The 2017 MLB season is now underway and the Angels begin their quest for success tomorrow night in Oakland. If you saw my predictions for the American League this season, you’d see that I’m not sold on the Angels being a playoff team this season. This isn’t to say I’m not a believer in this team contending this season. There’s every reason to think this team could at least be competitive this year and maybe sneak up near a wild card spot, that is if they stay healthy and have some good fortune come their way. Being realistic and optimistic are both valid approaches to this, however, and it’s probably a not likely to see the Angels playing in the playoffs. Still, baseball does a great job of proving people wrong so that is why these are merely predictions and not declaring doom on the 2017 season. Without further ado, here is how the Angels line up going into the 2017 season.
By runs scored, the Angels were roughly a slightly below average unit in 2016, ranking 17th in baseball with 717 runs. Looking deeper into the statistics, however, shows the Angels were much better than their run total portrays. By wRC+, the Angels ranked 9th in the majors with a 100 mark, which means they were roughly an average offensive unit. However, the National League teams face a disadvantage by having the pitcher half so if you break it up into leagues, the Angels were 7th in wRC+ in the American League, which is still a solid mark. The Angels were much different in 2016 than they had been in some time, not since their glory days when they small balled teams to death. The 2016 Angels posted the lowest strikeout percentage in baseball with a 16.4% mark, 1.3% lower than the 2nd best Giants. That mark was also 3.3% lower than the strikeout rate the team posted from 2014-2015. Their home run production also tanked from years past, as they only slugged 156 home runs in 2016, the 6th worst mark in baseball. Ironically, the team hit 155 home runs in 2014, which ranked 7th in the league, but the league saw a huge uptick in home runs in 2016, meaning the Angels have stayed afloat while other teams are cranking out more home runs. The offense in 2017 should be improved, thanks to some new additions.
Cameron Maybin(.287/.350/.390 line from 2015-2016) and Ben Revere(.273/.311/.348) were acquired mainly because they’re MLB caliber players and have a very low bar to clear to be improvements in left field. The Angels left fielders from 2015-2016 hit a putrid .214/.277/.326, so even if Maybin and Revere reach their slightly below average production marks, it’ll be an improvement. Oh, and they’re both expected to be improvements defensively(specifically Maybin) and on the bases(specifically Revere). Danny Espinosa, a local guy out of Santa Ana, returns home and also fills a gaping hole. Espinosa’s .222/.308/.391 line from the past 2 years looks uninspiring but when you consider he’s an extremely good defender, runs the bases well and isn’t a complete black hole offensively, he’s an improvement. The Angels second basemen posted a 70 wRC+ and -0.4 WAR in 2016. Espinosa should settle in as a 1.5ish win player, a 2 win swing from last year. Luis Valbuena was also brought in but will miss the 1st month of the season with a strained hamstring, the same one he had surgery on last year. If Valbuena can repeat his .238/.329/.446 line he posted over the last 2 years, he’ll be a valuable utility guy who can fill in at 1B/3B/DH.
Mike Trout is the reason why this offense will be an above average unit, as he’ll most likely post a .400+ OBP with 25+ home runs and a 165-170 wRC+. Kole Calhoun, Albert Pujols and C.J. Cron all look likely to be 110-120 wRC+ bats. Yunel Escobar might be a league average bat but will be an on base threat at the top of the order. Billy Eppler did a fine job bringing depth in this offseason, which means he’ll have the luxury of stashing Valbuena, Jefry Marte(114 wRC+ in 2016) and Revere on his bench at some point. The x factors offensively are Cameron Maybin and C.J. Cron. Can Maybin duplicate his 104 wRC+ from the past 2 years and can Cron continue his trend of trimming his strikeouts while bopping more home runs?
This is another area the Angels should see improvement in. While baserunning as a whole isn’t as important as offense and defense, it’s an area the Angels needed to improve upon. The team ranked 4th worst on the bases last year by Baserunning Runs(BsR), a system implemented by Fagraphs that measures the overall ability to run the bases. At -16.6 runs, the team could become an average unit this season and see a 1.6-1.7 win upswing. The team’s 73 stolen bases look fine but they made far too many outs on the bases and had numerous players rank poorly running the bases, namely Albert Pujols(-6.0 BsR) and Yunel Escobar(-5.6 BsR).
