A.L. West Prediction: Los Angeles Angels
Two MVP candidates. Great chance at the postseason, right?
The battery of Shohei Ohtani and Max Stassi could be the best hitting pitcher/catcher combination since Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner. That’s right. Max Stassi. This statement now requires us to answer the question, “Who the hell is Max Stassi?” Then, having done that, we will assume that what we say will happen happens. The question then in Tinsel Town will be, “Is it enough to make Mike Trout a winner?
The Los Angeles Angels won their lone title in 2002 on the backs of pitching and defense. They were also the Anaheim Angels but let’s not go there because it doesn’t matter. The 2021 Angels are not that team, having been constructed around high-priced free agents and the occasional hit on a draft pick like All-Star/future Hall-of-Famer Mike Trout. That isn’t to say they haven’t tried to be that team. In 2018, they drafted 16 pitchers out of 18 selections. Other years, half of the first four picks have been for “arm talent.” They also drafted catchers in consecutive years with the first pick.
Even with those draft picks, their most important move may have been the trade for gifted, but unlucky, free agent catcher Max Stassi. Stassi is now 30 and has spent part of each season for the last decade on a Major League roster. But because of fluke injuries and lack of dedication from the parent club to give him at-bats, he’s seemingly always just on the outside looking in. The guy can really hit. If he can stay healthy, this might be the year he puts it all together. One thing he definitely needs to improve on is the amount he strikes out. A hundred K’s for nine homers in the last two seasons is a terrible ratio, but somewhat understandable given how much he must have been pressing to impress in the few opportunities he received. Kurt Suzuki would seem to be the primary competition for playing time but, at 37, would be of greater service to the team by doing more mentoring and less playing. He’s always been great at making contact and that’s a skill any team can use. Can he help coach the others to do what he does? He could also help Stassi defend the running game. Stassi led the league last year in stolen bases allowed.
(Full disclosure: I’m guilty of bias in this case having watched the Stassi boys play in Northern California. Brother Brock has had two stints with the Phillies. Dad Jim was a minor-leaguer who won state titles as a coach at Yuba City High School. Great uncle Myril Hoag played for 15 seasons and earned three World Series rings. This family is a great story. )
Ohtani is a great story, too: fresh-faced wunderkind who has done just as well at the Major League level as he did back home in Japan as the rare outfielder who hits for power and average and pitches every fifth day.
While the Angels wait for the starting pitching to develop, they’re now in the position of trying to do anything to win now. Ohtani is a blast to watch but he hasn’t been particularly consistent. Anthony Rendon was a nice pick up to play third. At 72, first baseman Albert Pujols (OK, officially 41) is taking at-bats away from younger players while also being a huge burden on the payroll. If the Angels can swing any kind of trade for him, that would open up a few opportunities elsewhere perhaps. Infielder Phil Gosselin and third catcher Anthony Benboom haven’t exactly torched the league in their opportunities. Jared Walsh has 10 home runs in 178 Major League at-bats and 75 homers in the last two full minor league seasons. He did that while hitting .301 for his minor league career. He might be the guy to push Pujols into his rocking chair.
Pair him with third baseman Anthony Rendon (25 homers/40 doubles a year, minimum) and you have a couple of really good corner players. Infielder Jose Iglesias is perhaps the least well-known career .278 hitter in the game.
The offense looks pretty good, with a few question marks. Justin Upton is trending toward the Mendoza line. Taylor Ward doesn’t have enough at-bats for anyone to know what he’s going to be. Jose Rojas has a .288 career average in the minors and could be called up. If Mike Trout goes down again (100 games missed from 2017-19) the Angels should be able to weather the storm.
That is… offensively.
Ohtani’s the stud of the pitching staff assuming he comes back from injury with 2018 form (pthree-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio, 3.31 ERA). After Ohtani is… um… then… and then… umm.
I’m sure he’s a swell guy, but he’s not the answer. And, no, I’m not buying the Covid 3.29 ERA he posted. He’s barely a fifth starter. Griffin Canning? Sure he posted a 3.99 ERA last year, but he also allowed opposing hitters to rake at a .257 clip. Again: fifth starter. Alex Cobb? Pretty good fifth starter with third starter history. He was in the low 3.00s ERA-wise before injuries kind of derailed him. Gotta love the guy though for coming back after taking a shot to the head from Eric Hosmer in 2013. Andrew Heaney: fifth starter. Jose Quintana: fifth starter with injury issues last year. Patrick Sandoval? Sixth starter. Maybe seventh with a 5.33 ERA in his first 19 starts. Surely, some team has a starter it can’t keep and who could use a couple of established guys to make the push for something close to mediocrity. Whoever the starter is, L.A. has plenty of fifth starters to trade.
In the bullpen, they don’t look bad. Steve Cischek should recover from his 2020 woes and return to something resembling his career sub-3.00 career ERA. Still, his 2020 ERA of over 5.00 is concerning. So is Alex Claudio who was lights out for Texas (2.66 ERA in four seasons) and then saw his annual ERA spike by two runs a game with Texas and then Milwaukee. Junior Guerra and Raisel Iglesias have been good out of the pen, too.
What’s it all mean? They have the hitting and bullpen to compete. They have no hope of winning anything without better starters.