Winner wonderland: Halos shop way to top?

Ohtani could be X-factor that helps Angels meet expectations

December 18th, 2017

Every year, it seems, a team will do what the Angels are doing now. That is to say, every year a team that is coming off an OK but wanting season will go a bit crazy in the offseason -- think last year's Mariners team or the D-backs of 2016, but there are dozens of examples -- making deals and free-agent signings, reimagining themselves as a whole new kind of team.

Teams have been doing this for a long time. I remember in 1977 -- 40 years ago -- when my childhood Cleveland team did it. The 1976 Tribe was 81-78; not bad, they had some young talent, they finished fourth in the American League East, there was a sense that this was a team on the rise. That offseason, they signed 20-game winner Wayne Garland to what was, at the time, a monster contract. They made several big trades, dealing away their best power hitter, George Hendrick, for three players, dealing their No. 3 starter for promising young slugger Andre Thornton and so on. It was a mad rush to put Cleveland baseball back on the map.

The Tribe promptly lost 90 games as more or less everything backfired.

This is often how such quixotic efforts to "take the next step" go. But there seems something particularly interesting about this Angels effort. Last season's Angels finished 80-82 and were sort-of, kind-of in the Wild Card race deep into September. They were a perfectly middling AL team, scoring 710 runs and allowing 709. This is exactly the sort of team that often attempts the massive makeover.

Now, though, their projected starting position players have all -- every single one of them -- either made an All-Star team or won a Gold Glove (or both). In all, this starting lineup will have: 25 All-Star appearances, five MVP Awards, eight Gold Gloves, 14 Silver Slugger Awards and so on.

Yes, much of this hardware belongs to the best player in baseball, , and the previous best player in baseball, . But in the last year-plus, the Angels have acquired probably the best defensive player in all of baseball, ; another All-Star shortstop who will now play third, Zack Cozart; one of the best second basemen of the era, ; and a slugging outfielder who has averaged 30 home runs the past five seasons, .

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And none of this even mentions the great wild card of this offseason, their victory in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes. Nobody yet knows how well Ohtani will pitch, much less how well and often he will hit, but that too will add all sorts of excitement in Anaheim.

The question is: Will it work this time? Year after year, it seems, the team that comes out of the offseason as everyone's "potential surprise team" finds rough sledding when the season begins. Heck, the Angels have been here before -- after the 2011 season, when they won 86 games and missed the playoffs for just the fourth time in a decade, the Angels went crazy in the offseason, signing the player of the decade in Pujols along with All-Star pitcher .

The next year, they went crazy again, signing numerous free agents, including the big prize of that year, Josh Hamilton.

After that two-year flurry ... they dropped to 78 wins.

The trouble with what the Angels did then -- and what teams so often do -- is that they acquire accomplished superstars JUST as they were about to decline. In one of the few predictions I have ever gotten right, I wrote in 2012, just after the Angels paired Pujols and Hamilton, that I would rather have Kansas City's unproven kids and over the next five seasons. It seemed a shaky prediction; plenty of people told me I was out of my mind. At that point, Hosmer was a 22-year-old kid coming off a dreadful season when he hit .232/.304/.359, and Perez had played 115 total games in the big leagues. Pujols and Hamilton were MVP winners.

But it really wasn't a long shot at all because Hamilton was 32 and Pujols was 33, and players that age, no matter how great, tend to fall off dramatically.

Pujols/Hamilton from 2013-17: 11.5 WAR, one All-Star Game, zero Gold Gloves, 513 runs created.

Hosmer/Perez from 2013-17: 28.9 WAR, six All-Star Games, eight Gold Gloves, 761 runs created.

We can all name plenty of exceptions to the 30-something rule, but they are exceptions, and it is a rule. As players reach their mid-to-late 30s, they lose defensive value, they lose baserunning value, they get injured more, and, yes, their bats slow. Since 2013, Pujols has hit .257/.313/.446, he has played most of his games as a DH, and last year he struggled beyond imagination, finishing the year with a sub-.300 on-base percentage and sub-.400 slugging percentage.

Hamilton struggled through one full season with the Angels -- hitting .250 with 21 home runs -- before getting injured and playing his last big league game at age 34.

This is a constant trap in baseball, this hunger for 30-something great players in the hope they will be able to hold off the inevitable.

These Angels are betting on some of the same things. Cozart is coming off his best season; he hit .297 and slugged .548 in 122 games. But he turns 33 in August. Kinsler turns 36 in June, and he's coming off his worst big league season, having hit .236 and slugging a career-low .412.

Upton is coming off a superb year, hitting 44 doubles and 35 homers and setting career highs in almost everything. But he too has entered his 30s; he turns 31 in August.

Pujols is, according to reports, working harder than ever this offseason in the hopes of returning to first base and regaining some of his hitting prowess. You would never want to bet against one of the greatest players in baseball history, but it goes without saying that at 38, the odds are stacked pretty high against him.

So the Angels are betting on a lot of things going right, some stars finding one more good year in them. They undoubtedly know the odds. You sense that, with an in-his-prime Trout along with the surprising landing of Ohtani, Angels general manager Billy Eppler feels this is the time to push all the chips in.

It's a bold move. The Angels have made the postseason just once since the arrival of Trout, and they didn't win a playoff game that year. They are taking their shot while they have the best player in the game roaming center field, and you have to give them credit for that. Will it work? Well, as they say, that's why they play the game.