The aforementioned additions to the offense are also big adds on the bags. Cameron Maybin has 27.5 baserunning runs in his career. Ben Revere has 30.8. Danny Espinosa has 15.3. Heck, even Martin Maldonado’s -3.1 mark is better than the total Jett Bandy had(-3.5) just last year alone. Much like the concept discussed for the offense, the newcomers are replacing complete black holes speed wise and will add some value on the bases. This unit could be an average group on the bases, which is an improvement over last year.
This has been mentioned numerous times this offseason but if the Angels end up sneaking into the playoffs, it’ll most likely be due to the defense the Angels roll out. Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive infielder on this planet and is near the same level freak outfielder Kevin Kiermaier is on. Danny Espinosa has racked up 4.8 dWAR in 779 games and is coming off a very good season at shortstop. He will be playing an easier position at 2nd base in 2017. Mike Trout’s metrics haven’t loved him since his rookie season yet he has still racked up 1.3 dWAR in his career playing a tough center field position. Kole Calhoun and the Cameron Maybin/Ben Revere duo will provide above average numbers in the corners.
Even 1st base is covered now as C.J. Cron has grown defensively, as he had 3 Defensive Runs Saved(DRS) and posted a 4.0 UZR in 2016. Behind the plate, newcomer Martin Maldonado has thrown out 35% of would be base stealers in his career and is a plus pitch framer every year. Carlos Perez was just nominated as a Gold Glove finalist in 2016, showing the league values his defense and he too has a cannon arm, throwing out 38% of runners in his career. The only true weak spot defensively is at third base, with Yunel Escobar being a complete butcher defensively now after years of plus defense at shortstop. The team will likely utilize Luis Valbuena, Cliff Pennington and Jefry Marte at third base at times to negate some of Escobar’s defensive shortcomings. This group is deep defensively and even the AAA levels offer plus defenders for depth(Kaleb Cowart, Sherman Johnson, Shane Robinson, Ramon Flores, Nolan Fontana). This will be a fun defensive team to watch this season.
If you’ve read up to this point, you’re either wondering if my prediction for the team is selling them short or if the pitching really is poor enough to drag the team down. It’s probably the latter. The sad part about this rotation is if injuries just didn’t exist, this would be a potentially great unit. In a perfect world, a healthy rotation of Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs and Nick Tropeano would be a fun and exciting young rotation. Unfortunately, Heaney and Tropeano are out for 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The problems don’t end there, however. Garrett Richards is trying to buck the tradition of undergoing surgery after a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament(UCL) and instead utilized Stem Cell Therapy and Platelet Rich Plasma(PRP) injections to completely heal his UCL. All signs are positive so far but with only one real case of proven success thus far(Masahiro Tanaka), it’s fair to wonder if this will work out. If Richards does stay healthy and give 150+ quality innings, it’s huge for the Angels and for baseball going forward, with Richards showing an alternative to undergoing Tommy John surgery. Next, Tyler Skaggs was no stranger to Tommy John surgery, undergoing it himself in 2014, then missing all of 2015 and only pitching 49.2 innings in 2016 after experiencing setbacks then dealing with shoulder issues. Skaggs has dealt with shoulder discomfort already this spring but is in line to be ready for his 1st regular season start. It might be fair to think Skaggs should be babied along this year, shooting for 125 or so innings and making sure he gives high quality innings while also staying healthy.
This leaves us with the rest of the rotation and depth. Matt Shoemaker exploded last year, after starting the season on a poor note. Shoemaker had a 9.15 ERA in April, earning him a demotion to the minors. After he was recalled, these were his ERAs in each following month: 3.28, 2.14, 4.31, 3.15. Shoemaker was a top 20 starter in baseball last year by WAR, tied at 3.3 WAR with guys like Carlos Martinez and Kenta Maeda. The biggest worry for Shoemaker is the horrible injury he endured, when Kyle Seager lined a bullet off his head in early September, prompting emergency brain surgery. All signs are clear for Shoemaker, however, and the hope is he can live a normal life now and continue his passion for pitching. After Shoemaker, Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez fill out the rotation. Nolasco was shockingly named the Opening Day starter, the same guy who owns a 124 ERA- over the last 3 years. The rotation order doesn’t really matter much after the first week but this came as a big surprise and some questionable confidence in a starter who is basically a mediocre innings eater now. Chavez fits the same mold as a mediocre innings eater but if he can return to his 2013-2015 Oakland A’s version(101 ERA- and 97 FIP-), the team could have a cheap fill in for a year who gives 150 league average innings. The Angels would take that in a hurry.
