It wasn’t a surprise when Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno replaced GM Billy Eppler with Perry Minasian. After all, every AL West team has at least one winning season since 2015 except Moreno’s club. But did the front office shuffle actually change the Angels’ trajectory for 2021?
We’ll consider the answer to that question and more. First, let’s review the team’s 2020 campaign before digging into Minasian’s offseason maneuvers.
Not only did the Angels have another losing season, they finished in fourth place behind the Mariners – a team in rebuild-mode. Despite the overall mediocrity, elements of the roster did perform well. The first being the offense. The following illustrates the Halos’ stats and the MLB ranking for each.
|Source: Baseball Reference|
Mike Trout continued being Mike Trout, although the future first-ballot Hall of Famer “only” finished fifth in MVP voting and his OPS was below 1.000 for the first time since the 2016 season. Then again, the 29-year-old did hit 17 home runs and .281/.390/.603.
Last year’s big offseason addition – third baseman Anthony Rendon – didn’t disappoint. Rendon’s .418 OBP was eighth best in the majors, his 151 OPS+ was top-20.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
Infielder David Fletcher is of the more overlooked players in the majors. The 26-year-old delivered outstanding results hitting .319/.376/.425, while ably filling in for injured shortstop Andrelton Simmons. When healthy, Simmons also performed well (.297/.346/.356 in 30 games) before opting out during the last week of the season.
Although he appeared in just 32 games, first baseman Jared Walsh managed to hit nine home runs and finish seventh in AL Rookie of the Year voting. The 27-year-old slashed .293/.324/.646 with a 158 OPS+. Several other part-timers were also productive. Catchers Max Stassi (139) and Anthony Bemboom (130) had an OPS+ over 100. So did Tommy La Stella and Brian Goodwin before leaving via trade in August.
Unfortunately, there were also players who struggled last season. Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols endured career lows in AVG, OBP, and OPS+. Left fielder Justin Upton displayed power with nine homers, although he struggled to reach base (.291 OBP). In right field, touted prospect Jo Adell hit just .161 with a 31 OPS+ in 38 games. The 21-year-old’s -1.3 WAR (Baseball Reference and FanGraphs versions) ranked last in the majors.
Two-way player Shohei Ohtani slashed just .190/.291/.366, although he did manage to hit seven home runs and steal seven bases. Regrettably, Ohtani pitched in just two games due to health. This time, a forearm strain that limited him. This came on the heels of not pitching in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Losing Ohtani certainly didn’t help a rotation that ranked in the bottom-third of the league in walks, strikeouts, innings pitched, and xwOBA.
|Source: Baseball Reference; Baseball Savant|
Despite the overall bad numbers, there were bright spots. Particularly newcomer Dylan Bundy. The 28-year-old had a breakout season with a .258 xwOBA, which was ninth best in the majors. Bundy also received Cy Young Award consideration for the first time in his career.
Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312
Southpaw Andrew Heaney battled inconsistency, but did pace the rotation with 12 starts and a better than average .307 xwOBA. Griffin Canning, who dealt with elbow issues before the shutdown, made 11 starts and matched Heaney’s xwOBA. In seven starts, 24-year-old Jaime Barria also showed promise (.273).
Unfortunately, the rest of the starters covered a third of team’s games and were awful. Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval, Julio Teheran, Dillon Peters, Matt Andriese, and Jose Suarez combined for an 11.29 ERA and a .369 xwOBA in 21 starts with opponents hitting .319 against them.
Although the bullpen didn’t look good using conventional stats, the unit was better under the lens of xwOBA. Angel relievers combined for a .298 xwOBA, which was ninth best in the majors. Standouts included setup man Mike Mayers, who had a breakout year with a 12.9 SO/9 and a .231 xwOBA. Felix Peña (.283) also proved valuable and even closed out a pair of games. So did Andriese, who held hitters to a .160 AVG.
Poor glove work certainly didn’t help the reliever’s traditional stats. As you can see, defensive metrics were not the Angels’ friend last year.
Angel outfielders combined for a -24 defensive runs saved (DRS); the worst in the majors. The usually stellar Simmons (-2) had a down year at shortstop, while La Stella (-5) didn’t fare well at second base. To be fair, defensive metrics are most useful with a large sample. The 2020 season certainly wasn’t that.
Whether by choice, direction from ownership, or the market dictated it, Minasian added around the edges rather than making splashy acquisitions. There was a reported flirtation with Trevor Bauer, who eventually signed with the crosstown Dodgers. However, it’s unclear how serious talks became between the Halos and the 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner.
|Source: Baseball Reference|
Minasian did acquire a pair of starters to augment the rotation. Free agent José Quintana and Alex Cobb via a trade with the Orioles for prospect Jahmai Jones. In another deal with Baltimore, the Halos received José Iglesias for a pair of minor leaguers. Iglesias takes over at shortstop for Simmons, who left as a free agent.
A recurring theme of the offseason was adding players who previously played for manager Joe Maddon. Most notably, Quintana, Cobb, and outfielder Dexter Fowler, who arrived from St. Louis via trade. Cobb played for Maddon in Tampa Bay. Both Quintana and Fowler were with the 67-year-old skipper as member of the Cubs.
| * Rule 5 Draft
Source: Baseball Reference
To help the bullpen, Minasian dealt reliever Noé Ramirez and a minor leaguer to the Reds in exchange for Raisel Iglesias. He also acquired Aaron Slegers from Tampa Bay and inked free agent Álex Claudio to a one-year pact.
A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason.
