What’s it like to be an Angels fan, to have the best player this side of Alpha Centauri, but to miss the playoffs year after year? It is strange to see a team that is innovative in terms of how they deal with a unique player like Shohei Ohtani, seemingly unable to piece together a competitive rotation. To be fair, they seemed to go after the aces available this winter but didn’t get any love from Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. The collective cold shoulder that they received from top free agent pitchers led to them signing the best free agent position player on the market – Anthony Rendon – making their infield a lot more interesting. And he wasn’t their only signing as they upgraded their catching corps too. There’s a theme to their moves so let’s take a look at what the Angels will look like on the dirt part of the field in 2020.
Although catchers are not really thought of as infielders, they do play on the infield so let’s start with the Angels new addition to the catching crew. Jason Castro represents a significant upgrade on both sides of the plate. Up until 2018, when he was injured, he was a 2.0 to 3.0 WAR player, which is hard to find at the catcher position. He is a lefty bat with power who walks enough to make up for his low batting average. His career slash line is .231/.313/.390 and he had a wRC+ of 103 last season. Castro is best known for his glove, which carries most of his value – in particular his pitch framing skills. Castro was a 1st round pick in 2008 and is 32, so while he is talented, decline is inevitable, but if he can stay healthy in 2020 then he is a nice pick up who will improve the pitching staff and hit some bombs.
The other catcher, because few catchers can hold up to 162 games, is Max Stassi, who came to LA at the trade deadline last season. Stassi is another talented pitch framer, but unlike Castro, Stassi swings a bat made of gluten-free linguini – or at least that’s what his limited stats say. Stassi is 29 and only has 486 career plate appearances with a slash line of .204/.285/.326, but his scouting profile and minor league career predict a slightly better outcome with the bat than that. Stassi can flash a little power, but is unlikely to get on base much. What the Angels have done with Stassi and Castro is improve their pitching by improving their catching. Angels pitchers will get more strikes based on how well their catchers frame pitches. So if you aren’t going to sign an ace for your rotation you can at least make the pitchers you have better by improving your defense – and specifically improving your catching in the area of pitch framing. So while you watch Stassi and his .198 with 8 home runs, remember that you are watching your pitching staff improve. It will be interesting to see if the Angels can stand the pressure from fans and the media to get a catcher who can hit to replace Stassi.
Albert Pujols used to be the best player in baseball, but that was a long time ago. The Angels first baseman had eight seasons where he was worth between 7.0 and 9.0 WAR plus another two seasons above 5.0 WAR. All that happened before the Angels signed him to a ten year, $240 million deal as a 32 year old. Of course that was back in the day when teams paid players for their past seasons and it could be argued that Pujols’ deal was one of the straws that broke that particular camel’s back. Since donning an Angels uni, Pujols has produced one season with a WAR above 3.0, one season with a WAR above 2.0, one season with a WAR above 1.0, and five seasons with a WAR below 1.0 including the last three seasons where he has produced negative WAR at an average salary of $24 million per year. Until 2017, Pujols was still a productive producer with the bat but lost WAR because of his base-running and defense. Pujols has struggled mightily with health issues and has undoubtedly suffered by playing through his injuries, but he is what he is and that is an overpriced 40 year old first baseman who is hurting the team because of his big contract and his declining production. Shohei Ohtani is the primary DH until he returns to the mound so Pujols is blocked there and the Angels are paying Pujols for two more seasons, so Angels fans have to hope against hope that Albert Pujols can figure out some way to reverse the trend of negative WAR seasons, but at this point retirement might be the only way that happens.
At 30, Tommy La Stella had a breakout season of sorts slashing .295/.346/.486 and putting up a 2.0 WAR season – the first time he had been above 1.0 WAR in his career. La Stella had never been given an opportunity to play on even a semi-regular basis with the Braves or the Cubs so even after last year where he reached 321 plate appearances, his career total is now only 1268 plate appearances – odd in that he has always been able to hit. Maybe it isn’t odd in this day of everyone and his grandma being able to hit double digit long balls, which La Stella finally did last year. His 16 home runs in 2019 give him a career total of 26 home runs. Will this be the year La Stella, who played better at third than he did at second (and also played a few games at first), reaches 500 plate appearances? New Angels manager, Joe Maddon has historically enjoyed players who were versatile, but now has Anthony Rendon who will block La Stella from playing much third base. If Maddon decides that La Stella is the starter at second, then maybe this is the year that Tommy gets 500 plate appearances and hits 20 bombs. If Maddon uses him as a utility guy, then La Stella probably dips below 300 plate appearances again since he can’t play shortstop or the outfield – more on the utility infielder situation later.