After the 5 main guys, they have a plethora of others who may end up starting or relieving in the majors. The list: Alex Meyer, Bud Norris, Yusmeiro Petit, J.C. Ramirez, Nate Smith, Manny Banuelos, Vincente Campos, Brooks Pounders, Daniel Wright. This list is uninspiring but if 2-3 of the 9 players listed there can outperform their projections, they’ll provide some pitching depth for the MLB team. Norris and Petit at least have MLB success on their resume but they are viewed as multi inning relievers for the time being but you can envision them being used as a starter if needed. Meyer is the big wild card for the Angels pitching this year and beyond. Many are convinced he’s a reliever and that’s probably an accurate assumption but it looks like he has one more chance to have a go at starting.
Fangraphs projects the rotation to be the 14th most valuable unit in baseball in 2017, assuming that the group will remain intact. All 5 starters are projected for 130+ innings and 1.5+ WAR. If this does end up happening, the Angels may very well be playing baseball in October. This almost a best case scenario, however, and anybody should proceed with caution when evaluating this unit.
If the rotation looks like an issue to you, you might want to skip this next part. Disclaimer: Bullpens are often unpredictable and sometimes 1-2 arms being surprises or busts can make a unit sink or swim. With that out of the way, the Angels bullpen looks like it could really struggle to make an impact in 2017. Cam Bedrosian is the clear, top shelf arm after coming off monstrous 2016 season after posting a 1.12 ERA and 2.13 FIP. The former 1st round pick finally came into form in 2016, throwing 96-98 mph darts and filthy two plane sliders, leading to an elite 31.5 K% and 22.8 K-BB%. After him, it drops off in a hurry. Huston Street was hurt and bad in 2016 and is already on the shelf to start the 2017 season. If he can’t regain some of his 2014-2015 form, he could be a DFA candidate in the middle of the season. Andrew Bailey is slated to be a set up guy, the same guy who was the 2009 AL Rookie of the year but also the same guy that has racked up -0.2 WAR since the 2012 season. Bailey was plucked off waivers late last year and thrived in a small sample, although his strikeout rate dropped in the process in exchange for fewer walks. The good news: Bailey has the highest spin rate fastball in baseball and he might be finally healthy again, so he could be a useful arm. He could also be bad and hurt and not be on this team by the time summer rolls around.
After the “top” 3 arms, Jose Alvarez is the one lefty in the pen and may be the best arm behind Bedrosian. Alvarez has posted an above average ERA and FIP the past 2 years and thrives from a no nonsense approach that helps him miss a fair amount of bats and not walk anybody. He’s also a weak contact inducer, ranking top 5 in average exit velocity the past 2 years. He’s an underrated quality arm. J.C. Ramirez throws cheddar and has an above average slider but doesn’t miss bats and allows too many homers, although he doesn’t walk many and generates grounders. After starting some games in Spring Training, he looks like a multi inning reliever waiting to happen. Bud Norris and Yusmeiro Petit, mentioned above in the starter group, also look like multi inning relievers. Blake Parker, who has some some MLB success in the past, has seemingly struck out every batter he’s faced with the Angels and will slot in as the last reliever. He could be that one reliever that outperforms expectations, using a 93-96 mph fastball, above average curveball and filthy splitter to miss bats. Other potential MLB call ups for 2017 include changeup specialist Mike Morin, deceptive lefty Cody Ege and Kirby Yates.
