By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
As can be seen in the graph above, batter’s box production out of the designated hitter (DH) position was not an issue in 2018.
Clearly Albert thrived in the DH position (wRC+ of 115) in comparison to 1B (wRC+ of 74), so maybe he is not quite as crippled as some of us may tend to believe if he is hitting full-time.
Perhaps more importantly Shohei Ohtani dominated in his at-bat’s from the DH spot, sporting a wicked 149 wRC+ with 20 HR’s (the other two came during pinch hitting appearances). It should be noted that Ohtani did a tremendous amount of damage against RHP, to the tune of a 182 wRC+, so expect Brad Ausmus to get Shohei at the plate against every RHP he can. If the Japanese Babe Ruth ever figures out how to hit LHP, watch out because he could become an even better hitter than Trout.
Heading into 2019, there is a state of flux that Billy Eppler will have to navigate, primarily due to Ohtani’s Tommy John Surgery (TJS). That surgery may prevent Shohei from starting 2019 hitting out of the DH position, but there is an expectation that he will be able to hit for a sizable number of games over the course of the season.
Hopefully that number will be high (140+ games) but Eppler cannot count nor rely on Shohei’s ability to heal so he must plan appropriately during the off-season. To visualize this let us take a look at expected games played to better understand the Angels potential needs:
The ‘Projected GS’ represents the author’s best estimate of games the player will start based on recent historical 3-year playing time and probable role. It is assumed Cozart will be our starting 2B (and backup shortstop) in 2019, Kole Calhoun will be our RF, Bour and Pujols will split time at 1B, Ward will play 130 games at 3B, and Ohtani will be healthy enough to hit in at least 130 games at DH with Albert picking up the slack. Lucroy and Smith will duo behind-the-dish in a nominal 70/30 split (approximately 70% of at-bat’s are against RHP) in a catching platoon.
As you can see, bringing both Bour and La Stella aboard was a wise move on the part of Billy Eppler and the front office. With Ohtani’s and Pujols’ health and durability in question, having two competent left-handed hitters to pick up the slack is really important from a depth perspective. Behind those two, the Angels could call upon any one of Matt Thaiss, Taylor Ward, or even David Fletcher if the disabled list tests that team depth.
Beyond the hope that Shohei will hit early and often in the lineup, we should take a moment to discuss his future.
Ohtani had a successful first season despite the fact he underwent TJS. He sported a combined 3.8 WAR across 10 Major League starts and 367 plate appearances (PA’s). If Shohei had completed 25 starts with the same number of plate appearances he would have likely exceeded 5 WAR as a 24-year old, so the Angels really do have a special player here worth keeping long-term.
Currently the Japanese Babe Ruth has two more years of pre-arbitration control and three years of arbitration, for a total of five. Major League Baseball (MLB) made it a point to warn teams attempting to acquire Shohei that signing him to a contract immediately after bringing him aboard could result in severe penalties because MLB did not want any team circumventing their rules on international signings.
However with all of this recent talk about making an exception for Athletics prospect Kyle Murray the Angels have to be considering making Ohtani an offer in the next couple of years based on the exceptional two-way play they have seen to-date.
The Angels are unlikely to do anything at this time until they see how he recovers from his TJS but if he has another good year hitting in 2019 and returns to good form pitching in 2020, it would not be surprising to see the Angels extend him to a multi-year deal that either simply buys out his remaining years of arbitration control or, perhaps, longer, picking up one or more years of free agency.
At the end of 2020, Ohtani will be 26 1/2 years old and will have completed his last year of pre-arbitration. There are really no other comparable players to his skill set as a two-way player signing an extension with two to three years of MLB service time.
Assuming he maintains steady production and the Angels buyout his remaining three years of arbitration control plus another two to three years of free agency the author suspects an extension contract of 5-6 years in the range of $90M-$130M may be in the cards if Shohei stays healthy and is willing to stay longer-term with the Angels.
Clearly the more we can play Ohtani at DH the better. His production in the batter’s box will be sorely needed in order for the Angels to compete effectively so if he can start the season or shortly thereafter, the team will be in good shape offensively.
Pujols will also see some time there but will likely be limited not only by his total games played but by Shohei’s positional inflexibility.
Because the Angels have two players requiring an abundance of DH time, it makes no particular sense to list out potential acquisition candidates as there is no clear need to improve at the spot right now. Bour will pick up a lot of time at 1B and may pick up some occasional DH at-bat’s as well, with the rest of the team picking up an appearance or two to take a break from fielding.