As the offseason began, the team had surprised most by scraping together 80 wins amid injuries to Mike Trout and every starting pitcher they had. Andrelton Simmons hit enough to complement his defense and become one of the best players in baseball. Kole Calhoun did his Kole Calhoun thing. The bullpen got great performances from Cam Bedrosian, Yusmeiro Petit, and Blake Parker. Justin Upton had a terrific half-season after being traded from the Tigers. Suddenly, a decimated farm system and a washed-up Albert Pujols didn’t seem like such heavy albatrosses.
What a difference six weeks makes. General manager Billy Eppler signed Upton to an extension, locking him up for the long term. On that move alone, Steamer projected the team to be a second wild card contender. If it made no other moves, one could argue the team should still be one to watch.
Then, the Halos won the lottery. Shohei Ohtani was signed for his ridiculously unfair league minimum contract with a pittance of a signing bonus attached. Suddenly, Eppler had a potential ace and a power DH in his lineup for the next six years for very little money. Yes, the low-grade strain on his ulnar collateral ligament might have given everyone pause, but with Ohtani in the lineup and his payroll affected not a whit, the only responsible course of action was for the Angels to move up their contention window.
The next piece of the puzzle was Ian Kinsler. He has been a solid bat and the source of the best second-base defense in baseball, and despite entering his age-36 season, he still projects to be at minimum a league-average player with plenty of upside. Eppler gave up only two back-end prospects to get Kinsler. The price was right, and now the Angels have arguably the best keystone defense in the sport. Woe to those who try to squib a grounder up the middle, or beat out a double play.
By all accounts, the Angels aren’t done yet. They are wading into the third-base market, with Chase Headley their primary target. Headley is by no means a superstar, but he is a steady, affordable option and an upgrade from Luis Valbuena. The Padres appear eager to flip Headley, and the Angels could be the ideal partner to do so.
Nearly all of this activity came in the wake of the Ohtani announcement. One would imagine that any non-contending or bubble team would rip up its offseason playbook and start again if the two-way phenom had chosen differently, but as Travis Sawchik observed in Fangraphs, it is in Anaheim where he could help the most. Had Eppler not pushed all of his chips onto the table, it would have been negligence of the highest order. He was savvy about leveraging his meager farm system to get Kinsler, and should he pull off a similar move to land Headley, the team could be in fairly strong shape both in the near and long term.
Steamer currently projects the Angels to accrue 37.3 fWAR and 85 wins in 2018, fifth-most in the American League and in pole position for the second wild card. They have an enviable core led by Trout. They have a catcher who may have turned an offensive and defensive corner in Martin Maldonado. They have a solid bullpen led by Bedrosian and Parker. They have Ohtani on both sides of the plate, solidifying a rotation that will hopefully get a full season from Garrett Richards. Lest we forget, Steamer hasn’t folded Ohtani into its projections yet. The Angels are already a presumptive playoff contender without the best international prospect in baseball history.
So much can happen in the next few months. If Eppler feels bold, he would try to shore up first base, since C.J. Cron doesn’t make the heart go pitter-pat. Perhaps he could sign a depth starter to continue the stabilization of the Halos’ weakest area. ZiPS and PECOTA may not be as high on the Angels’ fortunes as Steamer is, and that could shade Eppler’s deals as damaging win-now moves that bust up their future. Ohtani could blow his arm out or just be bad.
But right now, nobody can argue that the Angels are the most exciting team in baseball. They have won the offseason, and they have as good a chance as anyone to parlay that into on-field success in the months and years to come.
Disneyland just lost its status as the most magical place on earth; Angels Stadium wears that crown now.
By Evan Davis