The 2016 Angels were a team riddled with injuries. Some of their best pitchers went down for nearly the entire season while some of the best position players suffered more minor injuries that caused them to spend significant time on the mend. Now, many teams would have been able to get past these injuries and remain competitive, but the Angels simply lacked the depth to do that, and they went on to win 74 games, their fewest since the turn of the century.

So second-year GM Billy Eppler had a tough task in front of him. He needed to find a way to make a team seemingly stuck in the middle competitive again with neither much money to spend nor a deep farm system to deal from. How did he do, you ask? Well, that’s why I’m here.

 

The Offense: It’s Good Enough

In 2015, the Angels finished 12th in the AL in runs scored and 13th in OBP and wRC+. In 2016, they improved slightly to finish 10th in runs, 6th in OBP, and 7th in wRC+. Those aren’t bad offensive numbers when you consider who played second base and left field in that time.

They have tried countless players at the two positions, but none of them have stuck. What they have done, however, is combine for -1.3 WAR since 2015. Therefore, the first acts of business for Eppler this offseason were finding a competent left fielder and second baseman.

He found his left fielder early in the offseason, acquiring Cameron Maybin from Detroit in exchange for minor leaguer Victor Alcantara. In 94 games last season, Maybin hit .315/.383/.418, good for a 120 wRC+. It was a career year for Maybin, as his career slash is only .259/.322/.373 (93 wRC+), but even a regression to his career norms would be an upgrade over what the Angels have had in left field over the last two years.

Maybin’s greatest asset is his athleticism. He is an above-average baserunner and since the start of 2015, he has swiped 38 bags, making him a perfect fit at the top of the order, likely in the number two spot behind Yunel Escobar. Maybin’s presence will be felt in both areas, as Angels not named Mike Trout stole just 43 bases in 2016, and they were the third-worst baserunning team in the AL, according to FanGraphs’ baserunning metric.

Next, the Angels shipped a couple of minor league pitchers to Washington and received their new second baseman, Danny Espinosa, in return. Espinosa played shortstop last season but he spent the previous five seasons at second. He hits for power (24 home runs last season), strikes out a ton, and doesn’t get on base much.

Still, his career 86 wRC+ would be a welcome addition to an Angels team that has seen its second basemen combine for a 70 wRC+ over the last two years, the worst in the majors at the position in that span. And the strength of his defense is really why he was acquired. Espinosa will likely find himself in the bottom third of the order.

Like Maybin, Espinosa is a very good baserunner. Those two, along with Ben Revere, who was signed as a fourth outfielder, should make the Angels’ offense much more dynamic than in years past, and Eppler has done that all while giving up almost nothing in the way of prospects or cash.

As for the rest of the offense, it will remain largely the same as last year. Yunel Escobar will be the starting third baseman and will likely hit leadoff again. The 34-year-old was a productive hitter in his first year in Anaheim last year, slashing .304/.355/.391, and it’s probably safe to expect a similar output in 2017. With him entering a contract year, the Angels will have to decide whether to get something for him if they manage to stay in the wild card chase come the trade deadline.

Then there’s Mike Trout. There’s not much I can say about him that hasn’t already been said. He continues to be the best player in baseball like he has been since he entered the league. Capturing his second career MVP award last season, Trout hit 29 home runs, stole more bases than in the previous two years combined with 30, and led the league in OBP for the first time as well as WAR for the fifth straight year. He’ll hit third in 2017, and I’m sure he’ll find a way to improve some part of his game as he does seemingly every year.

Albert Pujols represents the biggest question mark among Angels hitters. His production has declined in each of his four full seasons in Anaheim and last year, he became a full-time DH and was not much more than a league-average one, hitting .268/.323/.457 (111 wRC+) with 31 homers. He figures to be stuck in the DH role for the foreseeable future, as he underwent surgery on his right foot in December, putting his Opening Day status in question.

What can be expected of Pujols in 2017? If everything goes according to plan, probably more of the same. But at age 37, there’s no telling how he will recover from his third foot surgery in the five years he has spent with the Angels. If nothing else, he’ll continue providing power in the middle of the lineup and limited (yes, I’m being generous) value elsewhere.

Right fielder Kole Calhoun is one of the most important players on the Angels, and he doesn’t get enough credit for the value he provides each and every day. Not only is he a Gold Glove-caliber defender, but he is one of the better hitting outfielders in the game as well. His 118 wRC+ last year was tied for 19th among 54 qualified outfielders.

