AL West 2016: Angels rebound and return to postseason

As surprising as the rise of both the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in 2015 was the fall of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

A team with the seventh-highest salary watched two division rivals play in the postseason one of which, the Astros, featured the league’s second-lowest salary.

Led by a centerfielder, Mike Trout, widely considered the game’s best overall player and a rising star, Garrett Richards, at the top of the rotation, the Angels will do what should have been done a year ago and play in October.

Like their challengers from Houston, the Angels will watch as several 2015 contributors take the field elsewhere. Unlike the Astros, however, they made offseason moves to fill those vacancies.

Shortstop Erick Aybar, who had spent the first 10 years of his career in Anaheim, was traded – along with his career .276 batting average and six homerun, 55 RBI and 76 run 162-game average – to the Atlanta Braves. In return they received Andrelton Simmons (.256-10-55-64), a three-time Gold Glove Award winner.

While drastically improving their defense at a pivotal position, they will feature a bat that has produced to a comparable clip offensively, in both career and 2015 season numbers.

David Freese (.276-15-78-68) and Matt Joyce (.242-18-66-65), both of whom performed well below their career averages last season, were replaced by Yunel Escobar (.281-10-60-77) and Daniel Nava (.265-9-61-68).

The Angels also parted ways with Chris Iannetta (.188-10-34-28 in 2015), whose 85 games at catcher was a team high. He was replaced by Geovany Soto (.219-9-21-20), though returning youngster Carlos Perez (.250-4-21-20) seems poised to take on the starting role behind the dish.

All the give and take considered, though, the Angel offense will be driven by Trout (.304-35-99-119 162-game average), who hit 41 homers in 2015, and first baseman Albert Pujols (.312-40-121-114), who hit 40. Both season big fly numbers among MLB’s the top seven totals.

Thus, the No. 6 homerun hitting offense (176) is simply looking for a supporting cast to get on around the heart of an order including star power that is unrivaled within the division. And it will be important to improve on their .307 team on-base percentage from 2015 (third-worst in the AL), as despite the homer output they were the fourth-worst scoring offense (661 runs) in the league.

Necessary offensive improvements will be alleviated by a pitching staff that put up the AL’s sixth-best ERA (3.94), behind only the Astros’ AL-leading 3.57 in the division.

A staff that featured four starters who made 18 or more starts with a sub-4 ERA is completely intact. Former ace Jered Weaver (career 138-81 record, 3.40 ERA) will look to rebound from a season hampered by hip issues (7-12, 4.64 ERA on 26 starts).

Weaver will not be returning to the top of the rotation, though, as Richards is coming off 2015 team-highs in innings (207.1), wins (15), strikeouts (176) and quality starts (24). Not only was Richards the top Angels pitcher he was among the top in the league, as his production in each of the aforementioned categories placed him in the top 20 in the AL, the highest finished being quality starts (T-3).

Hector Santiago (9-9, 3.59 ERA) and Andrew Heaney (6-4, 3.49 ERA) will both return to the rotation looking for repeat performances.

Matt Shoemaker (7-10, 4.46 ERA), on the other hand, will look to rebound from the dreaded sophomore slump. After his 16-4 record and 3.04 ERA were enough to see him finish second to Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu in the 2014 Rookie of the Year race, he saw a decline in every measurable. Year three is important for his individual growth and success, and will likely see significant improvement over his 2015 numbers.

C.J. Wilson (8-8, 3.89 ERA), who will miss the first month of the season with an elbow injury, may be destined for a spot starter, long relief role upon his return.

The bullpen that will likely welcome Wilson upon his return has suffered the greatest loss. With Cesar Ramos (2-1, 2.75 ERA in 52.1 innings over 65 appearances) making the move to division rival Texas Rangers, and Trevor Gott (4-2, 3.02 in 47.2 innings over 48 appearances) heading to the Washington Nationals.

To replace the duo, who combined for 19 of the team’s 85 holds, the Angels added former Detroit Tiger Al Alburquerque (4-1, 4.21 ERA) who converted just seven holds. The return of closer Huston Street (3-3, 3.18 ERA), who was second in the AL with 40 saves (only five blown opportunities) and team holds leader (32, No. 1 in AL) and set-up man Joe Smith (5-5, 3.58 ERA) means the back of the bullpen will be very much the same.

Defensively, the Angels will need to improve upon their .984 fielding percentage (No. 10 in the AL). That improvement will be assisted by the acquisitions of Simmons, .983 career fielding percentage at the game’s toughest spot, and Escobar.

The addition of Craig Gentry (.990 career fielding percentage) will strengthen the bench and create the option for defensive replacements at the corner outfield positions.

Improvements to the starting rotation and defense will more than make up for losses in the bullpen, while the offense around Trout and Pujols will find a way to get on at a higher clip.

With a one-run per-game differential, the Angels will add eight to 10 wins on their 2015 total and be the greatest challenger to the Rangers’ run at a repeat division crown, while keeping a strong grip on a wild card spot.