Speaking of shortstops, the Angels have a spectacular one in Andrelton Simmons. Simmons’ glove has always been considered one of the best in baseball if not the best, but his bat was, at most, okay for a shortstop. That was until he had back to back seasons with wRC+ over 100 in 2016 and 2017 (102 and 108 respectively). Simmons is 30 and has four Gold Gloves on the shelf in his rec room (if he has a rec room and keeps his cool trophies there), but last year he struggled with injuries and fell back to his old mediocre hitting ways – a wRC+ of 81. 2019 also broke a Gold Glove streak at two seasons although Simmons had another really good year with the glove. Middle infielders don’t have a particularly long shelf life because it is hard to stay healthy with all the diving, twisting, spinning, and jumping they do, but Simmons probably rebounds in 2020. This is a walk year for Andrelton so he will definitely have extrinsic motivation to have a great year. It will be interesting to see what the Angels decide to do when his contract expires, whether they decide to continue to fish in Lake Simmons or cut bait on a generational defensive talent as he begins to show signs of age. Simmons isn’t the kind of player who you can push to other positions to extend his career because his bat probably only works at shortstop. So watch his health during Spring Training and hope that all is well with the best defensive shortstop of the last decade and make a point of watching an Angels game or three.
Which leads us to the new guy – and what a new guy the Angels have acquired in Anthony Rendon! 2019 was Rendon’s best season by WAR (7.0) and wRC+ (154), but it isn’t an outlier as the former Washington Nat has three straight campaigns of at least 6.0 WAR and at least 139 wRC+. He is an excellent defender who hits for average, gets on base a lot, and hits for power. His slash line in 2019 was .319/.412/.598 giving him seven seasons in a row (the length of his major league career) of breaking the .300 average mark. Even if Rendon drops back below 30 bombs, hitting .300 with 60 to 80 walks, around 40 doubles and 25 home runs still makes him one of the best hitters in baseball and he can throw some leather to boot. What’s not to like? Nothing. He does everything well and has become very consistent down to three seasons in a row with K rates between 13.3 and 13.7%. The one knock on him was that he could do a better job staying healthy, but even that has become only a minor issue. He has averaged over 600 plate appearances and 146 games for the last four years so he seems to have figured out how to avoid injuries that would take him out for more than a few games, which is a skill that can be influenced by luck to be sure – but still a skill. The seven year deal that Rendon signed will probably not be an albatross until the very end of the contract when Rendon is 36, but by that time the Pujols contract will be out of site even of the rear view mirror. There are three ways to improve your ability to score more runs than the other team and the Angels took care of two of them by signing Rendon – scoring more runs and preventing runs by playing better defense (not the preventing runs by pitching better part though – Rendon can’t fix everything!). The Angels undoubtedly got better by signing Rendon – a lot better.
There are a few guys to keep an eye on who currently reside on the Angels bench. If/when Pujols misses time, the previously mentioned Tommy La Stella could step in (assuming he isn’t the starting second baseman), or the Angels could give Jared Walsh a chance to show whether or not his 36 homers at triple-A last year were a fluke. Walsh, a 39th round pick in 2015, is 26 and slashed .325/.423/.686 at Salt Lake City (over 4200 feet above sea level so not quite Coors Field, but still pretty thin air) and since he isn’t a top prospect he won’t get many chances to prove himself. Luis Rengifo was a Dodger for a few days until the deal got nixed. Rengifo could be the utility infielder if La Stella starts at second or Joe Maddon could decide to go with the younger, slicker Rengifo (just 23) as the starter. It would make more sense to use Rengifo in the utility role since he can play shortstop and La Stella can’t. Before he stalled out at triple-A, Rengifo’s hit tool looked like it might be enough to propel him to a role as a starter. He has a bunch of extra base hits in his minor league career to go with 130 steals in 182 attempts which is intriguing. If he reverses the trend from triple-A where his walk numbers dropped with his batting average, then he will look less like an out maker and more like the run creator he looked like he might become before he struggled at triple-A. It is hard to classify David Fletcher as a bench player after he cobbled together 653 plate appearances in 2019 with a WAR of 3.4 playing 2nd, 3rd, shortstop, and the outfield. What’s more – he was a defensive stud everywhere he played which should fit nicely with Maddon’s style of lineup construction. Fletcher is 26 and last season was a break out – 99 wRC+ with a slash line of .290/.350/.384 from a flexible, stellar defender. If he does it again, he becomes the new version of Ben Zobrist and that’s a pretty nice career arc.
Looking at the end of 2019 and the moves during the off-season, the Angels made moves to improve their catching defense, their infield defense, and score more runs. Independent of their actual pitching staff, the Angels should allow fewer runs from a defensive standpoint. If they find themselves in contention, they should make a move to improve at first base. As much as I like Albert Pujols as a human and marvel at how great he used to be, he is eating their team alive by taking up a spot where they could be so much more productive. Their infield is squared away except for Pujols and, like the Rockies, it is hard to see a team killing themselves at a position that should be one of the easiest to fix. That said, if Maddon wanted to go all in on infield defense he would move La Stella to first, put Fletcher at second, and make Rengifo the utility guy. Rendon will get much of the credit if the Angels improve a lot this year, but a healthy Castro will provide a stealthy dose of pitching goodness and some pop. Yes, Rendon was the big move, but keep an eye out for small improvements to some of the incumbents on the pitching staff with a season of Castro and Stassi behind the dish. The Angels will be better this year. Good enough to overtake the Astros and A’s? That’s why they actually play the games!