And in his three full seasons in the show, he has been nothing but consistent; his WAR totals each year since 2014 are 3.7, 3.8, and 4.0, respectively. If Maybin does take Calhoun’s place in the two-hole, Calhoun will likely slide down to the fifth spot behind Pujols, giving him more opportunities to drive in runs.

Next comes C.J. Cron. Cron, a former first-round pick, took a noticeable step forward last year. His biggest problem throughout his young career has been finding a way to be consistent. He was finally beginning to do so last year, but he was only able to appear in 116 games, as he broke his hand in July. When he was on the field, he hit a respectable .278/.325/.467 (115 wRC+) with 16 home runs.

A full, productive season is something we have yet to see from Cron, but if he can become a consistent power threat, the Angels’ lineup suddenly becomes a whole lot deeper. If nothing else, he’ll be an about league-average first baseman this year.

Andrelton Simmons and the catching tandem of Perez and the newly acquired Martin Maldonado will round out the bottom of the order. All three are primarily on the roster for their defense, not their offense, as they are all below-average hitters.

All in all, the Angels’ offense should be better next year – even accounting for further decline in Pujols’ production — simply due to the additions of Maybin and Espinosa. Revere and Luis Valbuena, who was inked to a two-year deal in January and will likely challenge Cron for playing time at first, will also give them a solid bench.

Eppler has carefully crafted an identity for the Angels’ offense; they probably won’t strike out (they had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors last year, though Espinosa and Valbuena will certainly cause that to increase a bit), and they should run the bases well (they were one of the worst baserunning teams in the league in 2016, but Maybin, Espinosa, and Revere will change that). But while his vision for his team’s offense didn’t become fully clear until this offseason, Eppler’s main focus has been clear from the beginning: Defense.

 

The Defense: It Wins Championships

It’s the old adage. Is it true? I don’t know, but Eppler and the Angels certainly think so. This much became obvious when they surrendered their top two pitching prospects along with longtime shortstop Erick Aybar for Andrelton Simmons last winter. Simmons doesn’t hit much, but he might be the best defender since Ozzie Smith. And the price the Angels paid for him, along with a couple of smaller moves they made that offseason, indicated that the new front office was placing a premium on defense.

That approach seemingly payed off, as the Angels finished fifth in the majors with 31 Defensive Runs Saved while their 36.5 Ultimate Zone Rating ranked third despite Simmons only appearing in 124 games due to injury. And this year, their defense is set to get even better.

A full season of Simmons in addition to Espinosa’s talents will give the Angels one of the best defensive middle infields in baseball. Espinosa collected 8 DRS at shortstop last season and has 25 in his career at second. And while Maybin has never been a plus-defender, he has also only ever played center field, which means that a move to left should see his defensive performance improve at least slightly.

The catcher they acquired to pair with 2016 Gold Glove finalist Carlos Perez should make their defense behind the plate even better, as Maldonado has 22 DRS since 2012, not to mention his above-average framing skills.

They will now have an at least average defender at every position other than third base (Escobar is a really bad fielder, and that’s not changing), and the reason this improved Angels defense will be so vital to the team’s success is because of the state of its pitching staff.

 

The Pitching: A House of Cards

Of all the areas of the team marred by injuries a season ago, their pitching staff was the most so. Left-hander Andrew Heaney made one start before being forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. Garrett Richards lasted just six starts before his season came to an end. And Nick Tropeano was afforded 13 starts before Tommy John surgery claimed him as its next victim.

On top of that, C.J. Wilson didn’t make a single start; Tyler Skaggs – nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery at the time of his season debut – toed the rubber only 10 times; and Matt Shoemaker had his skull fractured by a line drive off the bat of Kyle Seager in September. Jered Weaver was the only one to make it through the entire season, and even he was unable to make his last scheduled start of the year.

Thus, they were forced to use 15 different starting pitchers, trotting out guys like Jhoulys Chacin, Tim Lincecum, and Daniel Wright. It didn’t exactly go well, and their rotation ranked 11th in the AL in ERA and dead last in WAR.

Will it be better in 2017? Well, it would be hard to be worse than last year, but everything could conceivably come crashing down again. If it doesn’t, however, the Angels’ rotation has a chance to be a strength, though the losses of Heaney and Tropeano will not go unnoticed.

As it stands, their rotation sets up something like this: Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, Ricky Nolasco, and… the fifth starter is to be determined, but it will probably be Alex Meyer, Nate Smith, or the newly acquired Jesse Chavez. And while their rotation is littered with question marks, there is also a good amount of upside.

