With a week left in June, the Angels are in a position that seemed unlikely at the start of the season: contention.
Everything that happened on the field this weekend was overshadowed by Albert Pujols’s return to St. Louis, but following a 6-4 win over the Cardinals Sunday night, Los Angeles is just four games behind Cleveland for the second wild-card spot (though it remains 10 games behind the Astros in the AL West).
It’s too much to expect the Angels to compete for a division title; they’re in fourth place and the Houston juggernaut is too good to catch. But the Angels have made the postseason just once during Mike Trout’s career, and they could (read: should) use their spot in the wild-card standings as justification to be buyers at the trade deadline.
Premature? Maybe. Crazy? Not so much. The Angels are averaging 5.08 runs per game, good for 10th best in baseball. Look closer, though, and their offense looks even better. Since June 1 (22 games) they’ve scored 5.45 runs per game. That scoring rate has been consistent over their last 15 games (5.47) and seven games (5.43).
And there’s reason to believe the Angels' offense of late is more like the one we’ll see moving forward. Trout missed about a week in the middle of April with a groin strain and then went on mini-slump (based on his standards) over the next month, from April 15 to May 15, when he slashed .238/.395/.416. Since then, Trout’s returned to form by slashing .339/.484/.750 with 13 home runs, 30 RBI and 34 runs.
The Angels’ offensive improvements coincide with the return of two middle-of-the-order hitters who missed the start of the season due to injury. Shohei Ohtani is hitting .272/.337/.490 in 40 games this year, and he’s been much better since the start of June (.306/.354/.639). Justin Upton returned a week ago, and is hitting .273 with three homers in seven games. Ohtani and Upton are providing protection for Trout, something he hasn’t had much of in the Angels lineup in recent years.
But starting pitching has been what's plagued L.A. this season. The Angels have no more than two reliable starters in their rotation. Rookie righthander Griffin Canning is in just his second year of professional ball, and despite his 3.88 ERA in 10 big-league starts this season, fatigue could be a factor for him down the stretch. Lefthander Tyler Skaggs has been inconsistent in his 14 starts this season, though he has looked much better lately. Over his last six starts—including five shutout innings Sunday against the Cardinals—Skaggs is 3-2 with a 3.44 ERA.
To make up for their lack of starters, the Angels have turned to the opener strategy, which worked for both the Rays and Brewers in 2018. Noe Ramirez, Cam Bedrosian and Felix Pena have fared well in their hybrid roles. But using an opener is done out of necessity, not by choice, and the Angels would be smart to try and add a starting pitcher or two before the July 31 trade deadline.
If the Mets continue to fall further into dysfunction, either Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard could be interesting trade targets for L.A., though Wheeler is a free agent at the end of the season and Syndergaard is expected to be out until at least early July with a right hamstring strain. Both pitchers have suffered because of the Mets’ awful defense. Wheeler has the second highest difference between his ERA and FIP (the runs he’s responsible for independent of the defense) in the majors; Syndergaard has the third highest.
The Angels could also look to acquire a starting pitcher from the Indians, even if Cleveland is still in playoff contention and isn’t in full sell mode. Outfield has been a problem for the Indians all season, and now that Upton is healthy, Brian Goodwin will no longer be an everyday player for the Angels. In 68 games this year, Goodwin is slashing .292/.349/.459 and can play all three outfield positions.
Meanwhile, Trevor Bauer has been a trade candidate since the offseason, considering his antics and that he’s a free agent at the end of the year. But there’s no doubting his talent, and if the Angels are OK with his rental status, he’d be a major upgrade to their rotation.
L.A. could also take the same approach the Brewers did last season when they decided to reinforce their shaky rotation by adding more relief pitching. The Angels could also try and add another bat, possibly at third base, with the hope of out-slugging their opponents so their pitching problems won’t matter as much.
Again, this could be a long shot for the 39-40 Angels, but if the 2018 Athletics are any indication, a team like L.A. isn’t in as bad a spot as it seems. Exactly one year ago from Monday, the A’s were in fourth place and 11 1/2 games behind the Astros in the division. It was the last time they trailed by as many games. Almost two months later, Oakland was tied for first in the AL West with Houston.
Ultimately, the A’s finished with 97 wins and the best second-half record in baseball to secure the second wild-card. They lost the do-or-die wild-card game to the Yankees, but even if that too was the end of the line for the 2019 Angels after making a few midseason moves, it would be a win for both them and baseball.
For one, it would confirm they can win with Trout and that his decision to stay in Anaheim was warranted. And two, for the first time since 2014, baseball fans would get to see the best player on the planet roaming centerfield in October.
And that’s better than any of us could’ve hoped for when the season began.