Are the Angels Really “Winning the Winter”?
My take on why the Angels might not be the winners of the offseason after all
Angels’ Manager Mike Scioscia (Left) and Angels’ GM Billy Eppler (Right) (Nick Ut/AP Photo)
A few days ago, I saw a headline on FanGraphs that read, “Effectively Wild Episode 1157: Angels GM Billy Eppler on Winning the Winter”. I didn’t listen to the podcast corresponding to that headline, but it did make me think: are the Angels really winning the winter? “Sure,” I thought, “the Angels have made a lot of moves and got Ohtani, but they’ve also spent a lot of money on those moves, and I’m not sure that those were the right moves to make.” (I also thought, “the Yankees got the reigning NL MVP for pennies on the dollar,” but this article isn’t about them.) As a result, I decided to write this article, arguing why the Angels aren’t, in fact, “winning the winter”.
For reference, here’s a list of all the major moves that the Angels have made so far this offseason:
- Re-signed OF Justin Upton to a 5-year/$106 million contract
- Acquired RHP Jim Johnson and $1.21 million in international signing bonus allocation from the Braves for minor league LHP Justin Kelly
- Acquired $1 million in international signing bonus allocation from the Twins for minor league OF Jacob Pearson
- Signed RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani for $22.315 million
- Acquired 2B Ian Kinsler from the Tigers for minor league OF Troy Montgomery and minor league RHP Wilkel Hernandez
- Signed IF Zack Cozart to a 3-year/$38 million contract
In moving forward, I’ll first address the minor league side of things, and then I’ll move on to the major league side of things.
Angels Stadium: Home of the 2018 World Series Champions? Only time will tell.
The deals with the Braves and the Twins were all about one player, and that one player wasn’t in either of the trades. Of course, the one player I’m referring to is, in fact, Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese two-way sensation who’s been billed as the “Babe Ruth of Japan”. (As Chandler Bing from Friends would say, “Could expectations BE set any higher?”) More specifically, the deals were about being able to offer Ohtani more money.
In exchange, the Angels took on Jim Johnson’s contract and gave up minor league LHP Justin Kelly and minor league OF Jacob Pearson. While Kelly is organizational depth, having been drafted in the 33rd round of the 2016 draft, Pearson is a prospect, having been drafted in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft out of high school in Louisiana. That being said, I wasn’t impressed with Pearson when I watched him this past summer. He hit .226/.302/.284 in 155 AZL at-bats, utilizing a flat, line-drive swing without much loft or potential for power. While Pearson is fast when covering long distances, he has a slow first step that doesn’t allow his speed to translate to baseball, whether that be in the field or on the base-paths (5 SB, 3 CS in 2017). Pearson also has a Johnny Damon-like arm which, combined with his lack of range/route-running ability/outfield instincts, relegates him to left field. Needless to say, in my opinion, the Angels made a good move in trading him for Ohtani money. Nevertheless, Pearson is just 19 years-old and coming off his first professional season. He has plenty of time to figure things out and may benefit from a change of scenery.
Jacob Pearson (I.B. Lee/MiLB.com)
The other trade that the Angels made involving minor leaguers was with the Tigers. In exchange for acquiring 2B Ian Kinsler, the Angels gave up minor league OF Troy Montgomery and minor league RHP Wilkel Hernandez. Both Montgomery and Hernandez are prospects, in my opinion.
Having been drafted in the 8th round of the 2016 draft, Montgomery hit .271/.358/.413 across three levels in 2017. He also hit .231/.279/.333 in 86 fall-league plate appearances. Defensively, Montgomery seems to have the speed and the arm to play any of the three outfield positions. Offensively, Montgomery works the count, is willing to take walks, and has good pop for someone who is 5’10”. The only tool in question is his hit tool. Montgomery has a long, sometimes out-of-control swing that may make him susceptible to strikeouts moving forward. Montgomery’s ceiling is probably a solid major league fourth outfielder, as he has all the makings of the Kole Calhoun starter kit, while his floor is organizational depth in double-A, which is where he ended 2017.
As for Hernandez, the 18 year-old right-hander was signed out of Venezuela in 2015, spending one year in the DSL in 2016 before making his stateside debut in 2017. In 2017, Hernandez posted a 2.61 ERA in 41.1 AZL innings across 11 outings, striking out 42 and walking 20, before finishing out the year in the advanced-rookie Pioneer League. Hernandez’s fastball currently sits at 90–93 mph, topping out at 95 mph. However, I would expect his velocity (as well as his command) to improve as he fills out his broad-shouldered frame (he’s currently listed at 6’3″, 160 lbs.). Furthermore, despite being only 18, he has demonstrated an advanced feel for pitching. On the flip side, Hernandez’s secondary stuff is a work in progress, as his curveball is loopy at around 70 mph and his changeup is rarely thrown. My guess is that Hernandez is a future back of the rotation starter, but it’ll take him at least a good half-decade to get there, if at all.
