Los Angeles Angels 2018 season preview: Will winter moves translate to a big year?

The Angels haven't won a playoff game since 2009, where they lost the ALCS, four games to two, to the eventual World Series champion Yankees. They also have the best player on the planet right in the middle of his prime. Time's a wastin' on taking advantage of having Mike Trout, no? They've made the playoffs one time in Trout's career (a 98-win season in 2014), but were swept in the first round. It's time to surround him with more talent. 

Thanks in part to finally getting out from under some unhelpful and relatively suffocating contracts, general manager Billy Eppler got aggressive this past offseason.

Actually, it started last August with the trade acquisition of power-hitting outfielder Justin Upton. He had an opt-out clause in his deal to become a free agent, but the Angels agreed to a five-year, $106M extension with him. 

Things ramped up for the Angels in December, when they traded for second baseman Ian Kinsler, signed shortstop (to move to third base) Zack Cozart and two-way Japanese stud Shohei Ohtani

The Angels even added useful bench players in backup catcher Rene Rivera and outfielder Chris Young in January. 

All told, it was a very productive offseason for the Angels. Now it'll need to translate on the field. 

Probable lineup

  1. Ian Kinsler, 2B
  2. Mike Trout, CF
  3. Justin Upton, LF
  4. Albert Pujols, 1B
  5. Kole Calhoun, RF
  6. Zack Cozart, 3B
  7. Shohei Ohtani, DH
  8. Andrelton Simmons, SS
  9. Martin Maldonado, C

Bench: C Rene Rivera; IF/DH Luis Valbuena; IF Kaleb Cowart; OF Chris Young

Obviously, Ohtani won't be serving as the everyday DH. He figures to get the job roughly three times a week, assuming things are going well. Otherwise, Pujols could DH with Vabuena at first base or Young could DH (or play LF with Upton at DH). It'll be revolving on a regular basis due to the unique nature of Ohtani's roster spot. 

Probable rotation

  1. Garrett Richards, RHP
  2. Shohei Ohtani, LHP
  3. Matt Shoemaker, RHP
  4. Andrew Heaney, LHP
  5. Tyler Skaggs, LHP
  6. J.C. Ramirez, RHP

Righties Parker Bridwell and Nick Tropeano (coming off Tommy John surgery) are also options here. 

Probable bullpen

Closer: Blake Parker or Cam Bedrosian, RHP
Setup: Parker/Bedrosian; Jim Johnson, RHP
Middle: Keynan Middleton, RHP; Jose Alvarez, LHP; Noe Ramirez, RHP
Long: Luke Bard, RHP

Pitching depth with high variance possible

In looking above, I listed eight viable big-league starting pitchers. Prospect Jaime Barria is also on the radar here, but a debut this year seems unlikely. 

Back in December, I explored the rotation situation in detail, but here's the basic takeaway: This group could be anywhere from very good to a total, injury-riddled mess. Fortunately, there are enough names here to believe that the Angels can get through most of the season with five pitchers at any given point in the season performing at a moderately good level. It isn't difficult to see something like Richards-Ohtani-Heaney-Shomaker-Skaggs being an above-average rotation come September. 

They'll have some help on balls in play, too, and we'll get to that.  

Possibly dominant back-end duo

We won't be hearing about the Bedrosian-Parker duo in the same air of the Indians' Andrew Miller and Cody Allen or the Yankees fearsome foursome, but there's potential here for a great eighth and ninth inning combo in Orange County. 

Parker took over as closer last season and had an exceptional year overall. He had eight saves and 15 holds against three blown saves with a 2.54 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 86 strikeouts against 16 walks in 67 1/3 innings. His increased usage of the splitter got him more swing-and-miss in addition to posting one of the higher groundball rates in the majors (again, we'll get to what that means with this defense). 

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers
Parker (left) is coming off a big 2017 season. USATSI

A repeat season establishes Parker as one of the better relievers in baseball. 

