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Roster Building in the New Age of Shohei Ohtani

Last week, in a move that shocked many baseball fans, the Los Angeles Angels signed Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani to a Minor League contract via the MLB-Japanese international posting system.

This means that the Angels, despite the very real odds they will give Shohei an extension contract in the next 1-3 years, control him for six full seasons, three at pre-arbitration prices (i.e. league minimum) and three via the standard arbitration process.

Ohtani selected the Angels, in-part, because of the promise by the club to utilize him as a two-way player just like his old team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters, did in Japan.

Shohei features a fastball that can regularly hit triple digits and averages 97 mph over the course of a season. He has at least three other off-speed pitches that evaluators consider plus weapons so the Angels have to feel very lucky to have found such a key piece to their off-season puzzle on the mound.

However there have been a lot of questions regarding Ohtani’s potential contributions on the position player side of the ball.

Based on the following three facts we can better define Shohei’s likely impact when he is not pitching out of the rotation:

  1. In Japan, Ohtani pitched every 6th day and on the days before and after he did not hit or play in the field so the Angels will almost certainly stick to that routine
  2. Billy Eppler clearly stated that Shohei will not play in the outfield in 2018
  3. Ohtani will likely be limited to designated hitter or, maybe, first base duty

So if Billy Eppler and Mike Scioscia follow 1., above, we can infer the following about his maximum games started on the offensive/defensive side of the ball:

  1. In a 162 game season, if the Angels utilize a 6-man rotation, Shohei will start 27 games
  2. If he is starting 27 games that means Ohtani will not be hitting/playing in the game before and after the game he starts, resulting in an approximate, additional 54 games he does not participate in
  3. Those 27 games he starts plus the 54 games he does not participate in as part of his routine results in 81 games, or half the season, that he can potentially hit in or play the field if that is what the Angels and Shohei agree too

Now to be clear 81 games is the absolute maximum the Angels will allow Ohtani to participate in and, in reality, the number will probably be lower at least in his first season in the Majors.

You have to remember that despite his youthfulness and special talent he is coming to a new country, trying to speak a language he has not yet mastered, is assimilating with a new team, and is playing at the highest level of professional baseball while trying to be a two-way player in an increasingly specialized game.

For the Angels, the signing of Shohei actually changes the dynamic a bit of how they approach the rest of their off-season acquisitions. Although it improves the team immensely in the rotation it could change how the Angels were going to approach a potential upgrade at 1B and 3B now that Ohtani will fill DH/1B duty on a part-time basis.

To get a better picture we will create a partially filled matrix of projected games that our current position player roster will start in 2018. This matrix makes the following reasonable assumptions:

  1. Each player’s projection will be relatively close to last season’s actual number of games started
  2. C.J. Cron will be traded for a prospect or reliever either singularly or in a package deal
  3. In the case of Albert Pujols, the team has suggested he might get more recovery days so we have reduced his projection by 10 games and will assume that he starts no more than 50 games at 1B
  4. Although Shohei Ohtani could potentially play 81 games maximum, we will make a more cautious estimate of 60 games started at DH in 2018
  5. We will make an assumption that the Angels acquire a full-time 2B to start the bulk of games at the keystone
  6. Luis Valbuena will likely only start games against RHP so we have estimated 110 GS for him in 2018 no matter if he plays at 3B or 1B

OhtaniPlayingTimeMatrix2018.PNG

So as you can see the primary need is at 1B and platoon partners at 3B and C. The rest of the positions only need a part-time backup.

In fact you can make an additional set of reasonable assumptions based on recent acquisitions and the sparse number of starts likely available in the middle infield and outfield:

  1. Based on the strong starting trio in the outfield, the backup 4th outfielder is unlikely to start too many games (21 games based on the estimates above), making this backup outfielder position a lower priority than we thought (also as evidenced by the Minor League signing of Rymer Liriano)
  2. In the Primer Series Backstop Edition we spoke of the need for a left-handed hitting catcher to backup Martin Maldonado and, as you can see, that backup projects for approximately 27 GS behind the oft-used Machete, making this a probable lower priority as well, perhaps even unnecessary with backups like Perez, Briceno, and Casali as options
  3. Our backup middle infielder will also see very few games if the Angels do acquire a full-time 2B to pair with Simmons at SS (9 games only) making this, too, a very low priority this off-season
  4. Finally the extra duty potentially needed at 1B and 3B will require the Angels to get creative in filling those spots

Based on the notes from above let us fill in the matrix further to get a better picture of where the Angels are potentially at in their roster building process:

OhtaniPlayingTimeMatrix2018IntermediateFillIn

So if Luis Valbuena really is the 3B starter in 2018, the Angels clearly need to have a backup behind him that hits LHP’s well to pick up those approximate 52 games based on a typical 70/30 split (RHP/LHP) on the diamond for any particular day. This leaves 112 games at 1B and 12 games at DH open.

As I see it the Angels have a few different routes they can go:

  1. Keep some combination of Luis Valbuena and another corner infielder, such as Mike Moustakas, mixing up time between 3B and 1B to soak up most of the 52 GS against LHP’s plus the 112 GS remaining at 1B and the 12 GS remaining at DH (the remaining surplus can be filled from other backups)
  2. The Angels could, alternatively, add a left-handed hitting backup catcher like Alex Avila and allow him to play 1B, too, against RHP which could allow Eppler to consolidate the MIF and CIF roles to one player and go out and acquire a multi-position player to eat up the approximate 100 GS at 1B (29), 2B (7), SS (2), 3B (52), and DH (12) that would remain (maybe, as Jeff Fletcher suggested, Eduardo Nunez or, perhaps, Martin Prado)
  3. Finally the Angels could target a corner outfielder that can also play 1B, like Jose Bautista for example, or even a full Swiss army knife-type guy like Ben Zobrist or Javier Baez that can play all over the map which could free up a 25-man roster spot for another reliever if the Angels go with a 6-man rotation

The advantage of option 1., above, is that you obtain a real full-time corner infielder like Mike Moustakas, Jake Lamb, or even a prospect like Ryan McMahon. It leaves the Angels with a very standard four-man bench with the backup catcher and utility outfielder and middle infielders all struggling for playing time.

Option 2., might be the least expensive route to go but it relies more on the health of the left-handed hitting catcher acquired because if he goes on the DL, the Angels will have to fill the vacancy off their bench or from the Minors. The advantage though is that the Angels can acquire a player like Nunez or Prado that can play approximately 100 games around the diamond and free up an extra roster spot for a reliever.

The last option, 3., is similar to option 2 except you are going after either an outfielder that can play 1B, primarily, while soaking up time in the corner outfield and DH spots or you are going after a true multi-positional guy who can play anywhere. This too would have the advantage of freeing up a roster spot for a reliever.

In the end the Angels will probably best be served by ensuring that their new 2B and new 1B/3B/DH/OF guys can hit from both sides of the plate as the Angels really need competent hitters that do not need to be platooned. Expect the Angels to be tied to several solid hitters that can play 2B, 1B, and 3B in the coming days.

Names like Cesar Hernandez, Jason Kipnis, Ian Kinsler, Mike Moustakas, Jake Lamb, Eugenio Suarez, Neil Walker, Zack Cozart, Yandy Diaz, Brad Miller, Martin Prado, Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist, Brandon Belt, Freddie Freeman, Matt Carpenter, Jose Abreu, Carlos Santana, Chase Headley, Ryan McMahon, Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, Lonnie Chisenhall, Kyle Schwarber, Jose Bautista, J.D. Martinez, and Jay Bruce may be players the Angels are targeting, possibly, among others.

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