Why the Angels are better than you think

Could L.A. contend in 2017? Indeed, there's some hope for the Halos. Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports

The most common thing you hear when it comes to the Los Angeles Angels is how the team is wasting Mike Trout's best years due to poor decision making and a severe lack of minor league talent.

But is it possible that the Angels, at least at the moment, might be better than we think?

The 2017 projections at Fangraphs.com (yes, these are up already) indicate that they could be. They peg the Angels for 85 wins, an 11-win jump from their 2016 total and a number that would put them at the head of the AL wild-card pack.

In fairness, the hot stove season has barely begun, and there are plenty of teams projected for fewer wins than the Angels, who will take steps to move past them. So this projection might not last long. But it is worth noting that all is not dismal for GM Billy Eppler, manager Mike Scioscia & Co. heading into this offseason.

Why does this projection system like the Angels so much? Here’s a quick look.

Obvious answer: Mike Trout

As long as the Angels have Trout, there’s always a chance of them being good, right? But what’s most notable about Trout is not how great he is -- it’s how much of an advantage the Angels have in center field over any other team. Trout is projected for 8.6 WAR in 2017. The next-best center fielder, Kevin Kiermaier, is projected for half that. The Angels have a positional dominance that no other team has, and that's meaningful.

There is a supporting cast here

The Angels' position players have the fifth-best projected WAR in the majors. A good chunk of that is Trout, but he’s not the only one contributing.

Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun (.271/.348/.438 with 18 home runs in 2016) ranked in the top five at his position by both the Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference version of Wins Above Replacement. Over the past three seasons, he rates better than Josh Reddick, who just got four years and $52 million from the Astros. And he’s durable, having played 159 and 157 games over the past two seasons. Fangraphs pegs Calhoun for a 2.9 WAR in 2017, which seems conservative, given that his past three seasons were 3.7, 3.8 and 4.0.

A healthy Andrelton Simmons is a valuable commodity, and if Simmons is fully healthy, that bodes well. Simmons led the AL with 18 defensive runs saved despite playing in only 124 games. Simmons missed 35 games with a broken finger, and in that time the Angels ranked 25th in ground-ball out rate. Simmons returned in mid-June, and over the rest of the season, the Angels ranked 13th in turning grounders into outs. Simmons is projected for a 3.8 WAR in 2017.

Also with regards to defense, some might not hold the Angels in high regard for going with Carlos Perez and Jett Bandy behind the plate. Both are sub-.300 on-base percentage guys, but both excel on the defensive end, which isn’t surprising for a Scioscia-led team. Fangraphs gives them a combined 2.4 WAR.

You’ll notice we haven’t mentioned Albert Pujols yet. He’s projected for 1.3 WAR at age 37. His performance is not necessarily integral to the Angels being successful in 2017.

There are high expectations for the starting pitching

The Fangraphs system is bullish on the Angels' starting rotation. It has Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs and Ricky Nolasco combining for 10.6 WAR in 2017. My guess is if the Angels get that, they would a) be contenders and b) pop some champagne.

To get that number, all of this would have to work out well:

• Richards is coming back from a torn elbow ligament. He made six starts in 2016 but is projected for a 2.7 WAR in 2017.

• Shoemaker will return after having his 2016 ended when he was hit in the head by a line drive. He’s projected for a 3.2 WAR in 197 innings.

• Skaggs has totaled 10 major league starts over the past two seasons following Tommy John surgery. He’s projected for a 2.8 WAR in 172 innings, though he’s never come close to that. The folks at Steamer, who provide the projections, noted that Skaggs’ projection is based on the system’s belief that his numbers at his 2016 fastball velocity will translate to better numbers if his velocity increases in 2017.

• Nolasco was pretty good (3.21 ERA) for 11 starts after being obtained from the Twins (where he had a 5.13 ERA over 21 starts) for Hector Santiago. He’s projected for a 4.12 ERA and a 1.9 WAR in 173 innings. That ERA would be the third best of his 11-season career.

One other point is that it’s notable who won’t be getting any innings this season. The 2016 Angels gave 31 starts to previously reliable Jered Weaver, who pitched to a 5.06 ERA (though they did win 16 of them). They also gave nine starts to Tim Lincecum, who finished with a 9.16 ERA. But beyond free-agent signee Jesse Chavez, the question of who might take those innings is a significant one, given the lack of depth at the minor league level.

So now what?

This is not to say the Angels don’t have substantial weaknesses that could hamper their season. Their second basemen project to be sub-replacement level. Their closer, Huston Street, is coming off knee surgery and a 6.55 ERA. And they lack depth should anything go wrong with what we’ve previously mentioned.

Keith Law ranked their farm system worst in baseball a year ago, so there could be a lot of sub-replacement players (Lincecum types) seeing time and taking away wins from the projection.

Arte Moreno’s dollars can fix some of that, but it will be interesting to see if Eppler takes a conservative or aggressive approach to player acquisition at the winter meetings.

When Buck Showalter worked at ESPN, he used to frequently mention that the most important thing for any front office to know is how good its team is. The Angels are something between not terrible and reasonably decent. What they might become remains to be seen.