When Richards originally went down, it looked like Tommy John surgery would be a necessity. However, he opted to undergo stem-cell therapy treatment in an attempt to avoid the surgery, and while it didn’t save his 2016, it seems to have saved his 2017.

Since he became a full-time starter in 2014, he has 3.11 ERA in 410 2/3 innings. The biggest knock on his career thus far, however, is that he has only made more than 26 starts in a season one time. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason Richards couldn’t be the ace he clearly has the ability to be. Of course, his elbow could decide that the stem-cell therapy was ineffective at any point and that he actually does need Tommy John surgery.

After a rough April that resulted in a demotion to Triple-A (though he was called back up only a couple of days later when Richards got hurt), Shoemaker went on to post a 3.13 ERA in 138 innings the rest of the way and looked a lot more like the pitcher who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2014. Shoemaker seems like the closest to a sure thing the Angels have in their rotation, but it’s difficult to know how much the injury he suffered in September will affect him.

Tyler Skaggs might be the most interesting name among Angels starters, and that’s because he hasn’t really had a chance to show what he can do at the big league level. Skaggs is a 25-year-old 6-foot-5 lefty who was a first-round pick, once one of the game’s top prospects, and possesses the arsenal to be an effective number three starter at the very least.

However, he has been unable to remain healthy for a full season, which has hindered his ability to establish himself in a big league rotation; he has made just 28 starts (4.26 ERA) with the Angels since being re-acquired prior to the 2014 season. But if he stays healthy next year, he has the ability to be a force in the Angels rotation.

The Angels acquired Ricky Nolasco at the trade deadline last season and in 73 innings with the team, he had a 3.21 ERA. And even if he can’t do that for the entirety of 2017, he should be a serviceable number four starter at the very minimum. And finally, the fifth spot in the rotation will be decided upon in Spring Training, and the three aforementioned players – Meyer, Smith, and Chavez – are probably among the favorites to win the job, but there are myriad players who could seize the spot with a strong showing in Spring Training.

At this point, it appears likely that the Angels’ bullpen will be the club’s biggest weakness. Their bullpen’s 3.77 ERA last year was about middle-of-the-pack and because they haven’t made any meaningful additions to it, it looks like that is probably the best one could expect from the Angels relief corps this year.

Cam Bedrosian broke out in a big way last season before a blood clot in his arm ended his season prematurely, posting a sparkling 1.12 ERA in 40 1/3 innings with a 2.13 FIP, and they will be counting on him to perform similarly this season. They are also banking on Huston Street rebounding from an injury-plagued season (22 1/3 IP) as well as Andrew Bailey turning a dominant 11 1/3 innings into a full, productive season. Yikes.

Mike Morin, Jose Alvarez, Deolis Guerra, J.C. Ramirez, and one of the pitchers who loses out on the fifth starter job figure to round out the bullpen. Of those, Morin has the most potential to be great, earning a FIP of 3.08 and 2.85 in his first two years before last year’s jump to 3.65. But overall, it is a very uninspiring group.

There are also quite a few pitchers the Angels acquired over the winter who, like Chavez, could either end up in the rotation or the bullpen such as Yusmeiro Petit and Bud Norris. Additionally, fireballing prospect Keynan Middleton, whose fastball topped out at 102 mph in Triple-A last year, will probably make his major-league debut in the bullpen at some point this season.

 

So who are the 2017 Angels? Well, neither their offense nor their pitching staff is strong enough to carry them to the postseason, so the Angels have put together what might be the AL’s best defense in an attempt to get back to October for just the second time since their ALCS appearance in 2009. Oh, and the best player in the world should help them, too. Will it be enough? That remains to be seen.

Quite a bit is up in the air. However, getting actual contributions from second base and left field alone will make them a better team, and the fact that they managed to win 85 games in 2015 without much from either position suggests that they are capable of at least duplicating that season.

If everything goes wrong again, a repeat of 2016 could be on the horizon. In that case, Angels fans may at least have a glimmer of hope for 2018, with Josh Hamilton’s contract coming off the books, and Heaney and Tropeano’s return giving the rotation a boost. But if these 2017 Angels catch a few breaks in the health department, they could find themselves in the thick of the postseason hunt and while a division title might be out of the reach, they could realistically snag one of the Wild Card spots.

Final prediction: 84-78

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