As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Grant Carver takes a look at the Angels!
Despite not adding the ace that many Angels fans had hoped for, the Angels improved their roster heading into 2021. They disappointed in the short 2020 season, and it cost Billy Eppler his job. Perry Minasian, the new General Manager in Anaheim, was brought in with the goal of helping the Angels back into the playoffs in the upcoming season, and only time will tell if he has done enough.
2020 Record: 26-34, 4th place in the AL West
Team MVP: Mike Trout
Team Cy Young: Dylan Bundy
The good news for the Angels is that they did have significant bright spots in 2020 that should translate to this season. Dylan Bundy proved to be a reliable mid-rotation starter, Jared Walsh showed promise as the team’s first above-average first baseman in a while, and Max Stassi had a great season at the plate. Even Mike Mayers in the bullpen had an extremely nice season. However, the pitching staff’s struggles once again sank this team, and specifically, the depth proved to be too light.
Key losses from 2020: SS Andrelton Simmons. SP Julio Teheran
Notable Free Agent Additions: SP José Quintana, RP Alex Claudio, C Kurt Suzuki, OF Juan Lagares.
Notable Trades: RP Raisel Iglesias, SS José Iglesias, OF Dexter Fowler, SP Alex Cobb, RP Aaron Slegers.
The biggest talking point with the Angels is always starting pitching, but one could argue the bullpen let them down more in 2020. Specifically, the bullpen had a combined 14 blown saves in the 60 game season, which was the worst mark in the league. A legitimate closer was needed and that is where Raisel Iglesias will step in. Iglesias has been a good reliever every year since 2016, but his 2020 season was special. He ended the season with a 34.1 K%, a 2.87 xFIP, and a 2.63 SIERA. It is a small sample size of course, but even a repeat of his 2019 season would be a massive upgrade for the Angels. The Angels sent Leo Rivas and Noe Ramirez to Cincinnati in exchange for Raisel Iglesias and $900K cash. It was mainly a salary dump by the Reds, and the Angels picked up a really good reliever on a one-year deal because of it.
Continuing with the bullpen, the Angels signed lefty Alex Claudio for $1.125 million. Claudio does not miss very many bats and is known more for inducing soft contact and groundballs from a lower arm slot. He had a somewhat decent 2020 with a xFIP of 4.75 and SIERA of 4.43. Some may be quick to point of his 2019 struggles, but he dropped his sinker usage by about 10% in 2020, so maybe this change benefited him. Regardless, he should be an improvement over last year’s lefty Hoby Milner, who posted an 8.10 ERA. The Angels continued to address the bullpen depth with the acquisition of Aaron Slegers from Tampa Bay in exchange for cash considerations or a player to be named later. Slegers is another guy who does not miss many bats, but he controlled the zone and avoided hard contact in 2020. He had a 54.1 GB% and a 3.95 xFIP in 26 innings last season. If Slegers can maintain those numbers in 2021, he will be a big upgrade over some of the bullpen depth the Angels had last season. He was also born in Long Beach and called this move a homecoming, so hopefully it works out for him.
The only real loss from the 2020 roster was Andrelton Simmons, leaving a hole in the middle infield. They decided that Fletcher was better off at second and focused on defense, acquiring José Iglesias from the Orioles in exchange for minor leaguers Garrett Stallings and Jean Pinto. Iglesias will make $3.5 million in 2021 to be the starting shortstop. Iglesias had a whopping 162 wRC+ in 2020, but there is a large enough sample size in his career to safely assume that is not who he is. Iglesias is a below-average hitter with a good glove at shortstop. He had 11 OAA in 2019, which is extremely impressive. He should be able to put up something similar to Andrelton Simmons’ line for about $7 million less, which allowed the Angels to spend more on pitching. Focusing on a defensive-minded shortstop makes sense given the clear objective to add pitchers that create groundballs.
