once again affecting the staff’s readiness for the upcoming season.
Teheran reportedly has COVID-19 with mild symptoms, but may return soon. Still, it’s unlikely the 29-year-old is ready for the start of the season. Ironically, availability has been the nine-year veteran’s strength. Since 2013, only four pitchers have made 30-plus starts in every season – Teheran, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, and Mike Leake.
On that note, Suarez is one of several Angels on the 10-day IL for undisclosed reasons. Whether it’s COVID-related or something else remains unknown. As with Teheran, the delay diminishes the odds of the 22-year-old being ready for Opening Day.
Peters is also on the 10-day IL, but that’s not a surprise as with Teheran and Suarez. The 27-year-old entered camp expecting to miss a few weeks with a lingering oblique strain from Spring Training. Last season, Peters’ ERA and xwOBA ranked in the bottom 10-percent of pitchers facing 250-plus hitters.
A pair of currently healthy pitchers likely to receive scrutiny due to recent arm issues are Heaney and Canning.
Heaney has made 20-plus starts just once in five seasons with Los Angeles when he started 30 contests in 2018. Last year, it was elbow and shoulder issues slowing the southpaw. When available, he was brilliant at times striking out 10-plus hitters in four games. Conversely, the 29-year-old didn’t reach the sixth inning in half of his outings.
After encountering elbow issues last August, Canning received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection into the elbow in March. The 24-year-old resumed throwing a month later and reported to camp proclaiming his readiness for the season. Good news for both pitcher and team, although Ohtani and Heaney had PRP injections before eventually undergoing TJ surgery.
On a more positive note, injuries undermined Bundy’s early career, but he’s averaged 30 starts since 2017. His 4.83 ERA during this period isn’t appealing, yet the 27-year-old’s .320 xwOBA was identical to Jeff Samardzija and Marco Gonzales and slightly better than league-average for starters (.324). This suggests pitching home games in hitter-friendly Camden Yards affected right-hander’s conventional stats.
The short-term loss of Suarez and Peters from early consideration benefits Andriese, who began his career as a starter with the Rays. However, the 30-year-old was an effective full-time reliever with Arizona in 2019. Perhaps Maddon uses the five-year veteran in a variety of roles.
Peña logged 96.1 innings as a starter and reliever before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee last August. Considering his .308 xwOBA as a reliever was significantly better than as a starter (.370), Maddon could piggyback the 30-year-old behind the game’s starter early in the season or use him as a swing-man.
Sandoval and Barría, both 23-years-old, scuffled last season. Sandoval was a rookie last year, but Barría made 26 starts with a 3.41 ERA as a freshman in 2018. A return to his rookie form would benefit both Barría and the Halos.
Last year’s bullpen did a commendable job considering starters rarely delivered quality starts and pitched the fewest total innings in the majors. Considering the potential issues the rotation may be facing this year, expect Maddon to turn to his relief corps early and often.
The main contributors to the bullpen in 2019 were closer Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian, and Noé Ramírez. Robles, Bedrosian, and Ramírez were strong. Buttrey began the season well, but slipped during the second half. All return in 2020.
Heading into camp, the leading relievers are Robles, Buttrey, Bedrosian, Ramírez, Ryan Buchter, Justin Anderson, and Keynan Middleton, who’s returning from TJ surgery. Candidates to fill out the bullpen include Kyle Keller, Luke Bard, Taylor Cole, José Quijada, Parker Markel, Jacob Rhame, and Hector Yan.
The left-handed throwing Quijada is also on the 10-day IL for undisclosed reasons. Perhaps this doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past, but the Venezuelan, along with Buchter and Yan, are the only southpaw relievers on the 40-man roster. Furthermore, Yan hasn’t pitched above Class-A level.
Many familiar faces return this year with one significant addition. The longest tenured infielder with the team is Albert Pujols, who’ll play either first base or designated hitter depending on Ohtani’s availability. The 40-year-old’s offensive production has been below league-average since 2016. Is it possible Maddon would consider reducing the future Hall of Famer’s playing time? Bench options include Matt Thaiss, who also possesses third base experience, and rookie Jared Walsh.
Fun Fact: Jared Walsh made 12 relief appearances and saved one game for Class-AAA Salt Lake in 2019. The left-handed thrower also pitched in five games for the Angels.
David Fletcher and Tommy La Stella should be the main stakeholders at second base. Last year, Fletcher paced the team in games played (154) and doubles (30) with only Trout having a higher AVG and OBP. Adding to his value, the 25-year-old demonstrated positional versatility with 20-plus starts at second base, shortstop, third base, and left field.
