Sheehan: The Angels Have The Most On The Line In 2020
One year ago I tagged the Twins as my sleeper team for 2019. The Twins went on to set the major league home run record while winning 101 games and the American League Central. An injury-and suspension-ravaged version of the team was wiped out in three games in the AL Division Series by the Yankees, but the Twins were still one of the best stories last year.
I’m having a hard time identifying a 2020 sleeper. This winter saw the middle tier of baseball teams, the teams that had largely sat out recent winters, get aggressive. The Rangers traded for Corey Kluber. The Angels signed Anthony Rendon. The Diamondbacks added Madison Bumgarner and Starling Marte. The Reds spent for Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos. You can’t be a sleeper if you spent the offseason drawing attention to yourself.
So let’s look for something else: the team with the most riding on the 2020 campaign. There are the usual suspects, of course: The Yankees committed $324 million to the idea that Gerrit Cole was the difference between getting past the Astros and not. The Dodgers have seven straight National League West titles but no World Series ring, spoiling their claim to the word "dynasty.” The White Sox have invested a lot of money this winter to turn their rebuilding project into a playoff berth. You could pick any of these, as well as the scandal-ridden Astros, the stagnant Cubs, or the talent-laden Padres.
Me, I don’t think it’s any of them. The team with the most on the line this year is the Angels. This will be Mike Trout’s ninth full season, and he has played in just three playoff games, all losses to the Royals in 2014. Trout, now 28, has seen his front office make horrible free agent choices both big (Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols) and small (Matt Harvey, Cody Allen). He’s watched a farm system that was very productive up to the point he graduated from it go fallow at the wrong time. He’s watched it all go backward, with four straight sub-.500 seasons dating back to 2016. Forget October; Trout hasn’t even played a meaningful game in September since 2015.
Despite all that, the Angels convinced Trout to stay with the team, signing him to a 12-year, $426 million contract last March that should make him an Angel for life. Then they went 72-90, the team’s worst record since Trout was in the fourth grade. Trout’s 8.3 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com, were nearly a third of what the entire team produced, a ratio that has become all too familiar to him. By contrast, NL MVP Cody Bellinger’s 9.0 WAR was just one-sixth of the Dodgers’ total.
Arte Moreno tried to change that, committing $245 million to third baseman Rendon in an effort to give Trout at least one teammate who can match his production. Rendon finished third in the NL MVP voting last year, his third career top-six finish. The 30-year-old is a true .300 hitter who draws walks and has developed excellent power. He was a critical component of the Nationals’ playoff run, hitting .328 in 17 postseason games and ripping huge homers in World Series Games 6 and 7.
With Rendon, the Angels’ projected payroll of $187 million is just shy of their highest ever. Rendon might be the best hitter Trout has ever played with, given that Albert Pujols has slugged .500 only once with the Angels, in 2012, and hasn’t had an on-base percentage above .340 since that season. Rendon and shortstop Andrelton Simmons form the best left side combination in the AL. Throw in rookie outfielder Jo Adell, one of the early-line favorites for AL Rookie of the Year, and this projects as the best Angels offense since 2014.
Even with all that, this team looks like little more than a fringe wild card contender. Adding a superstar like Rendon always makes you better; the problem is that Rendon was the consolation prize for missing out on the No. 1 starter the Angels desperately needed. The 2019 Angels were the first team in history to have no starting pitcher reach 100 innings. The reasons for that varied, from tragic (the death of Tyler Skaggs) to mundane (free agents Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill were awful).
They bring back much of that staff, bolstered only by No. 4 starters like Dylan Bundy, Julio Teheran and Matt Andriese. Outside of 23-year-old righthander Griffin Canning, there’s not a pitcher in the organization who reasonably profiles as a playoff starter for most contenders—and even Canning finished his rookie season on the injured list with elbow inflammation. The Angels are paying their hitters $136 million and supporting that with a $27 million pitching staff.
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It could work. Andrew Heaney could, at 29, stay healthy for a full season for a second time and be a credible No. 3. Shohei Ohtani, who has 10 major league starts and a total of 77 innings in the last three years, could come back healthy and effective. Canning, Patrick Sandoval and Jose Suarez, who all debuted in 2019, have varying degrees of prospect pedigree and showed flashes in the majors last year. Realistically, though, this is a staff of back-end starters looking for a top two that simply doesn’t exist. That lack of starting pitching will almost surely eat the Angels’ season.
Aside from signing Rendon, the Angels’ splashiest offseason move installed a new man in the dugout. Moreno and general manager Billy Eppler moved quickly to sign Joe Maddon in October for three years and at least $12 million. Maddon began his life in baseball as an Angels minor leaguer and then manager before joining the big league coaching staff in 1994. He famously managed the Rays to the franchise’s first winning season and the AL pennant in 2008 and the 2016 Cubs to the franchise’s first World Series title in more than 100 years.
It’s been six years since Mike Trout got to play in a playoff game. Arte Moreno has made a big bet on Anthony Rendon as the man to change that. Unless Rendon can be an all-star hitter and provide 100 good innings, though, Trout will once again be free to watch his beloved Philadelphia Eagles in October.