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AL West preview: Shohei Ohtani is the Angels’ X-factor in eclipsing Astros and A’s

Angels' Shohei Ohtani follows through on a swing during an at-bat
With Shohei Ohtani, the Angels have a case to make a strong run in 2021.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

While the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros lost significant players from teams that have owned the American League West for four seasons, the Angels added a potential ace and middle-of-the-order slugger without swinging a major trade or spending an additional dime in free agency.

This did not require any sleight-of-hand wizardry from new general manager Perry Minasian or unearthing of far-flung phenoms by the scouting department.

All that was needed is a clean bill of health for Shohei Ohtani, the dynamic two-way player who could provide the impact arm and bat the Angels need to finally end their six-year playoff drought.

Shohei Ohtani pitched and hit in the same game against the Padres — and did both well — offering a tantalizing glimpse of what the Angels season might hold.

Ohtani has been flinging 100-mph fastballs and launching tape-measure home runs throughout Arizona this spring, fueling hopes he can become the two-way force he was for two months as a rookie in 2018 before elbow and knee injuries derailed his career.

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If Ohtani can regain his pitching form after a lengthy recovery from Tommy John surgery, he would bolster a rotation that added Alex Cobb and Jose Quintana as depth behind Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning but lacks a starter who can dominate.

And if he can regain his 2018-19 hitting form after slinking to a .190 average and .657 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2020, he would add a lethal left-handed bat to a lineup that features two of the best right-handed hitters in baseball in Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon.

“You’re adding two stars,” Trout said. “You’re adding an ace, and you’re adding a guy in the middle of the lineup that can bang.”

A day after Angels star Mike Trout hit his first homer off Clayton Kershaw, he reflects on a sixth straight season that will end before the playoffs.

Because of his prodigious potential on the mound and in the box — and the gaping voids he leaves if he’s unable to pitch or swing the bat to his capabilities — there may be no bigger X-factor in baseball than Ohtani, on whose broad shoulders the Angels’ playoff fortunes could very well ride.

“And I think he knows that,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “I want him to just be himself, but if we get similar performances on the mound and at the plate, there’s no telling [how good the Angels can be].”

Ohtani, 26, entered the final weekend of exhibition play batting .571 (16 for 28) with a 1.107 OPS, five homers and eight RBIs in 11 games. Though he had a 7.88 ERA in three starts, he struck out 14 and walked five in eight innings, his fastball touching 102 mph and his split-fingered fastball nasty at times.

The starting pitcher and designated hitter avoids arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $8.5-million contract with the Angels on Monday.

Pitchers will no doubt attack Ohtani more aggressively and with more precision than they did this spring, but Ohtani has a more solid foundation in the batter’s box than he did in 2020, when his swing mechanics were so out of whack that his feet sometimes moved before his bat.

Ohtani’s upper body and lower body are in sync. A revamped strength-and-conditioning program and better diet this offseason also appear to be paying dividends for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Ohtani.

“Body-wise, he’s stronger than he was in the past,” Minasian said. “I like where he’s at mentally — I think he’s in a really good place, very confident. … The guy’s a freak. He can do things on a baseball field that other people can’t do.”

Angels superstar Mike Trout has found hitting drills — including some Shohei Ohtani uses to refine his swing mechanics — that have helped his preparation.

Ohtani’s ascent comes as the Astros and A’s are receding and the Rangers and Mariners are rebuilding, a combination that could give the Angels their best chance of winning the AL West since their last title in 2014.

Houston, which won three straight division titles with 100-win teams from 2017 to 2019, lost star center fielder George Springer, right fielder Josh Reddick and closer Robert Osuna to free agency and ace Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery.

And left-hander Framber Valdez, who went 5-3 with a 3.57 ERA in a breakout 2020 season, will miss at least two months because of a broken left ring finger.

Oakland, which reached the playoffs with 97-win teams in 2018 and 2019, and won the division in 2020, lost shortstop Marcus Semien, second baseman Tommy La Stella, closer Liam Hendriks and setup man Joakim Soria to free agency.

With up to about 9,200 fans allowed to attend games at Angel Stadium under coronavirus guidelines, the team is selling tickets for games in April.

The Angels have more starting pitching depth, a better closer in Raisel Iglesias, a solid shortstop in Jose Iglesias and a stout infield defense headed by third baseman Anthony Rendon.

They have Trout, the three-time AL most valuable player who at 29 is still in his prime, and the ultimate wild card in Ohtani, who could be ready to fill his tantalizing potential.

“I think the Angels are improved big-time,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “You better watch out for those Angels.”

