The Los Angeles Angels are coming off a fourth consecutive playoff-deprived and third consecutive losing season. But with some new faces and an intriguing roster in place, could they make a run at the American League playoffs this season?
One year ago, Mike Trout was, for once, not the most sought-after Angels interview; it was Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani, a two-way player, agreed to a deal with the Angels after attracting the interest of Major League Baseball in Japan. His arrival, as well as a healthy pitching staff and lineup, gave the Angels optimism that they could be a playoff team. While the season started well, it didn’t end gracefully.
After starting 13-3, the Angels began to struggle to get runners across the plate, their pitching staff was inconsistent, they lost Ohtani for an extended period of time — forcing him to serve as solely a hitter — and they finished the season 80-82. But there’s reason to be of the mindset that this team can make noise in 2019.
While losing right-hander Garrett Richards in free agency to the San Diego Padres is a blow to their starting rotation, he previously struggled to stay healthy (Richards made just 28 starts from 2016-18). Plus, general manager Billy Eppler added two veteran right-handers to take his place. Agreeing to one-year deals with Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey, the Angels added depth to their pitching staff.
Last season Cahill had a resurgent campaign with the Oakland Athletics where he looked like the efficient pitcher of old. Recording a 3.76 ERA in 21 appearances, 20 of which were starts, he was one of the A’s most reliable starting pitchers. Cahill also has experience coming out of the bullpen, so if new-manager Brad Ausmus decides he’d prefer Cahill come out of the bullpen at any point in the season, it shouldn’t be a daunting adjustment for the right-hander to make — though, the Angels paying him $9 million likely means he’ll start on a consistent basis.
Harvey is one of the biggest enigmas in the sport, but after being traded to the Cincinnati Reds midseason, the former New York Mets ace pitched with more consistency. Recording a 4.50 ERA in 24 starts — which was the lowest ERA he posted since 2015 at 2.71 — he was efficient, pitched to his strengths, and began to catch hitters off-guard with his breaking pitches. Signing with the Angels for a large sum ($11 million), Harvey has motivation to keep trending in the right direction and will be an X-Factor to their pitching staff.
The Angels also signed former Cleveland Indians closer Cody Allen to a one-year deal. While the right-hander recorded a troublesome 4.70 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 2018, he has been one of the best closers in the sport in recent memory and could reinvent himself with the Angels.
Cahill and Harvey join a young, but improving Angels starting rotation, headlined by Jaime Barria, Andrew Heaney, and Tyler Skaggs. Barria showcased the ability to be a reliable force on the rubber ever fifth day in 2018 — which was his rookie season. Recording a 3.41 ERA in 26 starts, he was a steady force. This season he will have to work on getting ahead in the count early to avoid long at-bats — which will allow him to pitch deeper into games — and limit the amount of baserunners he surrenders, but, in time, Barria could establish himself as the Angels ace.
Last season was Heaney’s first season starting on a consistent basis. While he didn’t take the league by storm every fifth day, he recorded a 4.15 ERA while totaling 180 strikeouts in 30 starts. He was able to get through at-bats, blow his fastball past hitters, and could be a vital part of their rotation in the coming years. Concurrently, Skaggs recorded a career-best 4.02 ERA in 24 starts, but he too will have to work on keeping runners off base (Skaggs recorded a 1.33 WHIP in 2018).
While a trio of Barria (22), Heaney (27), and Skaggs (27) doesn’t give off a stellar impression, they’re all young and have room for improvement given how little experience they have starting in the major leagues. And if Cahill and Harvey can resemble the pitchers they were last season, the Angels starting rotation could be something that it hasn’t been in years: a reliable staff. Plus, given their high-octane offense, the Angels can back their pitching staff with run support on a nightly basis.
Trout is the most complete player in the sport and a threat anywhere in a lineup; Ohtani showed the ability to get on base and hit for power in 2018, hitting .285 while totaling 22 home runs and 61 RBIs; Simmons is one of the best shortstops in the sport and hit a career-best .292 in 2018; Upton is a reliable source of power, as he has totaled 30-plus home runs in each of the last three seasons; while he’s 39, Pujols can still produce at the plate, as he totaled 19 home runs and 64 RBIs last season.
While he hit a staggering .208 in 2018, Calhoun can hit for power and is one of the best defensive outfielders in the sport; when healthy, Cozart is a contact hitter and a reliable infielder. The Angels also added first baseman Justin Bour, who’s a career .260 hitter and has totaled 83 home runs since 2015, and veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
Collectively, the Angels offense was in the middle of the pack when stacked up to the rest of the sport last season. Part of that was Calhoun’s down year, but also the injuries to Ohtani and Cozart.
The AL West was one of the most difficult divisions in MLB last season. The Houston Astros had the best pitching staff in the sport, a deep lineup, and were the defending World Series champions; the Oakland Athletics young core came into its own and multiple veteran additions helped lift them to a 97-win season which included a Wild Card Game appearance; the Seattle Mariners surprised many finishing with 89 wins. But, as a whole, the AL West is not going to be as potent this season.
While they signed veteran left-hander Wade Miley, the Astros lost Charlie Morton and potentially Dallas Keuchel to free agency while 25-year-old Lance McCullers may miss the entirety of 2019 with an elbow injury; their starting rotation won’t be as fearsome in 2019. The A’s have done a plausible job filling voids on their roster this offseason, but the departures of Lucroy, infielder Jed Lowrie, starters such as Cahill and (potentially) Edwin Jackson, as well as relievers Jeurys Familia and Shawn Kelley will hamper their chances of winning 97 games again; the Mariners have gone into a full-on rebuild, trading Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, Jean Segura, and Mike Zunino while losing designated hitter Nelson Cruz to the Minnesota Twins in free agency.
Are the Angels the favorites to win the AL West? Of course not, the Astros are still the team to beat until proven otherwise and have a better roster than the Angels, but they’re flawed. Meanwhile, the A’s are anything but a lock to return to the playoffs. A Wild Card appearance is an ideal, yet realistic outcome for the Angels, and their competition doesn’t project to be overwhelming.
Outside of the AL West, the biggest Wild Card threats come in the AL East. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are arguably the two deepest teams in the AL, and the Tampa Bay Rays are on the rise after winning 90 games last season; at least two of those teams will likely be in the playoffs. An argument could be made for the Twins making a Wild Card push, but outside of maybe the Cleveland Indians, the AL Central doesn’t present a pennant threat.
The Angels have the talent to compete in the AL, and they’re a team to keep close tabs on; they’re sleepers.