While I’m not high on Pearson, I like both Montgomery and Hernandez, both of whom I think have major league futures. As a result, I think the Angels overpaid for Kinsler (I realize that I may be the only one in the world who thinks that, but I think it nonetheless.), and I think that the organization as a whole is mortgaging an already depleted farm system.
Troy Montgomery (Left) and Wilkel Hernandez (Right) (Detroit Tigers Twitter)
Nevertheless, the Angels didn’t make any of the six deals listed above for the future. They made them for the here and now, in hopes of contending for the playoffs before Mike Trout’s contract is up after the 2020 season. Let’s evaluate these deals with the big leagues in mind.
Justin Upton was first acquired by the Angels this past season at the August 31st trade deadline in a trade with the Tigers. In 2017, Upton recorded 5 fWAR, his highest total in a season since 2011. Earlier this offseason, I posited that Upton would be worth roughly $97.4 million over the next five years of his career, so his 5-year/$106 million contract represents a slight overpay, but not egregiously so. In re-signing Upton, the Angels have provided Trout with lineup protection for the final three years of his contract, as Upton is one of the best sluggers in baseball, ranking in the top 25 in xwOBA on contact (min. 250 PA) in both of the past two seasons. And, unlike other sluggers, Upton won’t kill you in the field or on the bases. He is a good acquisition for a team that is hell-bent on contending over the next three years.
Justin Upton (Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register)
Kinsler and Cozart, on the other hand, were not good acquisitions, in my opinion.
Kinsler is coming off of a 2.4 WAR season, in which his wRC+ (91) was below average for the first time in his career. While his chase rate has remained relatively the same over the past three seasons, Kinsler’s contact rate has dipped sharply over the past two, leading to an increase in strikeout rate.
Data from FanGraphs
And, while Kinsler experienced a power renaissance in 2016 (.484 slugging percentage), he came back to earth in 2017 (.412 slugging percentage). Even though the decrease in 2017 was mainly because of a decrease in BABIP and, subsequently, batting average, Kinsler’s xwOBA on contact was only slightly higher than his actual wOBA on contact, suggesting that the offensive decreases weren’t entirely luck-based.
Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant
Given that Kinsler is 35 years old, I wouldn’t expect these negative trends to reverse. However, despite his age, Kinsler has remained an above-average defender at second base. With one year left on his contract, and I would expect Kinsler’s 2018 season to closely resemble his 2017 season: above-average defensively and below-average offensively for roughly 2.4 WAR (thank you, Depth Charts, for the exact number projection).
Ian Kinsler with the Tigers (Getty Images)
Unlike Kinsler, Cozart is coming off a career year, posting a career-high 5.0 fWAR in 2017, as well as a career-high 141 wRC+. However, this newfound offensive ability will most likely not be sustained, as Cozart’s .430 wOBA on contact was 92 points higher than his xwOBA on contact, representing the largest such difference in baseball amongst hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. In fact, Cozart’s .338 xwOBA on contact in 2017 was only slightly higher than his .317 xwOBA on contact in 2016, when his wRC+ was only 91.
Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant
Disregarding his arguably lucky batted-ball profile, in 2017, Cozart decreased his chase rate (from 29.9% to 25.5%) and increased his already high contact rate (from 91.3% to 92.4%) as compared to 2016. If Cozart is able to sustain these improvements, I would expect his 2018 offensive production to resemble something like his .252/.308/.425 slash line from 2016, only with a higher on-base percentage, not his .297/.385/.548 slash line from 2017.
As it pertains to defense, Cozart has proven to be an outstanding defender at shortstop throughout his career. However, the Angels plan on playing Cozart at third base, as they already have perennial Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons at short. While Cozart’s outstanding defense at shortstop suggests that he will have no problem transitioning to third base, it is difficult to predict just how well a player will handle a position change. Alex Rodriguez’s UZR/150 remained relatively the same from 2003 to 2004, when Rodriguez transitioned from shortstop to third base in accordance with his trade to the Yankees, while Michael Young’s UZR/150 actually decreased from 2008 to 2009, when he made the transition from shortstop to third base with the Rangers. Because of the defensive spectrum, both Rodriguez’s and Young’s defensive output were lower at third base than they were at short.
Data from FanGraphs
Rodrgiuez was in his age-28 season when he made the transition, while Young was in his age-32 season. Cozart is about to enter his age-32 season. Furthermore, besides affecting him defensively, Cozart’s move to third base will also hurt his offense (in a relative sense), as he will now be compared to better-hitting third basemen instead of light-hitting shortstops. As a result, for the record, I view Cozart’s 3-year/$38 million contract as a slight overpay, especially since he won’t be playing shortstop.