Sticking with position players, the other needs heading into the offseason were a catcher and an outfielder. At catcher, the Angels went with Kurt Suzuki for $1.5 million. Suzuki is consistently a league-average to better hitter, but his defense has left a lot to be desired. The framing metrics have him as one of the worst in the league, so the Angels seem to believe he is a good enough game caller to make up for that. At 37, Suzuki is bound to fall off at the plate soon, but if he can repeat his 2019 wRC+ of 105 in 85 games, $1.5 million is a good value. In the outfield, the Angels acquired Dexter Fowler from the Cardinals in exchange for cash or a player to be named later. Fowler is owed about $14.5 in 2021, but the Angels are only paying $1.75 million of that. Fowler is a former Maddon player in Chicago, which obviously had an impact on this trade happening. He’s been hovering at a league-average wRC+ the past two seasons, but his defense holds his value down to a slightly below average player. Regardless, Fowler is an upgrade over the 2020 version of Jo Adell and will be good for the locker room by all accounts. Juan Lagares was also added on a minor league deal, and his ability to play centerfield might win him the 4th outfielder spot. Lagares is a good glove, but has not produced much at the plate and is very injury-prone.
Finally, the starting rotation. This was the let down aspect of the offseason, but it is still an upgraded rotation. With Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning, and a healthy Shohei Ohtani in the rotation, two starting pitchers were needed. The biggest starter they acquired was a former Cub during Joe Maddon’s tenure in Chicago, José Quintana, on a one year deal at $8 million dollars. Quintana had a lost 2020 season with just 10 IP, but his 2019 was quite impressive. He ended that season with a 4.20 xFIP and 4.50 SIERA in 171 IP. One of the most attractive parts of his resume is his durability, outside of some minor injuries last season. Quintana is a solid mid-rotation starter and a one-year deal at $8 million is a very good value. For the second rotation spot, the Angels acquired Alex Cobb in exchange for Jahmai Jones. The Orioles also sent cash to the Angels, so Cobb will be paid $5 million by the Angels with some of that deferred. Jones has been part of the Angels farm system for so long that fans tend to overrate him, but his loss does not really hurt the Angels’ future. In 52.1 IP last season, Cobb had a 54.5 GB% and a 4.65 SIERA. The ground ball rate fits with the Angels’ hope of getting more ground balls and the addition of Jose Iglesias. The problem with expecting much from Cobb is that he does not miss bats and gets hit extremely hard. His sinker, which he used 47.5% of the time in 2020, gets crushed to a tune of a .430 xwOBA with a whiff rate of 7.5%. The positive way to look at it is he replaces Julio Teheran, who had a 10.59 ERA in 26.1 IP last season. Much like the Angels’ recent additions to the rotation in the past years, Cobb feels like a player who the Angels acquire just in time to be able to witness a steep decline.
2021 Season Preview
1) David Fletcher, 2B
2) Mike Trout, CF
3) Anthony Rendon, 3B
4) Shohei Ohtani, DH
5) Justin Upton, LF
6) Jared Walsh, 1B
7) Max Stassi, C
8) José Iglesias, SS
9) Dexter Fowler, RF
1B, Albert Pujols
INF, Franklin Barreto
OF, Juan Lagares
C, Kurt Suzuki
SP1; Dylan Bundy
SP2; Andrew Heaney
SP3; José Quintana
SP4; Griffin Canning
SP 5; Alex Cobb
SP6; Shohei Ohtani
CL Raisel Iglesias
SU Mike Mayers
RP Alex Claudio
RP Felix Peña
RP Ty Buttrey
RP Aaron Slegers
RP Jose Alberto Rivera
LR Jaime Barria
The 1-3 spots of the lineup seem pretty obvious. I am expecting a big season from Ohtani, so I think he will be in the cleanup spot on days when he is in the lineup. Upton and Walsh are pretty interchangeable in my eyes, but Maddon seems like a manager who prefers to split his righties and lefties, so I project Upton to hit after Ohtani. I expect Fowler to contribute the least of any starting position players, which is why he is in the nine spot. Suzuki and Pujols are locks to make the bench and will be in the starting lineup plenty of times this season. Regnifo and Barreto are interchangeable players and I probably would say Regnifo is better, but the fact that Barreto does not have options will leave him with the big league club. The fourth bench spot is really between Taylor Ward, Juan Lagares, and Jon Jay. Ward has the most positional flexibility, but the one spot he cannot play is center field. Neither Fowler nor Upton belong in that spot either, so having a guy in Lagares that can allow Trout to DH on some days will be valuable for this club.
