I hope Mike Trout is happy.

His Philadelphia Eagles, who play in a different state than the one he’s from even though two teams play in New Jersey because Eagles fandom makes no sense and New Jersey is garbage, thrashed the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl (no, I’m not salty about the Pats’ loss, why do you ask?). Trout is probably the Eagles’ most famous fan, and he got to cheer his team to victory just a few months after getting married and wooing the offseason’s top free agent from his honeymoon. In case his on-field performance last year didn’t already make him feel on top of the world.

Billy Eppler knows you think he’s wasting Trout’s prime. He also knows you think the Astros are an unbeatable juggernaut. But here were are; the Los Angeles Angels No Longer of Anaheim are going to go into 2018 with the Rookie of the Year favorite, the MVP favorite, and a perennial Gold Glover at (possibly) the most important position on the diamond.

They also have 2017’s worst position player in all of baseball, a rotation thinner than the plastic on one of those Disneyland Mickey Mouse novelty hats, and a smattering of mediocrity all across the field.

The Angels finished 2017 11th in the American League in OPS+, sixth in ERA+, and fourth in defensive efficiency en route to 80 wins and a second-place finish in the American League West. Mike Trout missed a solid third of the season with a thumb injury, but he was his usual MVP-caliber self when healthy. They look to be even better this year.

Instead of going position by position and examining where the Angels could use some work and where they excel, I’m going to break the Angels’ 2018 season down by imagining the future (after, yes, briefly projecting what their lineup and starting rotation will look like).

By the end of the season, how will a successful Angels season look, and how will a depressing season look?

 

Projected Lineup (WARP, Home Runs, TAv) – Now With No Negative-WAR Players!

C: Martin Maldonado (1.2, 11, .222)
1B: Luis Valbeuna/Albert Pujols (0.4, 16, .260/0.3, 18, .253)
2B: Ian Kinsler (1.6, 16, .249)
3B: Zack Cozart (0.5, 14, .244)
SS: Andrelton Simmons (2.1, 11, .248)
LF: Justin Upton (2.6, 29, .276)
CF: Mike Trout (7.1, 34, .334) – Breaking the fourth wall for a second, those projections on a historically conservative system like PECOTA are absolute insanity.
RF: Kole Calhoun (2.1, 21, .265)
DH: Shohei Ohtani (0.7, 8, .276)

 

Projected Starting Rotation (WARP, Innings, DRA) – It Goes Six Thin

Shohei Ohtani (2.8, 144.0, 3.77)
Garrett Richards (2.1, 151.3, 4.30)
J.C. Ramirez (0.1, 127.3, 5.47)
Matt Shoemaker (0.7, 162.0, 5.13)
Tyler Skaggs (1.0, 122.0, 4.77)
Parker Bridwell/Andrew Heaney (-0.2, 30.0, 6.19/0.2, 63.0, 5.18)

 

The Pre-Celebration

Mike Trout has posted an OPS+ above 165 in every season except his 40-game cup of coffee in 2011, and he’s been above 170 in each of the past three seasons. Let’s say he hangs a 200 on the rest of the league, because why not? No one has done that since Barry Bonds’ astronomical 263 OPS+ in 2004, but no one has played like Mike Trout since Barry Bonds. Accompanied with Trout’s average/good center-field defense and above-average baserunning, that would peg him at about 10 WAR.

Trout will likely be flanked in the outfield by Justin Upton in left and Kole Calhoun in right, as they’ve announced that Ohtani will not be playing the field. The 5.7 WAR that Upton put up last season, spread between the Tigers and Angels, would tie with Torii Hunter’s age-defying 2012 season for the most WAR accumulated by an outfielder alongside Trout. His 135 OPS+ was a career high, and, at 30 years old, he’s still in his prime. Calhoun, while not a world-beater, is an above-average player in right field. He’s got a bit of pop, has a career OPS+ of 110, and plays replacement-level defense. They have a chance to be one of the better outfields in baseball.