La Stella was enjoying a breakout season in 2019 earning his first All-Star selection. Unfortunately, the 30-year-old suffered a fractured tibia in early-July, which sidelined him until late September. La Stella also has third base experience.
After posting career bests in AVG, OBP, and OPS+ in 2018, injuries limited the offense and availability of Andrelton Simmons last season. The 30-year-old former Gold Glove winner will be looking to rebound during an abbreviated walk year.
Holding down the hot corner is Rendon, who the team inked to a seven-year/$245 million contract. Last season, the NL MVP finalist set career highs in doubles, home runs, AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS+, and WAR.
The Angels reportedly attempted to trade Luis Rengifo to the crosstown rival Dodger in exchange for outfielder Joc Pederson in the offseason. Entering camp, the 23-year-old seemed like logical fit as back-up middle-infielder before disappearing to the 10-day IL recently. During his rookie season in 2019, switch-hitter started 90 games at second base and 11 contests at shortstop.
There’s still a chance the Rengifo is ready for Opening Day. If the team were to look elsewhere for an infield reserve, potential candidates include non-roster invitee Arismendy Alcántara plus minor leaguers Jose Rojas, Jahmai Jones, and Elliot Soto.
As with the infield, most of the usual suspects return from 2019 with the notable exception of Kole Calhoun, who signed with Arizona. But there’s an outside chance a highly-touted prospect joins a future Hall of Famer in the outfield this year.
Lower leg injuries limited left fielder Justin Upton to just 63 games and his worst offensive production since his rookie season in 2007. Upton slashed a lackluster .215/.309/.416 with 12 home runs in 256 plate appearances. The Angels certainly need a bounce back season from the 32-year-old.
Trout, last year’s MVP, returns in center field. The New Jersey native slashed .291/.438/.645 with 45 home runs and led the majors in OPS+ for a third consecutive season. It’s worth noting the 28-year-old has intimated he may not play this year to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure for his wife and unborn child.
In Upton’s absence, Brian Goodwin played a career-high 146 games and delivered personal bests in doubles (29), home runs (17), and OPS+ (109). The 29-year-old will begin the season as the everyday right fielder, although it’s plausible top prospect Jo Adell makes the team and eventually supplants Goodwin.
Still, Adell wasn’t expected to be on the Opening Day roster in March and isn’t on the 40-man roster. The loss of the minor league season may delay the 21-year-old’s MLB debut until next year.
Michael Hermosillo likely serves as the fourth outfielder. The 25-year-old has limited big-league experience since first debuting in 2018, but he can play anywhere in the outfield. It’s reasonable to expect Fletcher to see playing time in the outfield. Former first round pick Taylor Ward may be in the mix for a backup job also.
When he’s not pitching, Ohtani will serve as primary designated hitter. Although he couldn’t pitch last season, the 26-year-old delivered 43 extra-base hits, including 18 home runs, in 106 games. He also lead the team with 5 triples and 12 stolen bases. As noted earlier, Pujols likely fills the DH role when Ohtani is on the mound or unavailable due to pitching responsibilities.
Free agent addition Jason Castro figures to be the regular catcher with Max Stassi likely spotting Castro. With Minnesota last season, the left-handed hitting Castro platooned with Mitch Garver. One area to watch; Castro’s career .553 OPS against southpaws is much lower than against right-handers (.750). Castro has a reputation as a sound defender and pitch framer.
Stassi is strong defensively, but the right-handed hitter hasn’t enjoyed much success at the plate during a 183-game career spanning seven seasons. The team’s third catcher is Anthony Bemboom. The left-handed hitting Bemboom, who is solid behind the plate, made his MLB debut last year at age-29.
While the addition of Rendon and Ohtani’s return to the mound provides a boost, starting pitcher health once again looms as a potential showstopper. Perhaps the truncated 60-game season diminishes the importance of a deep rotation. If that’s the case, Maddon may be able to compensate for his staff’s shortcomings by having a quick hook with struggling starters. That’s assuming the bullpen performs as it did in 2019.
Still, the Angels’ chronic difficulties with starting pitcher availability is tough to overlook. For this reason, I believe the AL West is out of reach, even with Maddon at the helm. Maybe the three-time Manager of the Year can elevate to fringe contender status, but it’s tough envisioning the team earning a wild card berth in the highly competitive American League.
This disappoints me since I’d like to see Trout, baseball’s best player, add meaningful October baseball to his already-brimming Hall of Fame résumé.
My Oh My…
(Photo of Joe Maddon – AP)
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