- First baseman Chris Carter is unlikely to make the Angels, Maria Guardado of MLB.com writes. That’s not surprising, given that Carter’s a minor league signee who’s not on the Halos’ 40-man roster. Guardado notes that there’s no obvious path to playing time for Carter at first in Anaheim, which has Albert Pujols and Luis Valbuena. Plus, those two and Shohei Ohtani figure to be among their designated hitter options, taking away another potential route to the majors for Carter. The 31-year-old Carter will be able to refuse a minor league assignment if he doesn’t make the Halos, though he did spend a solid chunk of last season with the A’s Triple-A affiliate. That came just one year after the then-Brewer co-led the National League in home runs (41). Because of his dreadful 2017, which he began with the Yankees, Carter went unsigned until late February.
The Angels have acquired infielder Luis Rengifo from the Rays, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (via Twitter). He becomes the player named later in the deal that sent first baseman C.J. Cron to Tampa Bay about a month ago.
Rengifo, 21, joined the Mariners organization in 2014 as an international signee from Venezuela. He went to the Rays in a multi-player swap last August. Rengifo spent last year at the Class A level, where he posted a .250/.316/.397 batting line with a dozen home runs and 34 steals over 554 plate appearances.
This is the latest entry in MLBTR’s 2017-18 Offseason In Review series. Click here to read the other completed reviews from around the league.
Few teams generated more offseason headlines than the Angels, as the team reloaded in a major fashion for another run at playoff contention.
Major League Signings
- Zack Cozart, 3B/SS: Three years, $38MM
- Rene Rivera, C: One year, $2.8MM
- Chris Young, OF: One year, $2MM
- Total spend: $42.8MM
Trades And Claims
- Acquired 2B Ian Kinsler from the Tigers for minor league RHP Wilkel Hernandez and OF Troy Montgomery
- Acquired RP Jim Johnson and $1.21MM in international bonus pool money from the Braves for minor league RP Justin Kelly
- Acquired a player to be named later from the Rays for 1B C.J. Cron
- Acquired OF Jabari Blash from the Yankees for cash considerations or a player to be named later
- Acquired $1MM in international bonus pool money from the Twins for minor league OF Jacob Pearson
- Selected RP Luke Bard from the Twins in the Rule 5 Draft
Notable Minor League Signings
- Chris Carter, Eric Young, Ian Krol, Curt Casali, Emmanuel Burriss, Rymer Liriano, Colin Walsh, John Lamb, Jose Miguel Fernandez, Kevin Maitan, Livan Soto
- Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH: $2.315MM signing bonus (Angels paid $20MM posting fee to Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)
- Justin Upton, OF: One year, $17.5MM (total represents new money added via extension, as Upton signed a five-year deal that overwrote the four years remaining on his pre-existing contract. Upton had the option of opting out of his contract and becoming a free agent after the 2017 season.)
- Cron, Ricky Nolasco, Huston Street, Yunel Escobar, Brandon Phillips, Yusmeiro Petit, Bud Norris, Jesse Chavez, Ben Revere, Cliff Pennington, Andrew Bailey
One of Anaheim’s biggest moves was completed before the offseason even began, as Justin Upton agreed to forego opting out of his contract in exchange for a new five-year agreement. The newly-crafted deal essentially acted as a one-year extension that added $17.5MM in new money to the $88.5MM that Upton was already owed from 2018-21, guaranteeing him a total of $106MM over the five-year span.
Upton hit .273/.361/.540 with 35 homers over 635 PA last season, seemingly confirming that his slow start with the Tigers in 2016 was perhaps just an adjustment to the American League. A full season of Upton’s bat is a huge boost to an Angels lineup that (apart from Mike Trout) didn’t deliver much offense in 2017, and the combination of Upton, Trout, and Kole Calhoun is arguably baseball’s best outfield. Both Upton’s enjoyment of his time in L.A. and his misgivings about the free agent market factored into his decision to stay, and he surely he must feel even better about his choice after watching his team thoroughly bolster its roster.
The most-discussed addition, of course, was Shohei Ohtani. The 23-year-old Japanese star’s plans to jump to Major League Baseball led to months of speculation, particularly since Ohtani and his camp gave little hint about what he was particularly looking for in a North American club. (Money wasn’t a prime factor, as Ohtani’s age made him subject to international signing bonus rules, and thus he could only receive a signing bonus for whatever his new team had available in its remaining bonus pool.) After virtually every MLB team submitted a detailed explanation of their plans for deploying Ohtani’s unique two-way skillset, the field was then narrowed to seven teams, five of which were on the West Coast. While geography certainly seemed give the Angels an initial boost, their in-person meeting seemed to clinch matters, as Ohtani said he “just felt something click” when after talking with team officials.
