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The AL Rest, Part 2: How Do the 2019 Angels Compare to the Astros?

Previewing another team that will be trying to dethrone the Astros as AL West champions

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, I reviewed one of the Astros’ biggest hurdles to repeating as AL West champs, the Oakland A’s. Today, we’ll be covering what most projection systems see as the other significant bump in the road to a repeat, the Los Angeles Angels. Despite their worse record in 2018, a lot of sites’ projections (including Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs) are predicting the Angels to finish ahead of the A’s this year in the three-A cluster at the top of the division. But just how likely are they to leapfrog last year’s second AL Wild Card team? And can they challenge the Astros for the AL West crown?

The Los Angeles Angels

2018 in review

The Angels entered 2018 with reasonably high expectations. Most people thought they would finish second behind the Astros, but there were still a good number of people picking them to make the playoffs through the Wild Card. It’s not hard to see why, either; following an 80-82 year, they would be adding Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart, a full season of Justin Upton, and more to a roster that already featured the best player in baseball in Mike Trout.

Things did not work out that way. Despite all of those additions and the seventh-highest payroll in the sport, the Angels again went 80-82 and finished in fourth place. It marked the third straight losing season for the team, and the fourth straight year missing out on the postseason.

What’s New in 2019?

This winter was much quieter than last year’s for Los Angeles, featuring a lot more players with major question marks. The two biggest ones are probably signing Jonathan Lucroy and Trevor Cahill. Cahill was a surprisingly strong starter last year in just over 100 innings, which would be a big addition in a rotation that was hit by injuries (including Tommy John surgery for Ohtani that will keep him from pitching this year) and saw a large quantity of innings going to mediocre back-end starters. If Lucroy bounces back, he could also provide a major improvement at a position that was similarly mediocre after they traded away Martin Maldonado. The bigger thing about the Lucroy and Cahill signings is that both are coming over from the Athletics, which could give these small moves extra impact on the divisional race.

In addition to Cahill, Matt Harvey will be coming in to replace Garrett Richards in the rotation. After going to Cincinnati last May, Harvey didn’t quite reach his 2012 to 2015 peak, but he was serviceable, which constituted a massive improvement over 2016 until that point. Again, the Angels will take serviceable over some of the players they started last year, but they would certainly enjoy a return to his earlier days if he still has it in him.

Like Lucroy and Harvey, Cody Allen was also signed in the hopes that he could recapture some of his former glory and bolster the back end of the bullpen. If all of these flyers work out, there’s a lot of good here. It just doesn’t seem very likely that all of them return to their peak.

In the infield, David Fletcher will be taking over second base full-time from the start, following his ascension after Ian Kinsler was traded to Boston. Tommy La Stella and Justin Bour were also brought in to serve as depth, and may see a lot of playing time depending on injuries (Bour especially, given that we don’t know if Ohtani’s recovery will affect his playing time at designated hitter). And lastly, although he didn’t have a large impact on their 2018 season, I would be remiss to not note the tragic passing of former Astro Luis Valbuena this past December. He will be missed.

Key Players in 2019

It’s hard to overstate just how much the Angels are the depending on Mike Trout (and, to a lesser extent, Andrelton Simmons). Fangraphs has Trout projected for 9.3 WAR in 2019, which is both incredible, and still a half-win drop from what he managed last year. That’s nearly a third of the team’s projected position player Wins and nearly a quarter of the entire roster’s.

I don’t think that there’s any reason to expect Trout to drop-off in performance, but it does underscore how lackluster his supporting cast is. If he were to slip up and “only” have an All-Star-caliber, 5-Win season, the Angels would be losing 10% of their projected value and slide from tenth in the league in WAR (and the fringes of playoff contention) to a decidedly mediocre three-way tie for fifteenth.

Andrelton Simmons has established himself as Trout’s right-hand Angel. Adding an above-average bat to his world-class glove at shortstop is a big deal, as it turns out. Justin Upton seems to fluctuate between “pretty good” and “All-Star”; if he reaches the latter, it would be a huge boon for an inconsistent roster.

And if Ohtani can keep up hitting at DH on top of that, it could make for a strong enough lineup to paper over a starting rotation that desperately needs one of Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, or Matt Harvey to step up otherwise. They’re in a pretty similar place to the A’s in that regard, despite the fact that their lineup is a lot more top-heavy.

How do they measure up to the Astros?

Really, this feels a lot like the comparison to the A’s. I think there’s a chance the starting lineup of the Angels’ roster is evenly matched with the Astros. Going over a position-by-position, head-to-head comparison, I think the Astros are better at more positions (I’d say one outfield spot and the entire infield, although shortstop and catcher are very close), but Trout is so good that he makes up for a lot of the difference.

But the pitching situation is just not good. The rotation seems a little more settled than the A’s; I said of the A’s that none of their Opening Day starters would make the Astros’ rotation, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true for Los Angeles. But at the same time, the only way a rotation headed by Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney matches one lead by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole is if a lot goes wrong on the latter. Of course, even then, Cole and Verlander have longer track records and the Astros’ prospect situation is a lot better than the Angels’, so Houston has more insurance than they do against things going wrong in the first place.

Beyond the starting lineups, the Angels threw away a lot more playing time on below-replacement-level players last year, which indicates either relatively lacking player evaluation, nonexistent depth, or some combination of the two. And this isn’t even getting into bullpens, which were similar; Oakland and Houston both had really good end-game situations last year, among MLB’s best. The Angels, meanwhile, were in the bottom third (with a lot of innings going to below-replacement players), and don’t seem like they’ve done very much to change that.

Really, that’s kind of the problem with the team as a whole: they haven’t done enough to overcome the large gap between the two teams’ talent level. Even before considering that the Astros finished well below their Pythagorean record and played through a lot of injuries in 2018, they still finished 23 games ahead of the Angels. The Angels themselves were only 22 games ahead of the Royals, who will be picking second in the draft this June. The top of their roster can definitely go toe-to-toe with the best of the Astros, but there’s just too rapid of a drop-off after that.

I think you could make the argument that Los Angeles will finish ahead of Oakland in 2019. Despite the 17 games between them, their run differentials were a little closer, and the A’s had a lot go right last year. Regression to the mean will probably help the Angels and hurt Oakland. I think I still like the A’s more overall for a variety of reasons, but I could at least see the reasoning in swapping how they finish. But barring having a second Mike Trout hidden up their metaphorical sleeve, they’re just too far behind the Astros in talent right now.