The great frustration with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is their failure to surround Mike Trout with talent. Here are some of the players who got more than 100 plate appearances for the Angels in 2016:
It was bleak.
To his credit, Angels GM Billy Eppler has spent this offseason looking to rectify that situation. First he traded for Cameron Maybin to fill the massive hole in the left field, then he traded for Danny Espinosa to help solve the visible-from-space sized crater at second base. Not satisfied with just those two upgrades, he signed Ben Revere as a fourth outfielder and potential platoon partner for Maybin. These moves are not Earth-shaking or franchise-changing, but they signify a concerted effort to bring in legitimate major leaguers to surround Trout.
Adding to that influx of talent is Luis Valbuena, who, while not officially signed, has reportedly agreed to a multi-year contract with the Angels. He brings with him power, legitimate on-base skills, and versatility. Valbuena will be penciled in as a bench piece on most depth charts, but he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact.
Yunel Escobar is slated to begin the season as the team’s primary third baseman. His strong contact skills served him well in his first year in Anaheim, which led to a .304/.355/.391 slash line and a 108 wRC+ as the Angels’ leadoff hitter. Escobar’s power left something to be desired, though, as he popped just five home runs with an .087 ISO in his 567 plate appearances. Both Escobar and Valbuena have shown the ability to hit same-handed pitching, but a platoon of the two would maximize production at the hot corner.
Yunel Escobar and Luis Valbuena Platoon Splits
|Escobar vs. LHP
|Escobar vs. RHP
|Valbuena vs. LHP
|Valbuena vs. RHP
Escobar against lefties and Valbuena against righties would make for a pretty strong offensive platoon. In addition, Valbuena’s recent track record of admirably handling left-handed pitching means that Escobar, who’s in the last year of his contract, could be a decent trade asset at the deadline. Escobar likely wouldn’t bring back a ton of talent, but for a team like the Angels that has one of the worst farm systems in baseball, any help in that regard should be welcomed.
Across the diamond at first base, a platoon is less appealing. CJ Cron’s 2016 slash line of .278/.325/.467 paired with his 15 home runs and .189 ISO was respectable but completely unremarkable. What’s most interesting about Cron is that he has a reverse platoon split in his career, posting a 119 wRC+ against righties and a 91 wRC+ against lefties. Teaming him with Valbuena in a timeshare doesn’t really make sense.
That said, Cron tallied just 445 plate appearances in 2016 due to a fractured left hand in July which required surgery. He then felt more pain after returning and a second surgery was required after the season ended. Valbuena is an excellent security blanket should Cron face further complications or find his power diminished because of the injuries. If he’s totally healthy, Cron could be a more interesting trade deadline piece than Escobar as he won’t be arbitration eligible until 2018. Valbuena’s versatility will allow Eppler to gauge the market on both with the knowledge that he has a more than capable replacement at the ready should he find a deal that makes sense.
The final and perhaps most compelling reason that signing Valbuena makes sense for the Angels is the uncertainty of Albert Pujols. Once the best hitter in baseball and still a sure fire Hall of Famer, Pujols’ decline has been rapid.
He’s still an above-average hitter (111 wRC+ in 2016) and was able to tally 650 plate appearances in 152 games last year, which is remarkable, but Pujols is a shell of his former imposing self. Just taking into account a normal aging curve would make it prudent to have another power threat in case this is the year Pujols’ numbers fall off a cliff. When you factor in the offseason surgery to correct the foot problems that have plagued him for some time, bringing in a slugger like Valbuena was a no-brainer.
From Angels’ beat writer Pedro Moura of the LA Times on December 2nd immediately following the procedure:
Taking care to note he was speaking in generalities, Eppler said it typically takes three months after this surgery before a patient can resume training for baseball, and another month to play.
Opening day for 2017 is four months from Saturday...
Pujols has been bothered by plantar fasciitis for several seasons. He ripped the ligament in his left foot in 2013 and sat out two months.
He’ll turn 37 in January. The Angels owe him $140 million over the next five years.
Maybe getting healthy and finally healing his foot will extend Pujols’ baseball life and keep him productive as he heads towards 40. More likely is that he will need more days off then ever to try to keep Father Time at bay. When Pujols rests, Valbuena will prove light-years more valuable as a fill-in DH than guys like Rafael Ortega or Ji-Man Choi.
Valbuena’s versatility will make Mike Scioscia’s life easier when playing matchups or giving a guy some rest. He’s a bench player in theory, but his skill-set and numbers are on the same level of Escobar, Cron, and modern-day Pujols; when Valbuena fills in for one of them the Angels won’t experience the same drop off in talent that they did last year.
After making the easy decision to not trade Trout, it becomes your obligation to fill in the gaps of your roster with quality players. Wasting Trout’s prime with borderline big league talent year after year is unacceptable. Billy Eppler has done an admirable job improving the Angels roster despite spending restrictions and a depleted minor league pipeline from which to trade from.
Luis Valbuena, in addition to Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa, and Ben Revere probably won’t bring the Angels a division title. They may not even be enough to help the team challenge for a wild card berth. But you have to try. When Mike Trout is on your roster, you have to try.
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Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.