For just a $2.315MM signing bonus, the Angels now have at least six years of control over a talent who has intrigued scouts and executives like almost no other international prospect in recent memory. Not only will Ohtani step into the Angels’ DH mix (after hitting .286/.358/.500 over 1170 career plate appearances in Japan), he’ll also become the team’s projected number two starter, after Garrett Richards. Of course, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the phenom this spring, as discussed further below.
While it remains to be seen what Ohtani can contribute against MLB pitching, the Halos also augmented their lineup with a pair of proven veterans. Second and third base were both areas of need with Yunel Escobar and Brandon Phillips headed for free agency, and after looking around at various trade and free agent options at both positions, Los Angeles used both avenues to create what could be the game’s best defensive infield.
Only 16 players in baseball surpassed Zack Cozart’s 5.0 fWAR in 2017, as the veteran Reds shortstop augmented his always-impressive defense with a breakout year at the plate, hitting .297/.385/.548 with 24 homers over 507 PA. That performed earned him a three-year, $38MM deal from the Angels, though with a lack of teams in the market for shortstop help, Cozart had to agree to switch over to third base for the third time in his professional career. It’s hard to imagine much, if any, of a fielding dropoff for Cozart at his new position given his prowess at shortstop, and if his hitting come anywhere close to last year’s numbers, the Halos will have landed a star at a near-bargain price.
Several teams tried to benefit from the Tigers’ ongoing fire sale by making offers for Ian Kinsler, though it was the Angels who finally landed the veteran second baseman for the moderate price of two decently-regarded prospects. Moreso than the prospect return, the Halos’ willingness to absorb the $11MM owed to Kinsler in 2018 and Kinsler’s own interest in coming to Anaheim (he waived his partial no-trade clause to approve the deal to the Angels, who had been on his 10-team no-trade list for tax reasons) made the deal happen.
The 36-year-old isn’t a long-term answer to Anaheim’s longstanding second base hole, and Kinsler is coming off the worst offensive season (91 wRC+, .236/.313/.412 over 613 PA) of his 12 years in the big leagues. Still, even if Kinsler duplicates that slash line, he’d still represent a marked upgrade over what the Angels got from their second basemen in 2017. Kinsler’s glovework was still as good as ever last season, and between Kinsler, Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, and Cozart at third, opposing batters will have a hard time sneaking grounders through the Halos’ infield.
Beyond the big-ticket additions, L.A. also added quite a bit of veteran depth at the Major and minor league levels. Chris Young and Rene Rivera will respectively handle the backup outfielder and catching duties, while such notable figures as 2016 NL home run leader Chris Carter are in camp as non-roster invitees.
As well as the experienced names, the Angels also obtained some much-needed young talent for their thin farm system as a result of the Braves’ loss of 12 international prospects due to signing violations. With Ohtani’s bonus accounting for their remaining 2017-18 international pool funds, Anaheim dipped into its 2018-19 pool, which was allowed via MLB’s rules for how teams could pay for this sudden influx of international talent on the market. Shortstop Livan Soto was inked for an $850K deal, but the bigger prize was 18-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan. At the cost of a $2.2MM bonus, the Angels added a player who was the most highly-touted name from the 2016-17 int’l class, even if Maitan’s stock has dipped after a disappointing 2017 season.
For all of the hype and promise surrounding Ohtani, there’s also an equal amount of doubt as to whether he’ll be able to legitimately perform as a two-way player in the big leagues, simply because such a feat hasn’t really been accomplished since the days of Babe Ruth. It may be years before we can fully weigh in on Ohtani’s two-way potential, though his Spring Training struggles both on the mound and at the plate have led to some speculation about whether he’ll be able to provide immediate help to the Angels in 2018. Spring numbers for any player, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt, though the controversy that Ohtani’s slow start has already generated is an early sign of the unique scrutiny he’ll face in his MLB rookie season.
Ohtani’s presence has led to a ripple effect on the Angels’ roster. Since he is slated to receive at least a couple of DH days per week, Albert Pujols will now be getting more time at first base, a position the future Hall-of-Famer has been increasingly unable to play over the last two seasons due to foot injuries. Pujols is hopeful that his injury-free offseason will help him handle more time in the field and help him rebound from a mediocre year at the plate, and it’s worth noting that Pujols was still posting above-average run-creation numbers (as per wRC+) in every season prior to 2017. The Angels would happily take Pujols returning to even his modest 2016 stats, though at age 38, it’s also possible that the slugger may have declined for good.