Around the infield, MVP-candidate Andrelton Simmons, who’s entering his age-28 season, will continue to be the Angels’ mainstay at short. He posted his first above-average OPS+ season in 2017, and his offensive game has been on the upswing for four years now. To his right will be Zack Cozart, who broke through last year and smacked 24 home runs to go along with his 141 OPS+ and .8 defensive WAR. To Simmons’ left will be Ian Kinsler, an aging second baseman who still hit 22 home runs in 2017. If he can give the Angels anywhere near that, he will be a massive upgrade over the rotating cast of Kaleb Cowart, Danny Espinosa, Cliff Pennington, and Brandon Phillips they rostered a year ago.

Between first base and designated hitter, Albert Pujols, Luis Valbuena, and Shohei Ohtani look to get the majority of at-bats. Pujols and Valbuena are nothing special at this point in their careers, but if the Angels can get an above-100 OPS+ out of Ohtani even three out of six games at DH, they’d be overjoyed. Assuming the team is in the playoff hunt come July, I’d bet heavily that they will look to upgrade at first base.

According to BP’s prospect rankings, the Angels have a middle-of-the-pack farm system, but no one is particularly close to the majors. Outfielder Michael Hermosillo is the only position player on the precipice of the Majors, but he’s not projected to be a superstar. They have some better players further down the farm I’d expect them to move if they catch a whiff of the playoffs come July 31st (which would mean a lot has gone right in Los Angeles and a lot has gone wrong in Houston.)

Shifting to the rotation, the flamethrowing righty Ohtani has a chance to be something special. If his elbow holds together, he’s a potential All-Star sitting at the top of the rotation, which is something the Angels haven’t had since the middle of Jered Weaver’s career. Garrett Richards has been the Angels’ ace of the future for what feels like a decade now, and maybe, now that he’s healthy after season upon season of freak injuries, he finally will be. Tyler Skaggs, who has seemingly been 25 years old forever, might also be healthy for the first time. And hey, maybe Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heany, JC Ramirez, and Parker Bridwell (the team’s best starter last year by ERA+ after being purchased in April from the starter-thin Orioles) can combine for enough pitching to round out the rest of the six-man rotation. Crazier things have happened, and what they lack in star power they just might make up for in depth. They don’t go four-deep with aces, but they go about eight-deep with above-replacement level starters.

Their bullpen was nothing special a year ago, but hey, bullpens are weird. They’ll probably be the best in the league.

Then there’s Mike Scioscia. His teams aren’t the bunting-and-stealing juggernauts they once were, but they still retain some of that flair. The players seem to love him, and the team arguably overachieved a season ago amid a rash of injuries and a paper-thin roster.

Maybe they’ll win 95 games and beat the Astros. Or…

 

The Pre-Mortem

(I can’t say anything bad about Mike Trout because I’m worried lightning might hit me, so let’s move on.)

Maybe Andrelton Simmons’ hitting regresses, and his defense begins to decline as he reaches his late 20s. Maybe Melvin Upton, Jr. secretly replaces his brother Justin in left field and no one realizes until August. Maybe Kole Calhoun never breaks out for real and they can’t find an upgrade.

Maybe 2017 was a flash in the pan for Zack Cozart, and at age 32 it’s all downhill from here. Maybe Ian Kinsler is just done. Maybe (definitely) Albert Pujols really is the worst player in the league. Maybe they can’t find another first baseman in the trade market. Maybe they regret the C.J. Cron deal more than the Rays.

Maybe (gulp) Shohei Ohtani’s elbow is never right. Maybe he’s just not enough of a hitter, as plenty of scouts has theorized. Maybe he never stays healthy enough to stick in the rotation. Maybe he’s less the Japanese Babe Ruth and more the Japanese Christian Bethancourt.

Maybe Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs can’t stay healthy. Maybe (let’s be honest, probably) they never find anyone to round out the back end of the rotation. Maybe the bullpen never comes together.

Maybe Mike Scioscia never adapts to the way baseball is played today. Maybe they won’t win 70 games.

 

Conclusion

The real answer is, as usual, somewhere in the middle. The Angels almost certainly aren’t beating the Astros in the AL West, but I think it’s reasonably safe to peg them for second place. I would expect them to best the 80 games they won last season, which should have them in the fight with the Red Sox and Twins for Wild Card Game spots.

I’ll make the prediction that Mike Trout returns to the postseason once again, and Shohei Ohtani starts the Wild Card Game. 84 wins for the Angels.

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