Pitchers and catchers report within weeks. That means it is time to review the offseason moves of the Seattle Mariners and their division rivals. We have already discussed the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers. Next, the Los Angeles Angels. A club that finished two games under .500, but won six more contests than in 2016.
Once again, injuries significantly hampered the Angels rotation. In total, manager Mike Scioscia needed 13 starters to get through the season, including reliever Yusmeiro Petit for a spot start. Only Ricky Nolasco made over 30 starts or threw 150-plus innings. Fortunately, the bullpen was fourth best in the American League, based on WAR.
Offensively, the team ranked last in OPS and posted a paltry 93 wRC+ (league-average is always 100), but did lead the majors in stolen bases. On the field, Angel defenders ranked fourth in the league in DRS, although they derived most of their defensive value from two players — shortstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher Martin Maldonado.
The Angels’ first big move was retaining Justin Upton with a five-year/$106 million extension. General manager Billy Eppler traded for Upton in August not knowing whether his new acquisition would exercise an opt out clause in the contract he signed with the Detroit Tigers in 2016. Fortunately, for the Angels, the 31-year-old chose to remain in Anaheim.
Upton posted career highs in home runs (35) and OPS (.901) and delivered above average defense in left field. The three-time Silver Slugger winner joins center fielder Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun to form a formidable outfield.
To upgrade second base, the Angels acquired another Tiger via trade — Ian Kinsler. The 35-year-old is coming off a down year at the plate with a .236/.313/.412 slash line. Defensively though, Kinsler continued to excel with the second highest DRS among big league second baseman.
Eppler also signed free agent shortstop Zack Cozart. With arguably baseball’s best defensive shortstop already on the roster, Cozart will play third base — a position he has never played professionally. That said; management believes the all-star can make the transition to the hot corner.
The most notable offseason add was a pitcher with no major league experience — Shohei Ohtani. While the 23-year-old’s biggest impact projects to come as a starting pitcher, team management is open to using him as their designated hitter.
The Angels’ best unit from last year — the bullpen — took a significant hit when Petit and Bud Norris left as free agents. To help offset their departure; Eppler acquired Jim Johnson from the Atlanta Braves.
Johnson began last season as Atlanta’s closer, but lost the job. The 34-year-old saw dramatic jumps in his walk and home run rates, although he did prove effective at missing bats with a 9.7 SO/9.
To improve depth behind Maldonado, Eppler signed veteran Rene Rivera. The 34-year-old is an average defender with limited offensive punch. But the former second round pick of the Mariners provides a veteran backup capable of spotting Maldonado, when needed.
Other catchers on the 40-man roster include Juan Graterol and Carlos Perez. Both saw limited playing time behind Maldonado last season. Perez is out of minor league options. Therefore, he would have to clear waivers to remain with the Angels organization beyond the season opener. Considering Rivera was signed to a guaranteed contract, Perez is in a tenuous position heading into Spring Training.
Los Angeles selected reliever Luke Bard from the Minnesota Twins during the Rule 5 draft. The hard throwing right-hander misses bats (13.6 SO/9 in the minors last year) and is an intriguing pick up. One caveat; the 27-year-old must remain on the major league roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Twins for $25 thousand.
Ohtani’s presence as a designated hitter will have a ripple effect on the club’s regular position players. Future Hall of Famer and primary designated hitter Albert Pujols may see playing time at first base when the phenom is in the lineup.
When Pujols is manning first base, Luis Valbuena would likely end up on the bench during those occasions. The switch-hitter is also capable of playing third base, but Cozart now stands in his way.
Another casualty of Ohtani getting semi-regular at bats would be first baseman C.J. Cron. The right-handed hitter has averaged 15 home runs and a .262/.307/.449 slash line during parts of four big league seasons. Unlike Valbuena, Cron has only played first base throughout his professional career.
Assuming the club follows through on its plan to use Ohtani as a designated hitter, Cron could be playing with another organization by Opening Day. Like Perez, the 28-year-old has no minor league options remaining. He too would have to clear waivers to remain in the Angels organization.
A more likely outcome would be Eppler swapping Cron for a player that helps fill a more pressing need on his roster. That said; the former first round pick’s limited positional versatility makes him a difficult fit for clubs planning to carry eight relievers.
While Ohtani certainly helps the rotation, the right-hander will likely be on an innings limit. Injuries restricted him to just 25.1 innings last year and his career-high of 160.2 frames came in 2015. On that note, Eppler has already floated the concept of a six-man rotation.
Such a move would benefit Ohtani and the rest of a staff hampered by the injury bug. Most notably; Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, J.C. Ramirez, and Nick Tropeano. All have suffered elbow injuries in recent years.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the top rotation candidates are Richards, Heaney, Skaggs and Shoemaker, Ohtani, and Bridwell. Other internal options include Tropeano, Ramirez, and Troy Scribner, brother of former Mariner Evan. Prospect Jaime Barria could be a factor later this year.
Even if the Angels go with a six-man starting staff, adding another proven arm would be a prudent move. The only starting pitcher on the roster to make more than 25 starts in the past two seasons is Shoemaker, who did it in 2016.
Cozart is coming off a career year (.297/.385/.548 triple-slash and 24 home runs). Time will tell whether he regresses to career norms (.254/.305/.411) or sustains his 2017 success.
Another issue to monitor with Cozart is availability. The 32-year-old has missed extensive playing time with knee and other leg injuries. He also had Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow as a minor leaguer. Overall, the former second round pick has averaged 99 games played since the 2015 season.
At this point, the Angels’ closer spot appears open. Relievers with closing experience include Johnson, Cam Bedrosian, Keynan Middleton, and Blake Parker. A year ago, Bedrosian was the front-runner for the job in Spring Training. But he missed a large portion of the year with a groin injury.
Los Angeles could use at least two more proven relievers. However, one philosophy Eppler seems to share with predecessor Jerry Dipoto is a reluctance to make big financial commitments to relief arms. If that is true, look for the Angels to consider low-profile names, preferably with minor league options remaining.
Right now, the outfield depth chart behind the starting three includes utility man Jefry Marte, minor leaguers Michael Hermosillo and Rymer Liriano, and veteran Eric Young Jr; signed to a minor league deal. Adding more established players capable of playing all outfield positions would be helpful. Former Angels Cameron Maybin or Ben Revere could make sense.
The Angels were one of the most active clubs in their division this offseason. Whether their effort to improve translates into significantly more wins is debatable.
With the exception of Ohtani, Eppler’s noteworthy acquisitions are on the wrong side of 30. Compounding matters, those players have a history of inconsistency (Upton), availability concerns (Cozart), or regression (Kinsler and Johnson). Moreover, most of the starting rotation has durability concerns.
If all goes well with the new veterans, the Halos will be on the fringe of contention. Reaching the next level will be problematic without adding established arms to the rotation and the bullpen.
Then again, Eppler could simply wait until July to make the necessary moves, assuming his club is positioned to contend.
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