Luis Valbuena also suffered through a tough 2017 season, leaving the Angels with a pretty shaky pair of first base options for the coming season. Due to the first base/DH roster crunch, C.J. Cron was dealt to the Rays, leaving L.A. with even less depth at first. The Angels will be lacking at two key spots in the lineup should Pujols and Valbuena continue to struggle and if Ohtani needs time to adjust to Major League pitching. Carter can’t be seen as anything more than a wild card given his own disastrous 2017.
The Angels will be deploying a six-man rotation, in a nod to both Ohtani (given his part-time hitting status and to somewhat emulate his longer rest periods between starts in Japan) and to the other five projected starters, all of whom have been plagued by injuries in recent years. Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, and J.C. Ramirez combined for just 359 1/3 innings last season, and Parker Bridwell and Nick Tropeano are also on hand as less-than-reliable minor league depth options. Ricky Nolasco wasn’t re-signed, leaving the Angels without a reliable innings-eater to help anchor a rotation with a lot of uncertainty.
Speaking of eating innings, the Angels lost a pair of bullpen workhorses when Yusmeiro Petit and Bud Norris left in free agency to respectively sign with the A’s and Cardinals. The club is hopeful that Cam Bedrosian, Blake Parker, and Keynan Middleton can all continue to build on their impressive performances last year, and some veteran help was added in the form of Jim Johnson. That trade with the Braves was more about acquiring international bonus money for the Ohtani chase than it was specifically about adding Johnson given his rough 2017 season, though his advanced metrics indicate that his 5.56 ERA last year could’ve been due to some bad luck. The pen is also short on left-handers, as Jose Alvarez is the only southpaw reliever on Anaheim’s 40-man roster.
With potential needs in both the rotation and bullpen, it strikes me that the Angels could be one of the better fits for Alex Cobb or Greg Holland, who are both still available in free agency. Signing either qualifying offer-rejecting player would cost the Angels $500K in international pool money and their second-round draft pick (57th overall), but it could be a price the club is eventually willing to pay if Cobb or Holland were willing to accept a bargain-rate one-year contract. The rotation seems like more of a need than the bullpen given the lack of room for error with a six-man rotation, though L.A. didn’t dabble much in the free agent pitching market (aside from Ohtani’s singular situation) and is seemingly content to see what it has as the in-house arms get healthy. If not Cobb or more of a pure innings-eater, the Angels could look to add starting pitching if they’re in contention and have a need at the trade deadline.
With more losing seasons (three) than playoff appearances (one) in the Trout era, the Angels are undoubtedly eager to strike while the superstar center fielder is still in his prime. 2018 isn’t a must-win year since Trout and most of the other key pieces are locked up beyond the season, though Richards and Kinsler are both free agents next winter and longtime manager Mike Scioscia is also entering his final year under contract. There hasn’t been much talk about a Scioscia extension, and while it wouldn’t be surprising to see a new deal worked out for the game’s longest-tenured manager, it does create the possibility that the organization could embark in a fresh direction in 2019. In an era when the Red Sox, Nationals, and Yankees all parted ways with veteran managers despite making the playoffs, it seems like Scioscia may require a significant on-field improvement if he wants to keep his job.
Fortunately for Scioscia, he’ll have more to work with this season. Despite all the injuries and the below-average offense, the Halos flirted with wild card contention for a good chunk of 2017, and could potentially make a much stronger run at the postseason this year with Cozart and Kinsler in the fold, plus a full season of Upton. Anaheim has been hurt in the past when acquiring veterans just before they start to decline, though the Ohtani signing represents a much-needed influx of young star talent into the roster, given the farm system’s lack of prospect depth in recent years. Avoiding the injury bug remains a major concern, but the Angels made some bold moves to correct the flaws in last year’s roster.
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Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images
While there have been questions over whether the Angels will demote Shohei Ohtani to the minors to begin the season, it seems they do plan to have him open 2018 in the majors, Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register reports. In terms of results, it hasn’t been a good spring for the 23-year-old Japanese phenom, who has yielded 15 earned runs against 25 outs as a pitcher and collected just two hits in 20 at-bats as a hitter. However, on the pitching side, Ohtani has struck out 19 batters and issued only three walks, which has encouraged the Angels, according to Fletcher. They’re also confident he’ll turn it around at the plate. “The track record gives us the confidence to move forward with him as a two-way player,” general manager Billy Eppler said.