It appears Pujols will be a part-time player this season – the final of his 10-year contract with the Halos. With the 41-year-old moving aside, Walsh should assume a larger role at first base, although it’s worth recognizing his strong rookie debut was a small sample size. Matt Thaiss and Taylor Ward are potential depth pieces.
Fletcher will be the everyday second baseman. Even though Iglesias doesn’t have the Gold Glove pedigree of Simmons, he and Fletcher should provide solid middle-infield defense. A caution regarding Iglesias’ 160 OPS+ with Baltimore last season. The nine-year veteran played in just 39 games and has a career 80 OPS+.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Rendon will be the Opening Day starter at third base for a long time. The 30-year-old inked a seven-year/$245 million free agent deal with the Halos in December 2019.
Franklin Barreto and Luis Rengifo are candidates to serve in the utility infielder role. Barreto has experience at shortstop and third base. However, second base has been his primary position in the majors. Rengifo has a similar résumé, although he previously spent time in the outfield in the Mariners’ system and during Winter Ball in 2017.
BREAKING: Mike Trout will be the center fielder.
Upton remains in left field with Fowler expected to take over right field. Both Upton and Fowler could eventually lose playing time to top prospects Adell and Brandon Marsh. Still, Marsh has yet to debut and Maddon suggested in the offseason Adell might need more time in the minors before being MLB-ready.
Lagares and Jay are be in the mix for reserve outfield roles. The right-handed hitting Lagares is a premium defender capable of playing all outfield positions, although he’s struggled against righty pitching throughout his career. Entering his age-36 season, the left-handed hitting Jay may be better suited for a corner outfield spot.
Stassi and Suzuki project as the catching duo. Stassi should be the starter, although he’s underwent hip procedures in two consecutive years. While Stassi is a strong defender, Suzuki’s best contribution is his bat.
Over the last two seasons with Washington, the 37-year-old Suzuki slashed .266/.331/.460 with a 103 OPS+ as a part-timer. Anthony Bemboom is the third backstop on the 40-man roster and likely serves as minor-league depth.
Ohtani projects to be the regular DH with Pujols seeing time there too. In theory, Ohtani will be in the rotation and won’t be available to hit on days he pitches. It’ll be interesting how much longer the Shohei Ohtani experiment as a two-way player continues. Injuries have limited the 26-year-old to a combined 18 games and 79.2 innings in Japan and the U.S. since 2017.
Heading into Spring Training the Angels plan on using a six-man rotation. The starting staff projects to be Bundy, Heaney, Canning, Quintana, Cobb, and Ohtani. It’s worth noting Quintana missed most of last season due to injuries, although he averaged 32 starts and 193 innings pitched during the seven seasons leading up to last year. On the other hand, Cobb had a 5.10 ERA and .362 xwOBA during three seasons in Baltimore.
Potential organizational depth includes Jaime Barria, Patrick Sandoval, José Suarez, and prospects Reid Detmers and Chris Rodriguez. Barria is out of minor league options, so the club may use the 24-year-old out of the bullpen rather than risk running him through waivers.
Players on a 40-man roster have three minor league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors.
When clubs make final roster cuts, minor league options are a planning factor. The Angels have quite a few players without options. Obviously, Stassi is safe. However, Barria and Barreto are names to watch.
Leading bullpen candidates are Iglesias as closer, setup men Mayers and Peña, plus Slegers and Claudio, Ty Buttrey, Guerra, and Rule 5 pickup Jose Alberto Rivera. As noted earlier, Barria could serve as a long reliever. Other relief options include Sandoval, Gerardo Reyes, Luke Bard, José Quijada, and Kyle Keller.
Unless injured, Rule 5 Draft picks must remain on the drafting club’s 26-man roster through the following season. Otherwise, a player must pass through waivers and then be offered back to his original club $50 thousand. If the original team doesn’t choose to pay, the drafting club can then send him to the minors.
The most obvious example of the Angels’ chronic failure is the starting staff. Since Trout’s Rookie of the Year season in 2012, the team’s starting pitchers have the third lowest fWAR (66.2) in the majors. Meanwhile, the crosstown rival Dodgers got 71 fWAR from their starters in about half that time.
Heading into 2021, the Halos are heavily relying on hope with their rotation.
Hopefully, Ohtani remains healthy and can start at least 20 games – something he hasn’t done since 2016. Hopefully, Quintana returns to being the innings-eater he was with the Cubs. Hopefully, Cobb is better than he’s been in recent years. Hopefully, other starters with a history of arm issues (Heaney and Canning) remain available.
That’s a lot of hope!
If the season were to go south, it’d make sense for Minasian to pivot and convert pending free agents into prospect capital for his farm system. Keith Law of the Athletic recently ranked the Angels in the bottom-third of MLB.
|Source: Baseball Reference
Every projected starting pitcher except Ohtani and Canning is a free agent after the upcoming season. Assuming Bundy repeats his 2020 excellence, he’d certainly be an appealing option to contenders looking for a quality arm. Heaney, Quintana, and Cobb may also garner interest by the July 31 trade deadline.
Suzuki and Fowler have postseason experience. Both would be nice additions to clubs attempting to deepen their bench. The same applies to all the non-roster invites, who’ll be free agents if they earn a spot on the 26-man roster.
Although it appears the Angels are trying to compete this season, their offseason acquisitions were short-term commitments. As a result, the club’s payroll will be relatively low once Pujols’ contract expires at the end of the season.
Perhaps the Halos plan to go big next offseason when the shortstop market will be rife with marquee shortstops such as former Maddon player Javier Báez, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and maybe Francisco Lindor.
Maybe then, the Angels will finally put a roster around Trout capable of going deep into the postseason before it’s too late.
Want to be they’ll still need starting pitching?
My Oh My…
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