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2019 opponent preview: The Los Angeles Angels are better off than you might think

Having Mike Trout helps, of course, but the future is still bright in Anaheim.

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MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If you had to choose one AL West club to take control of for the next decade, who would it be?

Probably the Houston Astros. They’re loaded.

But after that? The Oakland Athletics have a deep farm system and some nice pieces currently on the major league roster, but unless you significantly increase their operating budget, they are always going to be fighting with one hand tied behind their back. The Seattle Mariners are just entering a rebuild of sorts. While they are off to a nice start, they likely won’t be contending for a few years now. And the Texas Rangers? Well... I’m just not sure what’s going on there.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Angels are quietly going on about their business — well, as quietly as you can when you hand a guy $430 million. Between a much improved farm system, a few savvy major league pickups, and yes, landing two of the most talented baseball players on the planet, the Angels have all but revamped their roster on the fly. Sure, Albert Pujols and a couple of pricey veterans are still around, but the Angels, not unlike the New York Yankees of a few years ago, have the financial wherewithal to erase a mistake or two and still field a contender year after year.

Don’t believe me? Look at the roster. Pujols (or his contract, at the very least) is only around for two more years after 2019. Justin Upton will be here through 2022, but that’s no big deal; he’s coming off another productive 30-homer season. Mike Trout has his new mega-deal, but there’s no cause for concern on his end for roughly a decade to come.

And that’s it. Only those three, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and third baseman Zack Cozart have guaranteed contracts next season. Everyone else is either arbitration-eligible, cost-controlled for years to come — Shohei Ohtani will be a free agent after the 2023 season — or a free agent at the end of 2019. While that might not make for a lights out contender, it gives the Angels far more flexibility than many realize, both now and into the foreseeable future.

Will that be enough to make the playoffs in 2019? We’ll see.

Team at a glance

2018 record: 80-82 | 2018 pythag: 81-81 | 2019 farm system rank: 12
Manager: Brad Ausmus (1st year)
First series vs. Tigers: May 7-9
Key additions: IF Tommy La Stella, 1B Justin Bour, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Matt Harvey, C Jonathan Lucroy, RHP Cody Allen
Key subtractions: RHP Garrett Richards, RHP Blake Parker, RHP Matt Shoemaker, RHP Jim Johnson

How will things go under first year skipper Brad Ausmus?

Even if you ignore our vested interest in Ausmus because of his four-year tenure in Detroit, there is a fair amount of intrigue in how he — or any manager, really — will fare in the first season the Angels have seen without Mike Scioscia this millennium. Nineteen years is a long time in any walk of life, and is an eternity in baseball. Anyone stepping into that position has a tough task ahead of them, and that especially goes for a manager who didn’t do so hot in his first job.

By all accounts, things are off to a rosy start. He seems to have embraced analytics after spending a year in the Angels’ front office, and his willingness to catch the occasional bullpen session has always been well regarded. The atmosphere is “more relaxed,” according to The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya; this could go either way, but is currently seen in a positive light after Scioscia’s more controlling nature. Ausmus has even experimented with moving Albert Pujols down in the lineup, a significant adjustment from his, ahem... tendencies in Detroit.

As with most managers, expect Ausmus to get a disproportionate share of the credit or blame, depending on how things go. If the team performs well and reaches the postseason, we’ll see all sorts of articles on how he has changed from his days in Detroit. But if the team bombs? Ausmus will take some heat — perhaps too much for doing the best he could with a flawed roster.

Not that we’ve seen that one before or anything.

Down on the farm

Three years ago, the Angels had the worst farm system ESPN’s Keith Law has ever seen. Now, they have a borderline top-10 system (Law has them seventh) thanks to a well-rounded approach from general manager Billy Eppler and the rest of their front office. Even players who were brought in under the previous regime, like infielder Jahmai Jones and lefthander Jose Suarez — No. 4 and 5 on MLB Pipeline’s Angels list, respectively — have taken steps forward.

But the real jewel here is Jo Adell, a player many consider to be one of the top five to 10 prospects in baseball. Adell is another toolsy prep outfielder the Angels drafted out of a non-traditional baseball market — you know the other one — who has exploded onto the national stage in the past year. He hit .290/.355/.543 with 20 home runs and 15 steals across three minor league levels last season, finishing the year at Double-A Mobile as a 19-year-old. He will miss a fair amount of time in 2019 due to a pair of injuries, but could be a late addition for a stretch run this year (depending on how the Angels are doing) or a candidate to make the team out of spring training in 2020. Righthander Griffin Canning, the other top-100 prospect in the system, made it all the way to Triple-A in 2018, his first full season in pro ball.

Elsewhere, the Angels’ preference is clear; Jones, Jordyn Adams, Jeremiah Jackson, and international signees D’Shawn Knowles and Trent Deveaux are all premium athletes with high ceilings.

Player to watch (besides Mike Trout): Matt Harvey

Throughout the Mike Trout era, one of the Angels’ consistent downfalls has been their pitching. Though they have posted decent ERAs relative to the rest of the American League, park-adjusted stats like ERA- (or ERA+, depending on your statistical website of choice) indicate that some of their success is due to Angels Stadium’s spacious confines. In Trout’s seven full seasons, the Angels have had a better-than-average ERA- just twice. They haven’t been at least five percent better than league average (ERA- of 95 or lower) since 2011, Trout’s 40-game rookie season.

I don’t know if that is likely to change in 2019. Their best pitcher is going to spend the year as the team’s designated hitter, and only two others are projected to be better than league average — worse yet, one of them is already hurt.

Next on that list is Matt Harvey, who has had a rough past few years. The one-time Cy Young candidate was limited to just 185 13 major league innings in 2016 and 2017, and is still trying to find his footing after having thoracic outlet surgery in 2016. He stayed healthy enough to throw 155 23 innings last year, but wore out his welcome in New York over time. He made 24 starts with the Cincinnati Reds which were fine, I guess.

But if the Angels are to return to the postseason, Harvey will need to be better than “fine.” He doesn’t need to be the Harvey of old — that guy is long gone, I’m afraid — but his velocity did return a bit in 2018, and reports out of Angels camp are more promising than his actual Cactus League numbers. I think Angels fans would be disappointed to see The Dark Knight (are we still calling him that?) post the mid-4s ERA every system projects him for in 2019.

Projected record: 84-78

Both FanGraphs and PECOTA project the Angels to finish in second place in the AL West, miles behind the Houston Astros.

And I think that’s about right. Houston has a juggernaut on their hands, and I think we can all agree that it would take either a monumental collapse or the mother of all overperformances from someone else for the Astros to not win the division. They’re just that good.

The Angels, meanwhile, seem like the most complete team remaining in their division. There are questions, of course. The rotation is a bit iffy, the bullpen is maybe a little thin, and the lineup has some holes, but there are decent pieces in place in all three spots. Cody Allen and Cam Bedrosian should lock down their fair share of close games, while Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney are a better one-two punch than what Oakland or Seattle can throw out there right now. Having Shohei Ohtani around for a few more at-bats will help, too (even if his arm is probably more valuable), not to mention Justin Upton’s reliable production in the middle of the order.

Oh, and they have that Mike Trout guy too. He’s pretty good.