The struggles of Shohei Ohtani this spring have been well-documented already, and while he’s ranked as one of the top prospects in baseball in most publications, scouts have been vocal about some weaknesses in his game. Ohtani would seem to be a significant part of the Angels’ plans for 2018, but GM Billy Eppler recently said that the club has made no assurances to Ohtani that he’ll be on the opening day roster (report: Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times). “In our universe, we are evaluating this in a vacuum,” said Eppler. “Is this 23-year-old prospect ready to make an impact on both sides of the ball?” The decision to start Ohtani in the minors (if a serious consideration) would certainly make sense from a development perspective, and would come with the enormous benefit of giving the Angels an extra year of control over the two-way Japanese phenom, if he were to spend at least 15 days at Triple-A. Of course, such a decision would surely come with a storm of controversy as well.
Elsewhere in the AL West…
- Greg Johns of MLB.com writes that the injury to Ryon Healy might have presented an opportunity for Mariners first baseman Dan Vogelbach, who’s opened some eyes this spring by hitting .405 with nine extra-base hits and nine walks in 37 at-bats during Cactus League play. “Vogey deserves to be on this club,” said GM Jerry DiPoto. “He has raked from day one. He has controlled the strike zone really better than anybody in the Cactus League. What he’s doing with the bat is reminiscent of what he’s kind of always done in the Minor Leagues, but we’ve never had the opportunity to see in the big leagues.” He also offered high praise for right-hander Rob Whalen, who was acquired from the Braves a year ago and has proved dominant this spring after coming into camp 25 pounds lighter.
- Athletics right-hander Jharel Cotton will officially undergo Tommy John surgery according to a report earlier today. “I’m trying to take it as best I can, and just get ready for the long process, the long road ahead,” Cotton said in a video tweeted by Jane Lee of MLB.com. “I just gotta work hard with the rehab and come back stronger, so that’s what I’m gonna do.” Cotton’s absence in the rotation will leave the A’s a bit thin on starters, which the club has reportedly acknowledged; manager Bob Melvin has suggested that they might look at free agent pitching options, if prices have come down (h/t Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle). One way they don’t plan on filling the rotation void is with top prospect A.J. Puk, according to club president Billy Beane. Via another tweet from Lee, Beane had the following comments when asked if Puk was a legitimate option for the opening day rotation: “If he is, it’s only because we don’t have a lot of options. Do I think it’s ideal to call upon a kid who has half a year at Double-A? No. That would not be the preferred route.”
- Right-hander Luke Bard is turning some heads in Angels camp as he vies for a spot in the big league bullpen, writes Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times. The younger brother of former Red Sox setup man Daniel Bard, Luke was selected by the Angels out of the Twins organization in the Rule 5 Draft back in December. The 27-year-old was a supplemental first-rounder back in 2012 but has had his development slowed by shoulder and hip surgeries. Finally healthy in 2017, Bard turned in a 2.76 ERA with 13.6 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and a 32 percent ground-ball rate in 65 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Bard’s spring ERA is skewed by one outing where he was rocked for five runs in just a third of an inning, but he’s impressed manager Mike Scioscia in the remainder of his outings and expressed a willingness to work multi-inning stints out of the ’pen. “His stuff is good, he spins the ball well, and hopefully he’s going to be a multi-inning guy,” Scioscia tells DiGiovanna. “With the makeup of our club, multi-inning [relievers] are really important.”
- It’s always worth remembering that free agency is a game that features plenty of variability and would never (theoretically) be played the same way twice. Buster Olney of ESPN.com reports on what might have been for some players. Logan Morrison and Greg Holland both asked for more than was being offered and ended up being bypassed when teams checked down to other targets. The Mariners, says Olney, dangled three years to veteran outfielder Jon Jay before they struck a trade for Dee Gordon. (That rather surprising offer could have had quite a domino effect on the outfield and second base markets had it been accepted.) On the other hand, Olney cites Angels sources that reject the notion the club offered Mike Moustakas a $45MM contract, as had been reported. Of course, had any of those situations developed differently, it’s possible we’d just be talking about different players whose markets collapsed.