American League West predicted order of finish

ANGELS

2020 | 26-34, 4th in West

Last year in playoffs | 2014

A lineup featuring sluggers Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and a rejuvenated Justin Upton tilts a little too much to the right side, so Shohei Ohtani and Jared Walsh must provide pop from the left side. With more consistent starts from a deeper, Ohtani-infused rotation and a more reliable closer in Raisel Iglesias, the Angels are well positioned to end their six-year playoff drought.

Lineup

2B David Fletcher

DH Shohei Ohtani

CF Mike Trout

3B Anthony Rendon

LF Justin Upton

1B Jared Walsh

SS Jose Iglesias

C Max Stassi

RF Dexter Fowler

Rotation

RH Dylan Bundy

LH Andrew Heaney

RH Shohei Ohtani

LH Jose Quintana

RH Griffin Canning

RH Alex Cobb

Setup

RH Mike Mayers

Closer

RH Raisel Iglesias

HOUSTON ASTROS

2020 | 29-31, 2nd in West

Last year in playoffs | 2020

Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel comprise one of baseball’s best-hitting infields, and the emergence of Kyle Tucker (.837 OPS, nine homers, 42 RBIs in 2020) helps ease the loss of George Springer. The Astros did well to shore up an injury-plagued rotation by signing Jake Odorizzi, but they don’t appear to have the pitching depth to win the division.

Lineup

2B Jose Altuve

LF Michael Brantley

3B Alex Bregman

SS Carlos Correa

DH Yordan Alvarez

1B Yuli Gurriel

RF Kyle Tucker

CF Myles Straw

C Martin Maldonado

Rotation

RH Zack Greinke

RH Lance McCullers Jr.

RH Jose Urquidy

RH Jake Odorizzi

RH Cristian Javier

Setup

RH Enoli Paredes

Closer

RH Ryan Pressly

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

2020 | 36-24, 1st in West

Last year in playoffs | 2020

Matt Chapman and Matt Olson give the A’s a potent right-left middle-of-the-order punch and premium defense in the corner infield, and a solid rotation should keep Oakland in the playoff hunt. But a division title appears out of reach for a team that lost its two top relievers (Liam Hendriks, Joaquin Soria) and star shortstop Marcus Semien to free agency.

Lineup

CF Ramon Laureano

CF Mark Canha

3B Matt Chapman

1B Matt Olson

C Sean Murphy

DH Mitch Moreland

RF Stephen Piscotty

SS Elvis Andrus

2B Tony Kemp

Rotation

RH Chris Bassitt

LH Jesus Luzardo

LH Sean Manaea

RH Frankie Montas

LH A.J. Puk

Setup

LH Jake Diekman

Closer

RH Trevor Rosenthal

SEATTLE MARINERS

2020 | 27-33, 3rd in West

Last year in playoffs | 2001

The Mariners should have one of baseball’s best young outfields when top prospect Jarred Kelenic joins 2020 AL rookie of the year Kyle Lewis and Taylor Trammell in the big leagues. Veteran left-hander James Paxton adds quality depth to the rotation, but it will be tough to overcome a thin bullpen.

Lineup

SS J.P. Crawford

RF Mitch Haniger

CF Kyle Lewis

3B Kyle Seager

DH Ty France

2B Dylan Moore

LF Taylor Trammell

1B Evan White

C Tom Murphy

Rotation

LH Marco Gonzales

LH Yusei Kikuchi

LH James Paxton

LH Justus Sheffield

RH Chris Flexen

RH Justin Dunn

Setup

RH Kendall Graveman

Closer

RH Rafael Montero

TEXAS RANGERS

2020 | 22-38, 5th in West

Last year in playoffs | 2016

The bullpen was expected to be a strength before injuries to projected closer Jose Leclerc (elbow), hard-throwing right-hander Jonathan Hernandez (elbow) and left-handers Brett Martin (back) and Joely Rodriguez (ankle). A lack of lineup protection will probably prevent slugger Joey Gallo from seeing enough fastballs to match his 40-homer seasons of 2017 and 2018.

Lineup

SS Isiah Kiner-Falefa

LF David Dahl

RF Joey Galllo

3B Rougned Odor

2B Nick Solak

DH Nate Lowe

1B Ronald Guzman

C Jose Trevino

CF Leody Taveras

Rotation

RH Kyle Gibson

RH Kohei Arihara

RH Jordan Lyles

RH Mike Foltynewicz

RH Dane Dunning

Setup

RH Ian Kennedy

Closer

RH Matt Bush


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