Zack Cozart with the Reds (John Minchillo/AP)
Aside from not liking the Kinsler and Cozart deals individually and out of context (even though, admittedly, Kinsler and Cozart would’ve been a 5.7-win upgrade over the Angels’ aggregate second- and third-base performances in 2017), I also don’t like them because they don’t fix the Angels’ two biggest problems: pitching and left-handed hitting.
In 2017, the Angels were 17th in pitching fWAR (12.1) but were only 26th in starting pitching fWAR (5.5). The Angels’ 2018 starting rotation projects as follows:
Projections from FanGraphs
FanGraphs projects that the Angels will receive the 15th-most fWAR and the 22nd-most innings pitched from their starting pitchers in 2018, both of which would represent significant improvements from 2017. However, of the Angels’ top seven projected starting pitchers, five are coming off of major injuries, one is a rookie, and only one pitched a full season in the big leagues in 2017. Health and injury prevention will be paramount for the Angels’ starting rotation in 2018.
As for the bullpen, the Angels ranked fifth in relief pitching fWAR (6.6) in 2017. That being said, in 2017, the Angels’ bullpen got the most out of previously cast-off pitchers, such as Blake Parker (1.6 fWAR), David Hernandez (1.0 fWAR), and Bud Norris (0.4 fWAR). It is very unlikely that the Angels’ front office will have similar success in finding cast-off pitchers who can contribute to a major league bullpen, as they did in 2017, thereby making it unlikely that the Angels’ 2018 bullpen attains the same level of success as its 2017 counterpart. And, no, newly-acquired Jim Johnson should not help much. The Angels’ 2018 bullpen currently projects as follows:
Projections from FanGraphs
FanGraphs currently projects that the Angels will receive the 21st-most fWAR from their bullpen and the 14th-most fWAR (14.7) from their pitching overall.
Furthermore, even though the Angels employ the best position player in the game of baseball, they ranked only 17th (16.6) in batting fWAR in 2017. And, while Trout bats right-handed, so do the other better hitters in the Angels’ lineup. The Angels’ 2018 batting currently projects as follows:
Projections from FanGraphs
Although the 2018 Angels are currently projected to receive 27.4 fWAR from their hitters, the 4th-most in baseball, their batting order leans heavily right-handed, with only one projected regular being left-handed (RF Kole Calhoun). As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Angels struggle (relatively) against righties and rake against lefties, even though they exhibited the opposite in 2017 (98 wRC+ vs. RHP, 77 wRC+ vs. LHP).
An Angels article wouldn’t be complete without a photo of self-proclaimed “weather geek” Mike Trout, right? (USA Today Sports)
What confuses me most about the moves that the Angels have made so far this offseason is that, not only do those moves not fulfill the Angels’ most glaring needs, but that there are other moves that the Angels could’ve made that would’ve fulfilled those needs. For instance, instead of signing right-handed-hitting Cozart and converting him to third base, thereby decreasing his relative value, why not sign left-handed-hitting Mike Moustakas, who already plays third base? If Moustakas would’ve cost too much, why not sign a starting pitcher, such as Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, or Jaime Garcia, all of whom will sign for something similar to what Cozart signed for? Or, what about signing a reliever, such as Greg Holland, to bolster the bullpen?
If the Angels’ organization were a middle-aged man looking out at his backyard, it would’ve seen a beautiful backyard with a huge hole in the middle of it at the beginning of the offseason. Instead of filling the hole with dirt and covering it with sod or turning the hole into a pool, the Angels, via their offseason transactions, have ignored the hole and have made the foliage on the perimeter of the backyard even more beautiful.
Nevertheless, that brings us to the Angels’ biggest acquisition of the offseason: Shohei Ohtani.
Now, I’m not going to try to convince you that the Angels signing Ohtani was a bad move. According to all reputable sources, Ohtani is a once-in-a-generation player, and six years of him for $22.315 million plus six years of minimum and arbitration salaries will most likely be a bargain. However, it’s easy to forget that, in 2018, Ohtani will be a 23 year-old rookie who is living in the U.S. for the first time, doesn’t speak English, and is trying to do something (be a two-way player) that hasn’t been done successfully in about a century. And, also, he will be trying to live up to ridiculously sky-high expectations that he is the “Babe Ruth of Japan”. My point is that 3.8 projected fWAR in 2018 may be asking a lot of Ohtani or maybe Ohtani blows past that projection and wins MVP. Either way, it hasn’t happened yet.
RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani is being called the “Babe Ruth of Japan”. Can he live up to such high expectations? (Atsushi Tomura/Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)
Therefore, whether it’s because of mortgaging their farm system, overpaying for free agents, not fulfilling their team’s needs, or the uncertainty of their most-prized acquisition, I do not believe that the Angels are “winning the winter”.
Thanks for reading, and see you next time!