As team-building tactics go, having the two best players in a particular sport on the same roster would seem to be a pretty good one. Surely you’d expect that lucky team to, at the very least, have some winning seasons under its belt — or perhaps even win a championship or two.
But such a team has existed in the form of the Los Angeles Angels, and despite rostering two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout, they have yet to put together anything close to a winning season since 2018, when they finished with an 80-82 record in Ohtani’s rookie season.
Clearly, L.A.’s star-focused approach has its limitations. So this offseason, the team is trying a new tack — one that, paradoxically, might finally help Trout and Ohtani win some games. While the Angels have been one of the more active teams on the hot stove, they haven’t brought in one of the many marquee free agents who were available. Instead, they’ve done well to surround their two franchise players with dependable and established, if unspectacular, major league contributors. And maybe that influx of average talent is what this team needed all along.
There are, of course, some caveats around the Angels’ previous struggles with Trout and Ohtani. Ohtani did not pitch at all in 2019 and made only two starts in 2020, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, only realizing his tremendously high ceiling over the past two seasons while putting up monster numbers on both sides of the baseball. During those same two seasons, Trout has missed significant time due to injuries, playing in just 36 games in 2021 and 119 in 2022.
But even in games when both stars have been in the starting lineup at the same time, the Angels are just 164-175 since 2018. And the team’s general flair for losing has begun to reach farcical levels in recent seasons.
For instance, things finally looked to have turned the corner for the Halos in May of last year, as they got off to a stellar 27-17 start. To that point, they were second in the AL West and owners of the fourth-best record in the AL overall. Sadly, it was exactly at that moment when things took a nosedive. After losing 13 games in a row, the team parted ways with manager Joe Maddon, and never recovered. Heading into the All-Star break, they now had the AL’s fourth-worst record. Simply put, they were cooked.
One of the underrated reasons for Los Angeles’s struggles was that it gave so much playing time to outright bad players. According to wins above replacement,1 only the ghastly Pittsburgh Pirates (-13.4), Oakland Athletics (-13.0) and Cincinnati Reds (-12.5) lost more wins via negative-value players than the Angels, whose subzero-WAR contributors cost them 12.0 wins last season. If the Angels are the ultimate example of a “stars-and-scrubs” roster, the scrubs have been dragging down the stars for years.
And so, the Angels have finally made plans to address this recurring problem over the offseason by upgrading the non-star portion of the roster. On the position-player side, the team has bolstered its talent by trading for infielder Gio Urshela and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, as well as signing jack-of-all-trades Brandon Drury. Renfroe and Drury figure to receive the lion’s share of playing time in right field and second base, respectively, while Urshela looks to be sliding into a utility role. All three put together solid seasons in 2022, and will provide a much-needed boost to an offense that was 25th in runs scored.
Los Angeles added more dependability on the pitching side of the scale. In any other season, Tyler Anderson being a team’s biggest free-agent signing would be quite a disappointment. But Anderson put together his most effective season by far in 2022, thanks to a new grip on his changeup that drastically improved what was already his best pitch. He also threw it a ton more, and thanks to its incredible success the result was a 2.57 ERA (63 percent better than league average) over a career-best 178⅔ innings.
Anderson adds depth and a veteran presence to a somewhat young and inexperienced starting rotation — but one that was a quiet strength for the Angels. As a unit, Angels starters ranked sixth in baseball in both ERA and FanGraphs WAR, and 10th in FIP. Patrick Sandoval, Reid Detmers and José Suarez — all soft-tossing lefties like Anderson — each had good seasons in 2022 to varying degrees, with Sandoval being the clear standout of the three. Per FanGraphs, the Angels rotation projects to be the eighth-best in baseball by WAR.
The bullpen, like the offense, was another troublesome area for the Angels in 2022. By ERA, they were in the bottom half of the league, and by FanGraphs WAR they amassed the sixth-fewest wins (with a collective mark of just 1.7). After trading closer Raisel Iglesias to Atlanta at the trade deadline, Los Angeles brought in hard-throwing Carlos Estévez to compete to fill that role. According to the ZiPS projection system, the Angels bullpen should be a bit better in 2023, projecting to double its WAR total from a year ago.
All of this shuffling has brought new reasons to be optimistic about the Angels in 2023. Sure, they’ll run it back with Trout and Ohtani, and hopefully get a full, healthy season out of Anthony Rendon, who was one of the six best position players in baseball from 2017 to 2020 before missing 219 games over the past two years. But they have also shored up the more unsung roles that have traditionally gone neglected in Anaheim. And perhaps the team is closer to contending than its 73 wins gave it credit for in 2022: By BaseRuns, a win-loss estimator that uses a team’s underlying offensive and defensive performance (rather than actual runs scored and runs allowed like the Pythagorean model), the Angels should have been a .500 team. Additionally, the team put together a respectable 34-36 record in the second half.
The Angels still have their problems, of course. With Ohtani’s free agency looming, as well as the sale of the team imminent, this could be their last shot to pull off a winning season with their two all-time franchise players. But they appear to be learning that there is more to success than penciling a pair of superstars into the lineup. Rather than relying so heavily on the performance of two players (great as they may be), the Angels have worked to build a supporting cast of capable talent to carry the rest of the load. And with the improvements they have made during their active and unorthodox offseason, they project to be solidly above that elusive .500 mark — something the franchise can never take for granted, despite all of its top-tier talent.