It’s rare for a team to change its fortunes entirely in the span of two weeks, but the Los Angeles Angels have done exactly that, strengthening their team to the point that they — not the Rangers, not the Mariners — are the American League West team most likely to keep the Houston Astros from repeating as division champions. This improvement goes beyond the signing of Shohei Ohtani, though adding him is the cornerstone that made Los Angeles (Anaheim) an attractive place to be.
While Andrelton Simmons turned in some of his best seasons at shortstop over the last two years with the Angels, he wasn’t surrounded by top-tier talent, working out of an infield with more questions than recognizable names. The trade for Ian Kinsler should give Simmons a still-solid defensive second baseman to work with, even if Kinsler is on the other side of the peak of his career. Adding veteran presence is also something that a team aiming to contend does, and Kinsler went to the World Series twice with the Texas Rangers. He might not play every game at second, but the glove is still good.
An even better move than trading for Kinsler is this week’s signing of Zack Cozart. With Simmons holding down shortstop, Cozart is expected to move to third base, a positional adjustment that’s not uncommon and tends to result in above-average defense at third. Cozart also bolsters the lineup offensively — even if he can’t repeat the career highs he hit in 2017, he’s an upgrade over Luis Valbuena, who played the position for Los Angeles last season.
Adding Cozart’s bat — even if he falls below those career highs — to Trout, boosts the Angels’ lineup and creates protection for Trout that’s been missing in the years of Albert Pujols’ decline. If Los Angeles can become more efficient in creating offense, while also limiting runs given up thanks to defense, it will have achieved the ideal searched for by every baseball team — something so conceptually simple, but difficult in actuality.
In his few years of handling the Angels’ roster, general manager Billy Eppler has shown an ability to find marginal gains in unusual places, and signing Cozart might be another one of those areas — not just for Cozart, but for whom he replaces. No one expects Valbuena to make the offensive contributions of Cozart, but he’ll likely move into a part-time first baseman role, a position that will allow him to be a platoon hitter, only having to face the pitchers he’ll have a better chance against. This mixture of approaches — not being afraid to make the big splash signings but also looking for value in the small areas, instead of only huge, team-anchoring deals, is part of how this rapid turnaround has been achieved.
However, even with all these improvements — even with the player touted as potentially a game-changer, the “modern Babe Ruth” — and even with some of the top currently active players added to a team with underrated talent (and also Mike Trout): That might not be enough for the Angels to win. The Houston Astros don’t have Shohei Ohtani, sure, but they do have Dallas Keuchel and Jose Altuve, plus a litany of names we all know from winning the World Series not two months ago. The Angels have made all the right moves, but baseball is a fickle thing.
Making the right moves in the first place is a step in the right direction. The Angels are now in a position to take advantage of any stumbles the Astros might make, and the American League West should be a fascinating race from the first day of the 2018 season.