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2018 Angels Preview: The Lineup

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Mike Trout has some friends this year!

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Chicago White Sox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

When Mike Trout tore the UCL in his left thumb during a slide at second base last May, he was inexplicably off to the best start of his inexplicable career, batting .337 with 16 home runs and 10 stolen bases through 47 games. While his teammates picked him up and kept the Angels afloat in his absence, it really brought into focus just how shallow the line-up around Mike had been.

The surprising acquisition of Justin Upton later in the season was a major step in correcting those shortcomings. Finally, there was a hitter Mike Scioscia felt worthy of hitting behind Trout, pushing the shell that was once Albert Pujols another peg down the line-up. A couple more additions this offseason give the Angels a complete overhaul to their starting nine, arguably the strongest collection of hitting talent we have seen in Anaheim since 2009.

Leading off...

After weeks of speculation and deliberation, the Angels traded for second baseman Ian Kinsler to fill the hole both at second base and at the top of the lineup. The 35 year-old had the worst season of his career in 2017, representing a nice buy-low opportunity. That he had a no-trade clause that he would only agree to waive to join the Angels helped.

The case can be made that Kinsler’s batted ball data and pitch recognition were as strong as ever, pointing towards simple bad luck as the reason for his struggles. The hope is he ascends to the mean and posts numbers more in line with his career .273/.342/.447. He is also entering his late-30’s, a time when most second basemen are sent off to pasture. The end result will likely be something in-between.

The good news is Angels’ second basemen have been so bad the last three seasons that even a simple repeat of Kinsler’s down season with the Tigers will still be a huge upgrade, especially with this defense remaining strong.

The Heart

What more is there to say about Mike Trout? All one has to do is look at his ZIPS projections, which tend to be the most conservative in the industry: .290/.421/.590 with a 7.8 WAR. For reference, last year’s MVP Jose Altuve posted a 7.5 WAR season. Mike Trout could have a down season and still out-produce anyone else’s MVP season.

Since we never tire of Trout porn, indulge me for a moment: despite missing 48 games last season, Trout still hit 33 HR, the third highest total of his career; swiped 22 bags, the fourth time he has exceed 20 SB; struck out 17.8% of the time, which was not only the lowest rate of his career, but also well-below the league average and the third straight season he has lowered his strikeouts since a career-high 26.1% in 2014; walked 18.5%, just behind Joey Votto and Aaron judge for the MLB lead, while finishing second in all of baseball with a .629 SLG, just two points behind Giancarlo Stanton and his 59 HR. And he won’t even be turning 27 - the age typically associated with a player’s prime - until August.

And for the first time since moving out of the lead-off spot, Trout has a legitimate threat batting behind him, all but assuring he blows past 100 runs for the sixth time in seven seasons. Justin Upton was a nice surprise to help with the stretch run last season and a boon once he agreed to waive his opt-out clause and renegotiate a new contract to stay with the Angels. He will plug the eternal hole in left field and provide star level production with the bat.

Even if he regresses from a career-year in 2017, Upton has established a star-quality baseline. He has remained healthy throughout his career, playing in at least 150 games each of the last four seasons. Pencil him in for another 30 HR and an above-average OBP. He also stole 14 bases last year and had 19 SB just two years ago. Expect that number to grow playing with the more aggressive Angels.

Clean-up?

Sticking out like a festering sore thumb, Albert Pujols will bat in the second-most important position of the lineup despite being (potentially) the worst hitter on the club. There is no sugarcoating it, Pujols has looked worse with each passing season with the Angels. Last season reached new depths as he hit .241/.286/.386, all career lows. That he produced those numbers as a DH only exasperated the problem. He was objectively the single worst everyday player in the majors.

Much has been made of Pujols having a surgery-free offseason for the first time in years. Reports had him looking as good as has in years during camp. Unfortunately, his at-bats this spring have not inspired much confidence, as he has still looked like the broken-down slugger that cannot keep up with quality stuff, flailing at pitches he would spit on in his younger days. In 50 spring at-bats, he hit .280/.302/.400 with one mammoth home run that the crew at Fox Sports West will surely shove down our throats through the season’s first week as proof that the old Albert is back. Still, that line would be disappointing coming from a rookie shortstop, let alone your seasoned slugger whose only job is to hit.

