The Los Angeles Angels know they’re in danger of losing star outfielder and former MVP Mike Trout in free agency, so GM Billy Eppler spent the offseason adding pieces that could entice him to re-sign with the Halos when his contract expires in three years. The lineup around Trout was strengthened and for the first time in three years, Los Angeles looks ready to challenge for the AL West crown once again.
But there is still work to be done in Orange County and unless certain areas are addressed immediately, it’ll be back to square one for the Angels.
1 Greatest Addition: Zack Cozart
Adding Cozart addressed a major need the Angels had last year. On top of giving Trout some extra protection in the lineup, he gives Los Angeles a major upgrade at third base. Five different men manned the hot corner for the Halos in 2017, and with less than ideal results. Their combined defensive WAR was -1.4, and they didn't do much at the plate either.
Cozart, on the other hand, is fresh off his All-Star season. He posted a decent line of .297/.385/.548 and increased his walk rate (BB%) from 7.3% to 12.2% while ever so slightly cutting his strikeout rate (K%) from 16.5% to 15.4%. Cozart's ISO also increased from .172 to .254 and his BABIP from .274 to .312, resulting in his setting a new career high with 24 homers and matching an earlier one with 63 RBI.
The catch is that Cozart, like has throughout his career, spent time on the disabled list and was limited to 122 games. This is also his first time playing third base after spending his entire MLB career as the Cincinnati Reds' shortstop. Still, at just $38m over three years, the Angels are taking a risk that is well worth it.
2 Greatest Loss: CJ Cron
There wasn't a great deal of roster turnover on Los Angeles' end this offseason, but the trade of Cron to the Tampa Bay Rays came as a big surprise. The California native was sent to the Rays last month for a player to be named later despite a low price tag of $2.3m and two years of arbitration left.
Cron had issues staying in the lineup and has never played in more than 116 games in a season, and he did bat just .248 with 16 home runs and 56 RBI in 2017. Just the same, this is a player on the verge of a breakout who did quite well in manager Mike Scioscia's system when healthy.
3 Greatest Asset: Shohei Ohtani
The Angels have a great asset in Trout, easily the best player in baseball, but he is earning his true market value at $33.25m in 2018. Rather, this title goes to another addition to Los Angeles' roster, Shohei Ohtani.
The 23-year-old Japanese sensation was added this offseason after doing great work for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters the previous five years, posting a record of 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings.
But wait, there's more! Ohtani was also regularly used as a hitter in Japan and hit .286 with 48 home runs and 166 RBI over that same stretch. Much like baseball legend Babe Ruth, Ohtani is a two-way player in his young career and is expected to play DH on days he does not pitch.
Even better is that while other Japanese phenoms have come at a high price tag, with New York Yankees righty Masahiro Tanaka earning a $155m deal before ever throwing a pitch in MLB, Ohtani is earning the league minimum of $545,000. This is because per the agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball regarding the posting system, Ohtani's being under 25 years of age only allowed MLB teams to sign him with international bonus pool money. The Angels offered him a minor league deal with a bonus of just north of $2m, which proved to be the winning bid.
This is precisely what makes Ohtani an asset. Even if he proves to be a bust of Kei Igawa proportions and doesn't pan out in MLB, it comes at a minimal cost to the Angels.
4 Greatest Liability: Albert Pujols
Pujols is a surefire Hall of Famer who had 23 homers and 101 RBI last year, and it is high time Angels management got him off the roster in some way. The 38-year-old posted a career-worst line of .241/.286/.386 in 2017, and Pujols posted a negative WAR for the first time in his career.
It didn't end there. Pujols' BB% dropped from 7.5% to 5.8% and his K% increased to 14.6% from 11.5%. His ISO dropped to .145 from .189. The weird part is Pujols' line-drive rate (LD%) increased from 16.6% to 18.5%, so bad luck could have been a factor, but the man still needs to go.
Pujols has four years left on his contract and is owed $114m through 2021. If his production continues to decline, the Angels will either have to trade him and cover the lion's share of remaining salary, negotiate a buyout, or release him and eat the money. Seeing as how Pujols already has 614 career home runs, perhaps he should just retire.
5 X-Factor: Garrett Richards
Los Angeles' pitching ranked 12th in MLB last year with a staff ERA of 4.20, and Richards is the key to the Angels' arms taking the team a step forward in in 2018. The righty made just six starts due to an arm injury, but posted a 2.28 ERA.
But Richards was also limited to six starts in 2016 as he battled elbow problems, so 2018 really is a put-up or shut-up year for him. This also happens to be his contract year, so Richards is also pitching for his future. He has proven capable of pitching like an ace in years past and if he can stay on the field this year and off the DL, the Angels may have an outside shot at a wild card berth.
6 Final thoughts
The Angels aren't winning the World Series this year, but they will put themselves in a position to contend perhaps in the near future. Trout finally has some effective protection in the lineup and the pitching staff is in a better position to succeed, especially if prospect Jaime Barria debuts this season.
There is still plenty of work to be done but if there's one thing the Angels made clear this offseason, it's that they are not going down without a fight. The team is determined to keep Trout around and with this revamped roster, plus some prospects set to debut in the next year or two, those chances just increased and a championship would just be an added bonus.
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