While the national baseball media remains fixated on how the Angels will integrate Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani into both the starting rotation and line-up, the more fascinating storyline might be the butterfly effect it has on the rest of the roster. His presence - combined with that of Albert Pujols and Luis Valbuena - means the Angels have three players sharing time between first base and DH, an unusual predicament for a team committed to running a short bench to accommodate Ohtani’s need for a six-man rotation.
Versatility from both the bench and starting nine will be a must to make this work. The signing of Zack Cozart represented the first domino in Billy Eppler’s master plan. The Gold Glove-winning shortstop has never appeared at any other position in his career but agreed to start at third base in deference to all-world shortstop Andrelton Simmons. When needed, he will seamlessly slide over to his old position at short and has recently taken some reps at second base, allowing the team to consider more dynamic options when filling out the bench.
Luis Valbuena will form an imperfect platoon with Ohtani, covering first base while Pujols takes his customary DH spot. He will also see some time at third base on the days Cozart or Simmons need a breather.
I say imperfect, as either Valbuena or Ohtani will be forced to face a tough lefty on any given day. In his career, Valbuena “hits” lefties at a .212/.302/.345 clip. Last season saw him struggle even more against southpaws, dropping an unsightly .105/.213/.211 line over just 47 plate appearances. Ohtani, meanwhile, has looked especially helpless against lefties this spring and could see his overall role as a hitter diminished if adjusting to major league pitchers proves to be too much in his first season.
Those platoon issues likely explain why Jefry Marte will surprisingly make the opening day roster. Not thought of as a great defender, Marte has actually posted a positive UZR in each of his last two seasons at third base, while holding his own in limited action at first base. To his credit, he has taken full advantage of his opportunity this spring, batting .344/.425/.531. He gives Mike Scioscia a viable alternative to Valbuena when a tough lefty is on the mound and also represents a pinch-hitting option that they would not have had if they had chosen a more traditional utility player, such as Kaleb Cowart or Nolan Fontana.
Another decent option to gain the platoon advantage with a lefty on the mound could be outfielder Chris Young. Signed to a one-year, $2 million contract, Young has been useful but underwhelming in his career, settling in as a fourth outfielder. He has displayed a knack for hitting lefties, however, to the tune of .262/.361/.466 across eleven seasons.
Young has the unusual distinction of being a fourth outfielder who is an inferior defender to this three starting counterparts, making his ability to balance the line-up his only redeeming quality. His spring has not gone as planned, as he strained his right calf before any games began. He healed in time to hold off fan favorite Eric Young, Jr., who is in camp on a minor league deal and will start the year in AAA.
The one player who was virtually guaranteed a spot on the bench before camp began is newcomer Rene Rivera, the veteran catcher signed to a one-year, $2.8 million deal. The 34 year-old has been productive this spring, batting .324/.343/.676 over 35 PA as of this writing. He will provide a clear upgrade over last season’s back-ups Juan Graterol and Carlos Perez, allowing starter Martin Maldonado regular rest after leading all of baseball with 1146.1 innings caught last season.
While his hot start with the bat this spring has been welcome, it is Rivera’s work behind the dish that earned him that nice contract. Besides throwing out an excellent 36% of would-be base stealers, he also does well among pitch-framing metrics, consistently earning his pitchers extra strikes while behind the plate. He is a virtual equal to Maldonado in all facets of the game, giving Mike Scioscia two quality options to handle his pitching staff on any given day.
Kaleb Cowart has seemingly been around forever but is still only 25 years old. The former top prospect is the most athletic of the players battling for a role and has the most exposure to the majors. It was his lack of hitting that once again cost him a spot on the roster, posting an abysmal .535 OPS this spring. A .197 hitter in his career, he has never come close to the promise he showed early on as a prospect. He has hit .301/.368/.472 over three seasons in the hitter-friendly PCL, while also striking out 21% of the time. He is doomed to life as a replacement-level player, but can capably cover every spot on the infield and could have some value as a pinch-runner, should the need arise.
Nolan Fontana is cast of a similar mold, capable of covering most of the infield spots but not providing much help with the bat. The 27 year-old got his first cup of coffee last season, collecting one hit - a home run - in 23 plate appearances. He has not done much to distinguish himself this spring, collecting one hit in six games played. He is destined to find himself back on AAA busses this year unless an injury necessitates a recall to the majors.
One non-roster player still in camp is second base prospect David Fletcher. He has earned an extended look this spring, appearing in 21 games and batting .333/.388/.444. Besides impressing with the bat, he has shown solid range at second and good instincts on the bases. He has been on the Halos Heaven watch list for quite some time, pegged early on as a polished college product who could play his way into a utility role sooner than later.
While the idea of Fletcher making the team was an intriguing one, the Angels are wisely taking the longview with him, allowing him to further develop at AAA while managing his service time. Should he continue to progress with the Bees, he could see earn his first call-up this year in the event of an injury. He is a player worth keeping tabs on this year, as a big season could see him elevate his status from potential utility guy to viable starter in 2019.