Bedrosian has the capability to join him. The son of former Cy Young winner Steve "Bedrock" Bedrosian, Cam enters his age-26 season ready to break out. A groin injury early last season really held him back -- he returned but his velocity dipped in July and August -- but he still posted a solid strikeout rate (53 K in 44 2/3 IP; 10.7 K/9) for the second straight season. He was brilliant in 2016 (1.12 ERA) and staying healthy could be key to getting back to dominance. 

Infield defense; well, defense as a whole

The Angels were already a good defensive team last season. Anchored by probably the best defensive player in the game in Andrelton Simmons, they were fourth in the majors in defensive efficiency and second in defensive WAR. They showed a bit lower elsewhere (11th in defensive runs saved), but there's nothing to say this was even an average defensive team. It was good to great. 

It got better this offseason, too. 

Kinsler is one of the better defensive second basemen in baseball. Cozart was a good defender at short and now he moves to third base, where you don't need as much range. That infield defense is going to be incredible, so the pitchers who rely on sink (such as we mentioned above with Parker) stand to reap the benefits. 

Behind the plate, Maldonado is one of the better backstops in the league while Rivera is known for his quality work as well. 

The outfield of Upton, Trout and Calhoun isn't outstanding, but it's not bad either. 

We're likely looking at a top-five defense in baseball and that really helps massage some of the concerns with the rotation. 

Improved offense 

The Angels were 11th in the AL in runs last season. They were 14th in average, 11th in on-base percentage and last in slugging. They were a bad offensive team. No reason to sugarcoat it. 

But!

Trout managed only 114 games due to injury. Upton only played in 27 after he joined the club. 

Kinsler takes over at second, where the Angels collectively hit .206/.274/.327 (gross) last season. Cozart takes over at third, where the Angels collectively hit .238/.318/.395 last season. 

MLB: Spring Training-Cincinnati Reds at Los Angeles Angels
Two-hole hitter Trout greets his new leadoff man, Kinsler.  USATSI

Even with age-related regression for the duo, they are far better than what the Angels had last year.  

Simply eye-balling the order listed above, it looks legit, doesn't it? The offense will be much-improved. We can probably bump them from 11th in the AL in runs to somewhere in the ballpark of sixth. 

Mike Freaking Trout

Don't forget to enjoy the greatness we're witnessing with Mike Trout. The two-time MVP has led the league in runs four times, RBI once, steals once, OBP twice, slugging twice and OPS+ four times. He's led the league in WAR five times in six full seasons. Even with fewer than 115 games played last season, he was sixth. The four most similar players through age 25, statistically, per baseball-reference.com are Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Yowza. 

Or how about this? Most career WAR though age 25 in MLB history: 

  1. Ty Cobb, 55.8
  2. Mike Trout, 55.2
  3. Mickey Mantle, 52.2
  4. Rogers Hornsby, 46.9
  5. Alex Rodriguez, 46.3

You think he gets too much attention? You are wrong. He doesn't get enough. He's on pace to be one of the 10 best players in baseball history. Perhaps a deep playoff run would help in getting him the proper recognition in terms of his place in history among casual fans. 

Playoff run? 

Even the most die-hard, glass-half-full Angels fans would probably admit the Astros are far superior on paper heading into the season. Outside the AL West, it seems obvious the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians are better, too. The Angels might well be the next-best AL team, though. 

That would be enough to get a wild-card spot. As we saw with the 2014 Giants, sometimes that's all it takes to win a championship.

SportsLine has the Angels winning 82 games with a 27.2 percent chance to make the playoffs. Fangraphs has them at 84-78 while Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA has them at 80-82. 

I'm a bit more bullish. A few teams over-perform the projections every year and I'm gonna go with the Angels being one of those this season. Unless they suffer a few injuries before the season starts, I'll be predicting the Angels to secure a wild-card spot this season with something like 87 wins. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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