How Shohei Ohtani’s injury affects the Angels’ future

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With the Astros and Mariners pacing the division, and either the Red Sox and Yankees in the Wild Card conversation, things do not look good for the Angels.

The baseball world was shook yesterday upon hearing the news that Angels’ pitcher and designated hitter Shohei Ohtani may require Tommy John surgery, ending both his 2018 and 2019 seasons.

While the Angels themselves are “cautiously optimistic” that Ohtani can return this season, at least as a batter, it is pretty clear that he is going to miss at least some time due to injury.

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For Los Angeles, this is alarming news, as the team is in the midst of its best 66-game start since 2008, when they won 100 games. While not currently on pace to make the playoffs, the Angels were absolutely going to make things interesting down the stretch. But, with this news, it seems as if the team may fade into oblivion rather than rise up to overtake the Astros, Mariners, Yankees or Red Sox, the four teams likely in the running for a postseason spot they would be competing for.

Yesterday, Beyond The Box Score Managing Editor Matt Provenzano wrote more of an introspective piece on Ohtani’s incredible big league start. While it is true that Ohtani has already changed baseball even with the injury, this disabled list trip will likely keep the Angels out of the postseason for the fifth straight year.

Going into this season, the Angels’ rotation was never supposed to be good. Plenty of pleasant surprises — including the seemingly successful returns of Tyler Skaggs, Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney — have kept the team afloat to date. Nick Tropeano has been okay, at least for a backend starter. Without Ohtani, who does that leave them with? At the moment, it looks like 21-year-old rookie starter Jaime Barria, who has a 2.48 ERA in his first seven outings, with 30 strikeouts and nine walks in 36.1 innings.

Ohtani’s loss in the rotation might not kill the Angels, but even still, it will be hard for them to keep pace with the rotation of the Astros, who have the best rotation in baseball. Angels starters have been in the middle-of-the-pack so far this season, ranking 8th in the Majors in ERA and 11th in fWAR. Still, though, without any surefire aces in this rotation, this could be an area that the Angels look to bolster come trade deadline time, granted they are still in the race on July 31st.

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As for the offense, the Angels have struggled in the balance department. Mike Trout (189 wRC+), Andrelton Simmons (142 wRC+) and Justin Upton (122 wRC+) are the team’s only three hitters not named Ohtani that have posted above-league-average production at the plate. Clearly, Ohtani, who has slashed .289/.372/.535 in 129 plate appearances (150 wRC+) will be missed in the Angels lineup.

It’s hard to know who will be replacing him there. Likely, it just means more of Albert Pujols and Luis Valbuena, with the former playing more designated hitter and the latter playing more first base. Jefry Marte also figures to be in the mix. None of these options are particularly appealing.

The Angels are clearly a better team with Ohtani in the lineup or on the mound. In games in which Ohtani has appeared in the game as a non-pitcher, representing his appearances as a designated hitter or pinch hitter, the Angels are 19-15. In Ohtani starts, they are 7-2. But without Ohtani in the game at all, the Angels are 11-12. Clearly, this is going to have to change if the Angels want any sniff at the postseason this year. It will be something to watch over the next couple of weeks, as the Angels begin this (potentially long) absence of Ohtani on their active roster.

Who does this impact the most going forward? Mike Trout. As Provenzano mentioned earlier, Trout is only signed through the 2020 season. In his six full seasons on the Angels, the team has made the playoffs just once, in 2014. Trout went 1-for-12 with a home run in the ALDS that year, as the Angels were swept by the Royals in their improbable run to win the American League pennant.

Baseball is a team sport, and the whole argument that Trout should be able to carry the Angels to the postseason alone is downright invalid. Yet there is something to be said about playing for a winner, and if that is something Trout wants, the Angels are going to have to continue to surround himself with solid pieces over the next three years to entice him to stay. As of today, Trout seemingly loves playing with the Angels, and the only way I could see him leaving is if he went east to play for him hometown Phillies. But even that seems to be a bit of a pipe dream for fans in Philadelphia, for now.

As the years continue to go by, though, and as Trout remains — for the most part — postseason-less in an Angels uniform, he may consider leaving them in free agency. The Ohtani injury, then, carries implications beyond just this season, but whether these concerns come to fruition depend on the timetable of his return. In at least one way, this injury could completely change the course of the Angels’ franchise, especially if Ohtani cannot return to the big leagues until Trout’s walk year in 2020.

This season was Trout’s best chance to return to the playoffs. In the event Ohtani returns in 2018, he’s still likely to miss enough time to cost them a serious shot at the postseason. Even now, with him being on the roster for the first 66 games, the Angels’ playoff odds have fluctuated wildly so far this year.

 Chart via FanGraphs

According to FanGraphs, the Angels’ playoff odds were as high as 56.0 percent on May 14, and as low as 25.4 percent on March 29. A lot of this isn’t even due to poor play; the fluctuations are really a result of the play of their AL West opponents.

 Chart via FanGraphs

The Angels have been expected to win around 85 games all season, while the Seattle Mariners have seen their expected wins slowly increase over the entire season. As long as Seattle remains in the mix, the Angels should be concerned that they will be the first team on the outside looking in when October hits.

The loss of Shohei Ohtani — even with the timetable still currently unknown — hurts the Angels. That’s clear. But what it really could do is hurt the team’s future, as another season without making the playoffs could prove costly to the franchise’s overall outlook as Trout inches closer to free agency.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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