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Does Shohei Ohtani Make the Angels 2018 World Series Contenders?

By Taylor Smith in Sports
| December 9, 2017 12:00 am PDT
Shohei Ohtani Angels

Just over a month ago, the Houston Astros celebrated their first-ever World Series title around the mound at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. While the Astros and Dodgers will almost surely head into the 2018 season as the odds-on favorites to get back to the World Series next fall, the team that plays its games about 30 miles south of Dodger Stadium has been quietly making moves.

Major League Baseball’s offseason has been relatively quiet to this point, but the Los Angeles Angels have been one of the few teams to make several moves already. A few days after the World Series ended, the Halos announced that they had agreed on a new contract with outfielder Justin Upton, whom they acquired from the Detroit Tigers with about a month left to play in the 2017 season.

Earlier this week, it was announced that the Angels had agreed to terms on a deal with 17-year-old free agent infielder Kevin Maitan. Maitan was one of the top prospects in the Atlanta Braves organization before being released from his contract a few weeks ago amid the Braves’ international scouting scandal. Atlanta was forced to release several high-upside prospects and Maitan was considered to be the top player let go. The Angels pounced on that and now Maitan is their new No. 1 prospect.

The biggest splash of them all came on Friday, however, when it was reported that Japanese free agent Shohei Ohtani has decided to sign with the Angels. The Halos were one of 7 finalists for Ohtani’s services, and they ultimately won the race over the likes of the Dodgers, Padres, Mariners, Rangers, Cubs and Giants.

Adding Ohtani likely makes the Angels better, but does this move put them into the World Series picture heading into next season?

Wait and See

While Ohtani is a huge name, we still really have no idea what he’s going to look like playing against big league competition. Ohtani selected the Angels due in part to the fact that the team will allow him to hit and pitch at the same time. Details have not yet been made public, but the most likely outcome seems to have Ohtani serving as the designated hitter on days he is not scheduled to pitch. Every fifth or sixth day, he will take the mound as a starting pitcher for L.A.

While Ohtani excelled both on the mound and in the batter’s box against Japanese competition, the majors are a different animal entirely. We have seen a slew of players come over from Japan and fail to live up to expectations against better competition. There have obviously been plenty of exceptions – Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, to name a few – the transition isn’t an easy one.

Ohtani, now 22, played 5 seasons in the Japanese league with the Nippon Ham Fighters. At the plate, Ohtani slashed .286/.358/.500 with 48 homers and 166 runs batted in from the left side of the plate. On the mound, he posted a record of 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA. So, it’s easy to see why there was so much interest. Ohtani can literally do it all, and the Angels are prepared to let him pitch and hit at the same time.

Still, most rookies don’t come in and light the league on fire in their first year. Guys like Aaron Judge and, yes, Ichiro, are exceptions. Ohtani obviously has the talent to come in and be a star right away, but there may be a learning curve here that could take some time.

Angels Are Far From Finished

While locking Upton into a new long-term deal and adding a player like Ohtani certainly bolster’s L.A.’s talent level next season, there is still work to be done. The Angels have the makings of a solid starting rotation, though they are still lacking a bona fide ace. Ohtani may be that guy down the road, but it’s tough to say going into the season that he’s going to be as good as most No. 1 starters as a rookie.

This team still has holes to address in the field, as well. Most notably, the team needs to find mainstays to play second and third base, respectively. Brandon Phillips and Yunel Escobar managed those spots late last season, but neither player is expected to be brought back in free agency.

The Angels have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, who is a free agent himself. Moustakas is one of the game’s premier power bats at the hot corner, but are the Angels going to be willing to splash big money on a 29-year-old with an injury history that may project as a DH down the line? That’s a tough situation, especially because the Angels have been burned by big-money free agency splurges in the recent past.

The Halos are also reportedly somewhat interested in swinging a trade for Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Hernandez is far from a household name among casual baseball fans, but he’s quietly been very solid for Philly over the last couple of seasons. Assuming they don’t have to part ways with any of their top prospects, Hernandez would give the Angels a 27-year-old second baseman capable of hitting near the top of the lineup. Last season, the Venezuela native slashed .294/.373/.421 with nine homers, 34 runs batted in and 15 steals.

Angels’ second basemen compiled an OPS of just .601 in 2017, which was over 40 points worse than the next-worst team. Almost anyone would be an upgrade. After Neil Walker, the free agency crop at the position thins out quickly, too. A trade may be Los Angeles’ best course of action here.

As for the rotation, there are a number of capable starters available as free agents. The list includes Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. Despite his World Series meltdown, Darvish figures to be the most expensive player on the market overall.

Could the Angels be tempted to pair Ohtani with Darvish? It’s a possibility.

The two reportedly have a relationship that dates back years, and they both came to the United States after playing for the same team in Japan. However, one of Ohtani’s preferences, when he was a free agent, was that he would like to play for a team without another established Japanese star. Sharing the spotlight with Darvish may go against that.

The Angels are a franchise that hasn’t been shy about spending money in the past, but they haven’t always spent it wisely. Arrieta would be a nice addition to the rotation, but there are all sorts of red flags surrounding the notion of potentially splurging big cash on him. Lynn and Cobb are solid starters, though they both seem to be No. 3 starters, at best.

While the established core of Ohtani, Upton, Mike Trout and Garrett Richards is fabulous, the Angels still have lots of work left to do this winter before spring training gets underway. This roster is far from a finished product as it stands, even with Ohtani now in the mix.

Lots of Competition Out There

The Angels were in the hunt for an American League Wild Card spot for most of the season before they faded late. L.A. finished the season with a record of 80-82, which was a whopping 21 games out of first place in the AL West. Los Angeles also finished 5 back of the second Wild Card spot, which was claimed by the Minnesota Twins.

We may be in the midst of a golden era of young talent when it comes to baseball. The last 2 teams to have won it all, the Astros and Chicago Cubs, have incredibly young cores that figure to be potent for the next half-decade, at a minimum. Ditto for other contenders like the Dodgers, Yankees, Indians, Nationals (maybe) and Red Sox.

There were times last season when none of the Astros, Dodgers or Indians looked beatable. The Astros came out on top in October, but it took them 7 games to knock off both the Yankees and Dodgers along the way. Houston may be favored to repeat next season, but repeating will be incredibly difficult considering the immense talent in the league nowadays.

The Angels’ chances of winning the 2018 World Series hinge on what else the front office can accomplish this winter.

The Maitan signing is exciting, but that’s not a player that is going to play a role in the big league club until 2019 or 2020, at the earliest.

With Trout in the prime of his career, general manager Billy Eppler needs to be feeling the pressure to compile a contender right now. Adding Ohtani figures to help immensely, but, as currently constructed, the Halos are still nowhere close to as talented a team like the Astros in their own division.

The odds have not yet been updated to reflect the Angels’ acquisition of Ohtani, but they were previously listed at +1400 to win it all in 2018. That number figures to inch closer to +1000 once the odds are updated, but that’s still quite a way behind the Dodgers (+400), Astros (+600), or even the Cubs (+500). +1000 would put the Angels in the same neighborhood as clubs like the Nationals and the Red Sox.

No, the signing of Shohei Ohtani does not make the Angels favorites to win the 2018 World Series, but you wouldn’t be necessarily wrong to list them among the contenders. The Ohtani acquisition is just the first step. The 2018 Halos season will hinge more on how Eppler is able to fill out the remainder of the roster and fill the remaining holes that need to be addressed.

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