Before he re-signed with the Royals on Thursday, third baseman Mike Moustakas did not receive any other offers during his lengthy stay on the free agent market, Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweets. The Angels reportedly offered Moustakas a three-year, $45MM contract, but that’s not the case, according to Buster Olney of ESPN (Twitter link). It was an especially difficult trip to free agency for the 29-year-old Moustakas, who will make $5.5MM – $3.2MM less than last season – despite enjoying one of his best campaigns in 2017. Moustakas discussed his time on the market Saturday, telling Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com and other reporters that it was “frustrating.” Nevertheless, “it feels great” to be back with the Royals, he said.
The Rangers don’t appear to have anyone firmly in place as the their closer, though the recently-signed Tim Lincecum is one candidate to win the job. There’s at least a possibility that they could fill the position externally, as Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports in his latest “Inside Baseball” column that the team has considered bringing Greg Holland into the fold. We haven’t heard much other chatter about interest in Holland recently. The outgoing Rockies closer is MLBTR’s third-best free agent remaining, and the odds of him surpassing the offer he reportedly received from the Rockies earlier this winter (something in the three-year, $51MM range) aren’t good. This is particularly true considering the fate of the two Scott Boras clients to sign contracts most recently; Mike Moustakas recently received just a one-year deal at a $6.5MM guarantee from the Royals, while Carlos Gonzalez is said to be finalizing a one-year, $8MM contract with the Rockies.
Other recent items out of the AL West…
- Speaking of the Rangers’ bullpen, the team hasn’t yet decided whether to utilize former closer Matt Bush as a starter or reliever this season, according to Evan Grant of SportsDay. By his own admission, Bush had trouble finding consistency in his most recent spring training outing, walking two and allowing a homer on 43 pitches. In 52 1/3 innings with the Rangers last season, Bush pitched to a 3.78 ERA and a 4.57 xFIP. He saved ten games during his brief stint as the club’s closer, but he blew another five save opportunities that came his way.
- Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports provides feedback from some scouts on the bat of Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ most high-profile offseason acquisition. These eight MLB scouts (seven of whom have seen Ohtani this spring) aren’t high on the Japanese phenom’s chances to produce offensively at the major league level. According to Passan, these scouts believe that “[p]itchers are going to punish him with inside fastballs, his swing contains flaws in balance and mechanics, and he needs at least 500 plate appearances of seasoning in the minor leagues to give him a chance at becoming a productive major league hitter.” One in particular noted that Ohtani did not hit from a balanced base, adding that he needed to “cheat” on inside fastballs, which would theoretically leave him susceptible to other pitches. Of course, it should be noted that Ohtani’s never attempted to hit major league pitching before this spring; one would think he deserves a reasonable adjustment period before jumping to any conclusions about his hitting ability.
- On the flip side of the coin, Joel Sherman of the New York Post details some concerns about Ohtani’s pitching. Sherman notes that he lacked high-end velocity in his most recent spring training start, mostly throwing between 91-94 MPH with some command issues. Though he generated 17 swings and misses (an extremely impressive number in just a few innings), he also uncorked a triad of wild pitches. Sherman wonders whether this can simply be chalked up to growing pains, or if it’s part of a more serious issue. The obvious caveat to this is that minute spring training sample sizes aren’t entirely indicative of cause for panic.
- Mariners reliever Tony Zych is undergoing medical tests for what’s being described as shoulder discomfort, according to Greg Johns of MLB.com. Though Seattle’s setup man improved his ERA to an impressive 2.66 in 40 2/3 innings last season, he experienced a steep dropoff in his strikeout rate, down to 7.75 batters per nine innings from a 12.66 career mark prior to 2017. He didn’t make any appearances past August 19th due to arm issues.
- Three prominent players have reportedly agreed to terms in recent days, all settling for much less in dollars and years than had been expected. Reports also suggest that those players could have had greater earnings had they taken offers available previously. Though agent Scott Boras says Mike Moustakas never received a multi-year contract offer before returning to the Royals, two sources tell Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star that the Angels dangled a three-year pact in the range of $45MM. Meanwhile, the Rockies are said to have offered slugger Carlos Gonzalez an extension in the realm of three years and $45MM this time last year, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports on Twitter. And the Rox also were willing to go to three years, at a $21MM guarantee, to catcher Jonathan Lucroy earlier this winter, Nightengale adds on Twitter. (Lucroy is reportedly in agreement on a one-year deal with the Athletics, though terms are not yet known and the deal is not finalized.) Of course, in each case it’s easy to understand why the player in question might have elected against jumping at the reported opportunity at the point at which it was presented.