The scorching hot stove put the ACL series on the backburner a bit, but we’re diving back in this week and starting with the Angels, who have been very busy in the month-plus since our last piece in this series.
Can Tommy La Stella pick up where ’19 left off?
Few players personified the bouncy ball of 2019 better than La Stella. He entered his age-30 season with a career .711 OPS and 10 HR in 947 PA only to nearly double his career total in April alone when he smacked 7 HR. He stayed hot through May and June with a .324/.358/.485 line and another 9 HR before disaster struck. On July 2nd, he fouled a ball off his leg that was originally diagnosed as a contusion, but eventually turned out to be a broken leg and effectively ended his season (he returned for two games in September).
So we have a 30-year old who more than doubled his career home run total in a half season of work in a year when we know the ball was flying out of parks like crazy. This seems like a stone-cold fluke, but is it? Looking across his profile, La Stella certainly earned everything he got in 2019, so you shouldn’t be worried that he lucked his way into that success. Improvements throughout his batted ball profile built on top of an already strong set of plate skills yielding expected SLG, wOBA, and AVG totals 1-2 points away from his actual results.
He also took advantage of his new ballpark with 11 of the 16 homers coming there and some of those coming courtesy of the recently lowered wall out in right field. I’m willing to take a shot on TLS in 2020. He doesn’t strike out (12% career), can take a walk (9%), and while I certainly wouldn’t project him for 30+ HR over a full season, I don’t think 20+ is out of bounds. He has 2B/3B eligibility and will consistently be available in the mid-teens rounds or later (current ADP of 281).
Is there a rebound for Justin Upton?
In the five seasons heading into 2019, Upton had established himself as high-20s HR lock with 80+ RBIs per year, twice reaching 100+ RBIs. He even threw in at least 8 SB per year over that time, too. He was a boring but reliable bat, so his 2019 was a major disappointment as injury limited him to just 63 games of a 92 wRC+. The question is whether this marks the beginning of the drop-off for Upton or just a washout season that should mostly be ignored when looking at him for 2020.
After the turf toe ate up his first two and a half months, patellar tendinitis in his right knee ended his season in early September. Barring news to the contrary, the knee isn’t expected to be a lingering issue and an offseason of rest and rehab should have him ready for 2020. As such, I expect him to go back to his 25-30 HR/80-90 RBI ways, especially with Anthony Rendon joining the lineup. Upton should regularly find himself batting fourth behind La Stella, Mike Trout, and Rendon, so his third 100+ RBI season could be in the offing. He is currently toting a 241 ADP. Other OF around him are Ryan Braun, Nomar Mazara, Austin Riley, and Shin-Soo Choo. I’d take Upton over all of them, except maybe Braun, though I think Upton is a better bet for volume while Braun will be better on a per plate appearance basis.
Have they improved their pitching enough?
Coming into the offseason, everyone was pointing to the Angels as the obvious fit for Gerrit Cole based on their colossal need for pitching, their insistence that they were ready to spend to improve the team around Trout and Co., and the fact that Cole was from California (which remains the worst and most overused element for guessing where FAs will sign – I’ll admit, I’m guilty of it at times, too). While they made a valiant effort, it wasn’t enough, so they shifted their focus to the other premier talent on the market in Rendon, who they promptly landed.
Rendon is a great add, but what about the pitching? Their starters netted a league worst 3.3 WAR last year so improving isn’t going to be that difficult, but have they done enough? Even after the Rendon signing, they were tabbed as a strong fit for Hyun-Jin Ryu, but he went to Toronto. Instead of a big ticket, they made two smaller moves to deepen their staff while also betting on in-house improvements, headlined by the return of Shohei Ohtani to the mound.
Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy don’t exactly scream “Playoffs, here we come!”, but they unquestionably improve the Angels. Add in Ohtani’s return, full to fullish seasons from Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning, and their projected WAR comes out at 10.7, more than three times better than their 2019 output. And that’s with Teheran getting just a 0.5 projection despite averaging 2 WAR over his seven year career. Hell, even the last three years has seen him average twice this projection at 1.1 so I don’t really buy the 0.5 for 2020.
The bottom line is that their SPs are definitely better. Enough to make the playoffs? I’m not sure about that. The lowest team in SP WAR to make the 2019 playoffs were the Brewers sitting 20th at 8.7. LA’s 10.7 projection for 2020 is in the range of several playoff and near-playoff teams from 2019: Oakland at 11.8, Atlanta at 11.3, Arizona and Boston at 11.0, St. Louis at 10.9, and the Yankees at 10.6. Of course all of those teams but the Braves were in the top half of reliever WAR with most of them firmly in the top 10. LA’s bullpen as-is doesn’t appear strong enough to pick up the slack.
I still believe! His fastball is an issue, but he brings a premium pitch in his slider and a solid changeup with him to LA. He gets out of Camden and the AL East, too. Even with fastball issues that yielded a 1.6 HR/9 in 2019, he still had an above average K-BB% and SwStr%. Homers have plagued him throughout his career with his “best” rate being 1.4 back in 2017 and a career mark of 1.7. His best chance to post a sub-4.00 ERA will be cutting into that HR rate, in fact I’d suggest it’s his only chance.
The key to doing so could be the reintroduction of the cutter into his arsenal. Part of the reason he got rid of it was because Baltimore didn’t allow cutters, but then Bundy himself worried that it was behind his early career injuries (so maybe Baltimore was actually right about something regarding pitching development?!). If he can reincorporate the pitch into his arsenal without experiencing pain in his forearm and do so at the expense of four-seamer usage, it could help him unlock the next level. Obviously if he’s throwing it in a way that causes pain, this idea is a nonstarter but I wonder if the Angels have given this some thought and maybe even have some ideas about bringing it back for him as a way of helping him get better.
