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Angels

Angels’ blueprint to reach the postseason for first time since 2014

Patrick Sandoval
Angels starter Patrick Sandoval, center, after giving up an RBI single to the Dodgers’ Justin Turner during the second inning of a preseason game Tuesday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Center fielder Mike Trout is signed long term, but the reality is the Angels will struggle to compete in 2019 unless the bets they placed during the offseason find value where other teams have not.

Projections forecast the Angels to win 80 to 85 games. If they can finish at or above .500 for the first time since 2015, they could find themselves in the middle of a chase for the American League’s second wild-card spot.

But it will take good fortune to get there.

Stay healthy

In the four-year tenure of general manager Billy Eppler, the Angels have barely benefited from his high-profile acquisitions because of injuries to their pitching staff. Players have undergone significant surgeries each of the last three seasons. Seven starters — Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, JC Ramirez, Nick Tropeano and Alex Meyer — spent time on the disabled list last season.

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This goal is not unique to the Angels, but staying off the injured list is paramount to their success because they lack depth. And they already must count out Heaney, who will miss at least 10 days because of elbow inflammation.

Consider this: The Angels spent the first 1 1/2 months of the 2018 season near the top of the American League West division standings, battling the Seattle Mariners and the Houston Astros. A series of events sent their season sideways: Ramirez found out stem-cell therapy didn’t repair previous damage to his ulnar collateral ligament, leading to a complete tear of the ligament in his second start and surgery soon after; young closer Keynan Middleton underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery in May; Shohei Ohtani was shut down from pitching because of a partial tear in his UCL in June; and Skaggs made a groin injury worse by declining to rest.

If their pitching staff can retain a higher level of health, the Angels can make inroads on the wild-card race.

Reach base

The Angels were something of an offensive anomaly last season. They were seventh in baseball with 214 home runs, but ranked only 15th in runs. The culprit: a cumulative .313 on-base percentage that ranked in the bottom third.

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The only way to bump up those numbers is, of course, to reach base. The Angels had only three everyday players register on-base percentages above .350: Trout, Ohtani and Justin Upton.

The latter two will open the season on the injured list, so other players must step up. Reserve outfielder Peter Bourjos, added to the Angels’ 40-man roster Tuesday night, showed improvement in the batter’s box and could help plug holes. He has enough speed to cause havoc on the base paths as well.

Get bounce-back seasons

The Angels invested $20 million in starting pitchers Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill, both of whom have extensive injury histories, and another $3.35 million in veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy, whose defensive numbers are in decline. They also have $28 million tied up in Albert Pujols, who is coming off two season-ending cleanup surgeries, and $8.5 million in former Indians closer Cody Allen.

All demonstrated promise in spring training except Allen. He issued six walks and allowed 12 hits, two of them homers. He was charged with eight earned runs in 10 innings. At least he struck out 12 for a strikeouts-per-nine rate of 10.9, a number that fell in line with the 10.7 rate he had last year.

Allen needs to rebound so he can hold down a young bullpen that features only one other pitcher with more than five years of major league experience — Luis Garcia.

The Angels also need former first-round pick Chris Stratton, a right-hander who will start the fifth game of the season Monday in Seattle, to prove that his previous stretches of dominance with the San Francisco Giants aren’t a total fluke. He replaced Jaime Barria in the rotation upon being acquired this week.

Get production from first base

The Angels made a cost-effective move by signing left-handed-hitting Justin Bour to a one-year, $2.5-million contract in December. He experienced one of his toughest seasons at the plate last year — he had a career-low .227 average in a career-high 141 games — but he offers prodigious power. The Angels saw it in his first game of the spring when he a ball so hard it soared out of the stadium for his first of four Cactus League homers.

Combined with a resurgence from Pujols, the Angels could get value out of first base for the first time in years. Angels first basemen had the second-worst on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.644) and fourth-worst batting average (.231) in baseball.

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Add pieces if signs point to yes

The Angels will open the season with their highest projected competitive balance tax payroll in franchise history. They have more than $89 million committed to only five players.

But that won’t stop owner Arte Moreno from shelling out more bucks if the situation calls for it.

“There’s no economic restraints of where we are right now,” Moreno said.

Even with Trout’s new contract, which will pay him $16 million in salary and $20 million in a signing bonus this season, the Angels are still $22 million shy of hitting the luxury tax threshold, according to Cots Baseball. Should they find themselves in contention, the Angels have the means and willingness to bolster their supporting cast.

maria.torres@latimes.com


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