Still, expect Pujols to be penciled in at that all-important clean-up spot on a daily basis. He now fancies himself a run producer, so expect him to lead the league in sacrifice flies and RBI singles with Trout in scoring position half the times Pujols is at the dish.

The Depth

Kole Calhoun is poised for a bounce-back after a disappointing 2017. As the team’s best (and one of the few) left-handed bats, his spot in the five-hole will be essential to balancing the line-up. He was blistering hot all spring, batting .353/.364/.510 in 51 AB. Spring stats do not mean a whole lot, with the exception being at the extremes. While his slugging does not reach the heights of a +.200 increase over his career mark that could be a sign of a breakout, it does at least inspire confidence that he can return to his career norms this season.

Zack Cozart represents one of the best signings in baseball this offseason, both from a player and club perspective. We will set aside the amazing glove work, which is expected to make up a great deal of the value he will provide. This guy has turned himself into a hitter. Last season’s 141 wRC+ (41% better than the league-average hitter) will not likely be replicated, but the trend line in his numbers is promising: four straight seasons of increasing his plate discipline and power, while maintaining his already-good contact skills.

Last season was the breakout, as a mechanical change in his swing led to 24 home runs in just 122 games played. Angels Stadium is not as friendly to right-handed hitters, so he may not quite reach that level again, even if he stays healthy. The more important number is the 12.2% walk rate he established last season. That doesn’t happen by accident, so expect him to maintain that excellent plate discipline. He has seen some time at lead-off this spring, so he is not only a candidate to bounce around the infield, but also bat up-and-down the lineup.

Speaking of breakouts, Andrelton Simmons was already an established superstar despite hitting near replacement-level for most of his career. His first season with the Angels showed some steady improvement with the bat, while last season established a new baseline as he enters his prime. .278/.331/.421 with 14 home runs is fine for any shortstop. It is excellent for inarguably the best defensive shortstop of not only his generation, but possibly ever. Maintaining his league-average production near the bottom of the order will go a long ways towards turning their lineup over to the stars more often.

The Platoons

Shohei Ohtani’s struggles this spring was been well chronicled by now. His hitting clearly needs some work, as at times he has looked overmatched facing major league breaking pitches. Observationally, his swing is long and his feet move too much.

Anecdotally, there were some signs that he may not be a total lost cause with the bat. He has the eye of a major league hitter, rarely chasing pitches out of the zone. He also had a couple of hard hit balls that did not fall for hits, including a fantastic play by Reds’ outfielder Billy Hamilton that robbed him of extra bases.

The Angels will continue to give Ohtani opportunities to adjust to major league pitching, but they are not bound to starting him regularly if he continues to struggle. Holdover Luis Valbuena represents another left-handed power bat Scioscia can plug in to help balance the lineup. Valbuena disappointed last season after starting the year on the disabled list. He did salvage his season some, batting .213/.320/.546 with 16 home runs in the season’s second half. His ability to play both infield corners while taking some shots at the newly-lowered right field fence in Angels Stadium will give him a valuable role on the team, despite underwhelming results.

Jefry Marte was the last player added to the 25 man roster. Marte, a sort of right-handed Valbuena, had a productive rookie campaign in 2016 but struggled in limited action last season. A good spring earned him a spot on the roster and he will likely see action with a lefty on the mound.

Bringing up the rear

The designated catcher spot, expect Martin Maldonado and his new receiving pal Rene Rivera to get the majority of their plate appearances in the ninth spot. In his first year as a starter, Maldonado had a surprisingly good first half of the season, hitting .251/.313/.412. Leading all catchers in innings caught, he tired in the season’s second half and finished the year with numbers more in line with his career norms. He still smacked 14 home runs and overall exceeded expectations with the bat while winning his first career Gold Glove.

Rene Rivera, himself a defensive stalwart, was brought on board as a free agent to take some of that pressure off Maldonado. Once a starter with the Padres and Rays, he was reasonably productive in a back-up role with the Mets and Cubs last season, with a 91 wRC+ in 74 games. That trend continued this spring as he slugged .622, including three home runs.

While the lineup is not without it’s question marks, the core talent should be enough to see the Angels easily exceed the 710 runs they scored last season, especially with full years out of Trout and Upton. If Pujols manages to pull out something even resembling a league-average season, while Kinsler and Calhoun bounce back from their down seasons, the offense could actually be a strength and help carry this team into postseason contention.