Of the 97 pitchers who have thrown at least 2000 four-seamers the last three years, only J.A. Happ (54) and Justin Verlander (51) have allowed more homers than Bundy’s 47 (tied with former teammate Kevin Gausman) and he did so in just 3772 four-seamers, while all three of the others threw far more (Happ 4187, JV 5745, and Gausman 4869). It’s a bad pitch, he has to do something about it. If the cutter isn’t the answer, maybe working on a sinker would be the way go, even though I don’t love sinkers in today’s era.
At any rate, I’m willing to spend a pick after 300 on a pitcher who has at least one excellent pitch, another solid one, and a clear path to improvement. The 27-year old righty certainly hasn’t lived up to his prospect hype, but there is still time and the fabled change of scenery could do the trick provided he also makes some changes to his repertoire.
Shohei Ohtani (the batter)
Since I’m a La Stella believer, it was hard to find someone for this spot since they had so few guys shine brightly in the first place. This is really more of a volume call than anything else. I think Ohtani will continue to rake in his opportunities, but if his arm is ready to go and he holds up as a full-time starter – even if it’s just once a week – I don’t think he’ll log another 425 PA.
More than that, even if he does maintain another 400ish PA, I see the SB total coming down. I think the Angels will see them as an unnecessary risk for their ace and limit him on the bases. Assuming the 400ish PA come while also starting once a week, he will likely steal 5-6 bases. If I were to rank my Fallers 1-30 at the end of this project, Ohtani would be near the bottom. I had to pick a Faller and he was the only real option I could get behind, but I don’t really see any sort of major drop off except perhaps the SBs.
A MOVE TO MAKE
Trade for Mike Clevinger
I’m taking the easy one here as this is already being rumored, but it’s unquestionably the best possibly move they can make for their team. They seemed to be in on the Corey Kluber trade talks, though the Indians were seemingly asking more of the Angels than they got from the Rangers with Brandon Marsh and another top 10 prospect being the rumored cost. I guess Cleveland values Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields similarly to Marsh-plus, but most of the baseball world disagrees.
I imagine Clevinger would carry a similar price tag, but it’s a lot easier to part with Marsh (and others) for three years of 29-year old Clevinger, who is still very cheap versus two years of 34-year old Kluber at $17.5 and $18 mil per year, which is perfectly fair if he pitches anywhere near his well established ace level seen for six years prior to 2019’s injury washout season.
Clevinger would give them a bona fide #1 arm, allows Ohtani to function as a #2, puts Heaney, Bundy, and Teheran as the #3-4-5, and then gives them really solid backfill in Griffin Canning (who ended the season hurt), Patrick Sandoval (who could then maybe be a lefty option in their pen), Jose Suarez, and Jaime Barria. With Clevinger on board, it’s a lot easier to envision the Angels as viable playoff contender, perhaps even capable of taking down the division.
PLAYING TIME BATTLE(S)
I really don’t see a viable battle developing on the current roster. Maybe something in the fifth starter realm, but let’s see if they do add another arm before worrying about that. Offensively, they’re pretty locked into their positions right now.
PROSPECT CONTRIBUTORS FOR 2020
Hitter: Jo Adell
I like Marsh and believe he could wind up in the majors this year, but Adell is obviously the guy here. Currently slotted as the #3 prospect in baseball, Adell might’ve been in the majors in 2019 if not for a left hamstring strain and sprained right ankle suffered on one play in Spring Training that sidelined him for 10 weeks. He returned in late-May and posted a .937 OPS in 209 PA at High- and Double-A before a promotion to Triple-A where he sputtered a bit with just a .676 OPS in 132 PA. He finished his season with a useful showing in the Arizona Fall League (.796 OPS) and now we wait to see his 2020 fate.
Can the Angels ink him to a deal like Luis Robert did with the White Sox and get him up from day 1 or will he be sent back to Triple-A for a few weeks for “seasoning”? I guess it’s easier to make the case if you’re the Angels since he wasn’t elite at Triple-A and is still just 21, but without the stupid service time rules that govern the game, he’d be an Opening Day lock for their roster.
Let’s play it cautiously and assume he spends upwards of a month at Triple-A. In five months of work, he can still be a high impact bat in all formats. His power/speed capability give him a ceiling in line with the aforementioned Robert. He showed some plate skill improvements in that Double-A stop (23% K, 10% BB) but gave them back in Triple-A (33%, 8%). There will be volatility in the batting average output early, but we could still see a 20/20 season even if it comes with a .240-.250 AVG instead of something closer to the .298 he’s hit in 1003 minor league PA.
Pitcher: Patrick Sandoval
I mentioned Sandoval could be a lefty option in the bullpen if he doesn’t earn a rotation spot, but they’d probably keep the 23-year starting in Triple-A if he doesn’t get one of the five slots. Nick Pollack turned me onto Sandoval at the AFL, covering his strong underlying skills that were likely overlooked by many because of the 5.03 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. He fanned 25% of the batters he faced with a very strong 14% swinging strike rate.
Sandoval has a solid four-pitch mix, highlighted by his changeup, a pair of swing-and-miss breaking balls, and three different velocity levels. I love when a young pitcher has a changeup locked and loaded right off the bat. His fastball needs some work, but he sits 93 mph from the left side which is above average and if he can improve the command, there’s some major upside here. I’d project him for a 4.10 ERA/1.30 WHIP with a strikeout per inning right now, while understanding that I’m buying the potential for a good bit more if he develops further.
UP NEXT: Miami Marlins