As badass as the moment was of seeing Shohei Ohtani face Mike Trout with the World Baseball Classic on the line last night, you could forgive Los Angeles Angels fans if they were rubbing their temples a bit during it. The cry whenever either or both of those names come up in conversation has been, “Fuck, wouldn’t it be great if these two could play in games that matter?!” It was always a fantasy. Well, now we’ve all seen it, which is only going to grow the appetite for it, which is only going to amp the focus on the Angels, and the pressure. There are going to be a lot of people outside Orange County watching the Halos, and most baseball fans don’t take kindly to outsiders constantly telling them things about their team, things they probably already know.
Secondly, it’s a pretty big taunt when the two best players your team has ever had — and two of the greatest the game has ever seen — are saying that a game in another competition with different teams is the coolest moment of their career. Not only have fans gotten a taste of what it looks and feels like to have Trout and Ohtani taking big ABs or throwing the biggest pitches, but now they have to. Playing out the string in August and September is going to feel even more empty for them. Which is a real problem considering Ohtani is a free agent after the season, and the team up the I-5 has cleared the decks financially just in time. Needless to say, one drawback of the WBC for one certain fandom has turned up the volume on this season to 11.
So it’s good for the Angels, good for the fans, and good for Trout and Ohtani that this shapes up to be the most competent Angels team in a while, certainly that Ohtani has played on. Yeah, being “competent” isn’t usually a goal teams and fans would consider a bar worth celebrating when cleared, but this is the Angels and this is Rob Manfred’s MLB in 2023.
It sounds funny considering the Angels are coming off a 71-win season, and have to get to somewhere between 85-90 wins to make the postseason. Jumping up 15 games from one season to the next takes more than a smile. So how do the Angels get there?
Because they were such a non-factor last season, it’s important to remind everyone that Anaheim’s rotation last year was really good. They finished sixth in MLB in starters’ ERA, and 10th in FIP. They return four of those starters — Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval, Reid Detmers, and José Suarez. To that, they add Dodgers reclamation project Tyler Anderson. Is Anderson actually the 2.57 ERA/63 ERA- pitcher he was last year in blue? Probably not. Anderson found a significant drop to his change-up last season, which pushed him to use it far more than he ever had (24 percent in 2021 to 31 last season), which boosted his ground-ball rate and cut his HR/FB rate in half from his career mark. He won’t snap back to career norms simply because, as long as his change is still around the same weapon it was. But the fiendish BABIP gods smiled upon him last year, and we know they can be fickle simply to entertain themselves. However, the Angels aren’t counting on him to be anything more than a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Sandoval, Detmers, and Suarez all have room for growth, as all are basically coming off their first full season as starters. Sandoval will need to find a bit more control, as a 9.4 percent walk rate isn’t going to cut it.
One of the quirks of having Ohtani is having to use a six-man rotation. Which meant as good as the rotation was 1-5 last season, they still had to toss away 18 starts on Michael Lorenzen (who wasn’t all that bad!). The Angels are going to tweak that a bit this season, so Ohtani will pitch every sixth day instead of every sixth game. That should get all five starters an extra start or two or more. How Ohtani holds up, or the rest of them hold up, with a few extra turns is anyone’s guess. This is a pitcher who has never thrown more than 166 innings. Same goes for the rest of the rotation save Anderson. But getting their best pitchers more starts, assuming health, is a good thing.
It can be truly said that the Angels need more bats in their belfry
That won’t help the Angels score more runs though, and that’s where the real problem is for Anaheim. They were 25th in runs, and 26th in OBP last season. Having Anthony Rendon and Trout around for a combined 166 games last year was one reason, but one can’t simply assume health for either for a full season. The Angels have added Brandon Drury at second, Hunter Renfroe in right, and rookie Logan O’Hoppe behind the plate to try and have a representative offense. Drury is a real risk, as he popped out of nowhere with a couple of big months in Cincinnati which got him a trade to San Diego, where he was mostly fine-plus. It all resulted in a far bigger season than he’d ever produced before. Renfroe has consistent pop and will provide a bigger weapon than Brandon Marsh while being much worse defensively. O’Hoppe, if he carries over his minor league numbers, will greatly aid the Angels’ OBP problems as he carried a walk-rate of 13 percent in the Phillies system last season (he was part of the Marsh trade).
If all of these guys hit, the Angels’ lineup has some real length…assuming Trout and Rendon can stay on the field. It basically goes eight-deep until David Fletcher in the nine-spot. Another quirk of having Ohtani on the roster is the Angels can’t get anyone a half-day off at DH without losing Ohtani’s bat. With the questionable structural integrity of both Rendon and Trout, that might have been something they wanted. So the Angels have to have a pretty strong bench. Which was probably the thinking of trading for Gio Urshela even though first and third are blocked up and he doesn’t have an obvious place to play. Urshela was pretty good for the Twins last year, and has spent spring training preparing to bounce all over the field to sub in for Rendon or Jared Walsh when needed, or even moonlighting at short which would see the Angels lineup be pretty damn solid 1-9. Whether they’ll be a Pollock painting on defense is an open question, and a question that might worry seeing as how beyond Ohtani this isn’t the biggest strikeout staff in the world. They also have Luis Rengifo who can at least stand in most of the infield positions and Brett Phillips who is a plus fielder in all three outfield spots, though neither is going to be anything more than average with the bat at best.
The Angels catch a break in that the number of division games is cut, because one of the few teams that could potentially have a lineup and rotation as long as theirs is Seattle and the Astros are the Astros, even with Jose Altuve out for a couple months. Any improvement from the Rangers, i.e. sustained Jacob deGrom health, would make them spicier as well.
The Halos can get there if Drury proves to not be a one-season fluke and O’Hoppe takes to the majors. Hinging on the health of Trout and Rendon was always the price of doing business. But should Drury and O’Hoppe be productive, that’s three spots in the lineup that the Angels will get way more out of than they did last year. Getting Rendon to even 100 games would be double what they got last year, and they’ll hope for much more (he’s crushing spring training, whatever that’s worth).
The Angels will play games that mean something in September unless more shit goes horribly wrong. Again, it’s a low bar considering the top of the roster, but it’s something. And perhaps if given a whiff late in the season, Ohtani and Trout can simply drag them the rest of the way.
If you’d like to keep tabs on Sam while he wonders the baseball desert without a team to love thanks to the Ricketts family, follow him on Twitter @Felsgate
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