The starting rotation seems to be in place, barring another addition. The back end of the bullpen is extremely set with Iglesias owning the ninth inning and Mayers earning the setup role last season. I feel like Peña and Buttrey are the most talented of the other relievers, and I expect them to see some high-leverage innings this season. Claudio will be used situationally due to the fact that he is the only left hander in the bullpen. There are multiple candidates for the last spot in the bullpen, but Rule 5 acquisition Jose Alberto Rivera should be able to win the battle. Rivera has a 100+ mph fastball and power breaking ball, so as long as he looks decent in spring training he should get a chance in the big leagues. Finally, the long reliever/spot starter role will belong to Jaime Barria. Whether or not he is the best option for this spot is debatable, but he is out of options and that will probably win him the role. If he struggles in 2021, it will be easy to risk sending him through waivers, but he showed enough promise in 2020 to earn a chance to show what he has in 2021.
FanGraphs Projected Record: 84-78, Tied for 2nd place in AL West
PECOTA Projected Record: 86-76, 2nd place in AL West
Personal Projection: 85-76, 2nd place in AL West
This team is undoubtedly better than what they showed in 2020 and I think the additions will lead to a 85 win season. I generally agree with projections about the record and think they are pretty spot on. This is a team that FanGraphs projects to be 10th in fWAR, and some of the projections even seem a bit light. I would bet on the Angels getting more than 0.7 fWAR from Jared Walsh at first, 1.8 fWAR from David Fletcher at second, and a combined 0.8 from the corner outfield spots. The fact that some of their projections feel a little low and they are still predicted at 84 wins shows a pretty high ceiling for this club. Whether or not they hit that ceiling is the question, but the Angels are due for some luck eventually.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Angels this season. The position player group was above-average last year, got better this offseason, and has two prime bounce back candidates in Ohtani and Upton. I think everyone expects the Angels to have a good offense in 2021, but the pitching staff is where I think there is legitimate upside that can translate to a playoff appearance. I do not think it’s unrealistic to expect Griffin Canning and Dylan Bundy to be in the 3.60-3.90 ERA range. On top of that, it is reasonable to expect an ERA in the 4.00-4.50 from José Quintana and Andrew Heaney. I am not quite as hopeful for a good season from Alex Cobb, but those four pitchers should be in that range. Add onto those four with a healthy Shohei Ohtani season, who is a full-go and made some training adjustments this past offseason, and there is undoubtedly an avenue for this rotation to be above average. Ohtani is the wild card here, but with the reports that he has hit 100 mph already at Spring Training, it’s hard to have low expectations for an arm as talented as his. Adding the 2018 pitching version of Ohtani to this team should easily launch them into a Wild Card spot and even contend for the division. This pitching staff is better than most people are giving it credit for, and it should at least keep them in contention throughout the season.
The Angels did not add the front of the rotation starter they needed this offseason, but this should be one of the most exciting teams in baseball. They have the best duo in baseball with Rendon and Trout. They also have a fully healthy two-way player in Shohei Ohtani. All the reports on Ohtani from spring training so far have been incredibly exciting and it’s hard not to expect an extreme bounce back from him this year. This team was 27th in the league at getting groundballs this winter and focused on improving that, which should lead to positive results for the pitching staff. The Angels should be able to contend long enough to add some pitching depth at the trade deadline and make a serious run at returning to the playoffs at the very least. They will be heading into next offseason with a ton of money coming off the books and a farm system that will finally be ready to provide legitimate help to the big league roster. The Angels are finally trending towards true contention, and it has a serious chance to start this season.