Here’s where the Angels bullpen gets interesting and may be the reason why this unit could be a bit better than expected: Billy Eppler has hoarded a huge collection of starters with good stuff/bad command. The same depth starting pitchers mentioned above almost all have some outstanding pitches but don’t have the command or durability to be a true starter. Guys like Alex Meyer, Manny Banuelos and Brooks Pounders were all former highly thought of prospects and have 2 good pitches to be MLB pitchers but don’t have the command or ability to load up a bunch of innings. Billy Eppler had a fascinating interview with Fangraphs and he might be ahead of the curve on constructing a different kind of pitching staff. While moving a failed starter to the bullpen is hardly a new concept, the idea of having 5 starting pitchers in the rotation and 3 starters in the bullpen is not so common. With Ramirez, Norris and Petit in the bullpen, these guys can all give innings and bridge the gap to the top arms in the bullpen. In fact, Eppler seems to be against the idea of labeling pitchers as a starter or reliever and thinks they should be viewed as just pitchers, which is backed up with his team construction. There’s a chance Eppler uses his minor league options more than any other general manager in baseball this year, calling up his starter/reliever hybrids, or pitchers, to be used in the middle of games to give length. With injury and performance issues clouding over the rotation, using the bullpen is a non-traditional manner might be a wise choice.
Farm System/Draft/International Signings
If the 2017 MLB team doesn’t perform, there’s at least some hope in regards to other aspects dealing with the future of the Angels. First of all, the Angels own the #10 pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, a draft that is college pitching heavy and could help the Angels land a college starter who can make it to the majors soon. If Billy Eppler’s 2016 draft is any indication, he has a much better idea of how to draft compared to his predecessor, Jerry Dipoto. The team has already jumped into the #25-27 range for farm systems, a step up from the days of annually being the worst farm system. If Eppler can draft well again like he did in 2016, the farm system could make a substantial jump up in the rankings. The farm system could also improve if the Angels 2017 season doesn’t go as planned, leading to the team selling pieces like Cameron Maybin or Danny Epsinosa for some sort of talent.
Another plus for the Angels future: The team is no restricted on spending during the International Signing Period this summer. Fortunately for the Angels, the team isn’t handicapped by the Roberto Baldoquin situation going into this signing period. Unfortunately for the Angels, the new CBA agreement has set a cap on signing international talent. Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers abused the previous system, blowing past their allotted pool funds and dealing with crazy taxes as a result. Now, the teams have no choice as they have to stay under their allotted pool, no questions asked. Still, the team now has flexibility to add international talent, something Billy Eppler was known for in his days with the Yankees. With other heavy international teams like the Padres, Astros and Braves barred from spending more than 300 K on any player this period, the Angels could be one of the top teams in this market.
With a solid draft and some new international talent, it’s possible the Angels could have the makings of a useful farm system after this year. Adding a top talent and depth in the draft and a big international signing or 2(or 3) to a group headed by Jahmai Jones, Matt Thaiss and Brandon Marsh could produce a rising farm system. With Mike Trout still around until 2020, it’s possible some of those new pieces are moved to supplement the MLB roster but the farm system could get on track this year. It’s also possible that the team adds pieces at the deadline if the MLB team is competitive but if it is for good reason, the fans might not complain too much.
Putting biases aside, the Angels look like a .500ish team this season. I have them finishing 80-82, with the outside chance they make the playoffs as a 2nd Wild Card team. If the rotation can stay healthy and produce, the bullpen isn’t a complete tire fire and the new position players are better than their predecessors, this team could sneak up into that 85-90 win range. Expecting all of those things to happen, however, is a bit of wisfhul thinking or blinded optimism. A realistic and optimistic prediction is the team finishes in the 83-85 win range, competing until the last week of the season but not having quite enough depth and firepower to sneak into October baseball. Maybe Mike Scioscia can help this team outperform their projections and pull off a 2016 Rangers or Orioles, finishing with more wins than their run differential said they should’ve finished with. For many, this would be a successful season, as the team was horrible last year and making this big of a jump means the team is on the fringes of making the playoffs. Going into 2018, the team would return starters Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano, the farm system could start adding to the MLB team and the Josh Hamilton contract would be up, meaning there is flexibility to add free agents. If Billy Eppler can keep this team competitive in 2017 and have a big offseason following it, the Angels could be knocking on the door of the playoffs in 2018, just in time to potentially see the Rangers and Mariners sell off some pieces and retool their rosters. The 2016 season was rough. The 2017 season will be much better, barring a catastrophe.