The Angels weren’t a playoff team last year. I know the popular excuse was simply injuries, but let’s be honest, even if Richards, Heaney, Tropeano and Skaggs were completely healthy, they still didn’t have the bullpen to hold a lead, nor the offense to make a lead stand. They likely would’ve been a good team, but not a contender. Injuries can do that. But the Angels have experienced the very same setbacks this season, and are still hovering around .500, good enough for second place in a division that was terribly over-hyped to begin with.
Richards is still hurt. Skaggs is still hurt. Heaney and Tropeano are still recovering from surgery. And also just like last year, Huston Street and Cam Bedrosian have also been injured. It’s maddening just how stricken this team has become. But there’s a difference between the 2016 Angels and 2017 Angels, and I feel that’s primarily due to their General Manager Billy Eppler.
Last season, Eppler did everything in his power to artificially create it because he didn’t have a farm system, and experienced a litany of excessive injuries. So we saw some desperate moves made by a desperate man. Jhoulys Chacin, Tim Lincecum, Brett Oberholtzer, David Huff – desperate moves. The difference is that this year (and the end of last year), Eppler was determined not to experience the same thing. Trading Hector Santiago for Ricky Nolasco and Alex Meyer has turned out to be a stroke of genius. Nolasco has been a stabilizing force and Meyer’s upside gives this deal a chance to really swing the Angels way. Bringing in J.C. Ramirez and turning him into a starter screams of a move that the Angels knew something others didn’t. Jesse Chavez has even had some bright spots.
Eppler has transferred this unique skill set of unearthing value in the starting rotation to the Angels bullpen as well. Bud Norris, Yusmeiro Petit, David Hernandez, Blake Parker….all better than anything the Angels fielded last season.
But even if pitching was the Angels only problem last year, and has been somewhat fixed, this is still only half the equation. Let’s not forget the Nava/Gentry and Giavotella disasters of last year. Just no production from second base or left field. And so we enter this season, with Danny Espinosa at second base and Cam Maybin and Ben Revere in left field. Espinosa has rivaled Giavotella in uselessness and while neither Maybin or Revere are reaching their potential, they’ve still made up a sold left field and fourth outfielder combination.
The real difference between the offense this year and last year falls mostly on Trout though. Trout has grown into the stuff of myths, the stuff of legends even. This has to be what it felt like watching Mantle, Mays or Ruth play, just someone so much better than the competition that you can’t look away. The Angels also find themselves with the sudden ability to prevent runs from scoring. Despite Espinosa and Pennington’s inability to hit, we have seen some pretty solid defense up the middle. Simmons is great as always. Maldonado has been the best Angels catcher I’ve seen since the Molinas left. Trout-Calhoun-Maybin/Revere in the outfield has been quietly spectacular.
So yes, the Angels are a better team in 2017 than they were in 2016. This doesn’t make them a contender, just better.
But wait, they may actually turn into a contender. Let’s consider a few current events…
a. Kole Calhoun has been absolutely worthless at the plate so far this year. Kole Calhoun has never been absolutely worthless before. Thus, we can logically determine that chances are, Calhoun will likely begin contributing on the offensive side of things very soon.
b. The Angels haven’t got anything from Jefry Marte, C.J. Cron or Luis Valbuena yet. All three have considerable offensive ability. There’s a decent chance that at some point this season, all three will find their stroke and we’ll have more difficult conversations about who should be playing.
c. Danny Espinosa can’t hit the broad side of the barn. This was true of him last year as well with one key difference. When Danny made contact, the ball went further than it has this year. I don’t think he’ll suddenly turn into a .300 hitter soon or anything, but his career numbers suggest that he should contribute more in the power department quite soon.
d. The bullpen is about to be infused with even more talent with Huston Street and Cam Bedrosian. No guarantees how long both will be healthy and productive, but the chance remains more significant than any other relievers.
e. Before going down with injury, Alex Meyer looked like he had begun to turn that proverbial corner. If he makes good on even a percentage of that upside, the Angels won’t need to worry about a front of the rotation pitcher.
f. J.C. Ramirez has truly broken out. There isn’t much luck involved here folks. He throws real hard, has a good slider. His pitches move and he throws strikes. He’s got a large from that helps take pressure off the arm. When are we going to buy in?
g. Richards, Skaggs and even Andrew Heaney could return by August. I won’t hold my breath, but if they do, and they pitch like they can, that would make one heck of a playoff run.
So to conclude our little conversation (my article, you blessing me by reading this), I think we can establish that this .500 ball club is playing like a .500 ball club. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. But I think we can also agree that there’s much more left in the tank from this .500 ball club than most .500 ball clubs. To paraphrase Chris Iannetta, “The best teams play .500 ball most of the year, then just have a couple of win streaks and suddenly they’ve won 92 games.”