2023 SEASON REVIEW: LOS ANGELES ANGELS

We’ve all heard the phrase that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, that is often (wrongly) attributed to Albert Einstein.

It is emphatically accurate when paired alongside the Los Angeles Angels and the pre-season conviction that this was *finally* the year that expectation and promise would be matched with on-field performance for the franchise.

You only have to look at the article I wrote in March to see that.

There I said;

Every year is our year, every year is the one where they finally put it all together and go on a run, but every year they disappoint. But not this year. Right?

Nicolas J.E. Wright, March 2023

Wrong.

Once again they disappointed, in spectacular fashion. This could well have been the most crushing one yet over this barren, near decade, of failure. As I said then, if you can’t get excited in Spring Training, then the sport isn’t really for you. It’s that one time of year when the playing field is level and hope springs eternal. But, at some stage the reality kicks in. This time it was slightly later than in previous years. We made it to the trade deadline, where we became buyers, before the wheels well and truly fell off. 

The decision to go all-in

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s extremely easy to criticise that move – they were multiple games back of a wildcard spot even at that stage when buying. They decided to sell off the few prospects of note they had in a fairly thin system of high-end talent for rental pieces. They were entering the month of August with a spectacularly difficult schedule ahead of them. And they were already decimated by injuries, which made any hopes of success extremely unlikely.

On top of this, the decision to go all in as buyers was, we suspect, strongly influenced by a cocktail of desperation to show Shohei Ohtani in a contract year that this was a franchise that cared about, and could deliver, winning baseball, and an owner who decided late in a sale process to withdraw from those proceedings as he felt that he had an unfinished business.

I said at the time I thought this would backfire – I didn’t believe we were even close to being in a position that buying would be beneficial to the short, medium or long-term future of this club, but at the same time, I also said that it’s very hard to criticise a team doing their all to try and win. Ultimately, that’s what we all want to see from our teams, so you had to at least applaud the effort from the front office to finally break the playoff-less run and put a product on the field that could compete within a very strong American League (AL) West.

Unfortunately, August was a disaster. Lucas Giolito, the headline acquisition for the Halos, had some horrendous performances during his short period as an Angel. Others, such as CJ Cron, failed to make any impact before getting injured. The Angels went from just a few games back of a wildcard at the start of the month, to losing seven games in a row, including being swept by a resurgent Mariners team. Series defeats to the Blue Jays, Braves, Mariners, Astros, Rangers, Rays, Reds and Phillies all in August took this team tumbling down into the draft lottery conversation rather than the post-season. It also saw all the Halos contract year players, including those newly acquired trade pieces, stuck on waivers to try and clear some of the cost that had put them over the luxury tax.

This could have some ramifications for the long term future of the team, and the difference between acquiring a 2nd or a 4th round pick in the upcoming draft. This of course is linked to the impending free agency of Shohei Ohtani, and the widespread expectation that he moves on to pastures new. There is no word yet about whether the Angels did manage to sneak back under the luxury tax, just that it is going to be extremely tight.

How to (or not) solve a problem like Shohei

Of course, the decision not to trade Shohei Ohtani is one that was much talked about across the baseball world. It was looming over the Angels for the past 18 months, and now looks to once again be a mistake as the Angels are set to get very little should he depart. I always argued that a smart forward-thinking baseball team would have traded him last year at the deadline. The haul would have been large and could have at least gone some way to replenishing a farm system in need of an infusion of talent.

However, as a fan it’s very hard to even consider the possibility of Shohei leaving. It’s a pleasure to watch him on a daily basis – it’s a little bit of baseball history on show every night and getting that opportunity is something I never wanted to take for granted. I also understand that, as a businessman, it was a difficult call to part with a superstar that brings in huge revenue from the Japanese market and is a marketing dream as a global superstar. You only had to look around Angel Stadium and at the giveaways on offer to know how much this was leaned into by the franchise. In many ways, the Angels could not win. 

At this point, we cannot talk about the year that was without acknowledging another incredible season for our Japanese phenom. A 10-5 record with 167 strikeouts and a 3.14 ERA.  44 HR’s, 95 RBI, 20 SB with an OPS of 1.066. Injury cruelly robbed us of the final month of pitching for Shohei, and him on the mound in 2024, but this was another remarkable season from the most talented player in history. It’s sure to bring him a second MVP when awards season rolls around, and a special way to most likely sign off from his Angels career. He’s once again one of the few positives that came from a year with so much promise, but ended with a 73-89 record.

Image credit: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

In terms of other positives you have to look at the young guys. Logan O’Hoppe showed in his very shortened season that he has all the potential to be an All-Star catcher for the Angels. 14 HR’s in just 182 AB’s and an OPS of nearly .800, while showing that he can handle a major league pitching staff was extremely promising. Zach Neto was brought up early in the year, with the Angels continuing their aggressive promotions and took to major league baseball like a duck to water. He brought the swagger and energy that just showed he belonged at that level, flashing with both glove and bat, and he’s going to be a big part of the Angels franchise moving forward. What was most surprising and pleasing was the leadership qualities both these young guys seemed to bring. Nolan Schanuel came up, virtually straight from college, and broke the Angels record in terms of getting on base in consecutive games to start a career, and continues to work towards the Major League record. Finally, Brandon Drury, aside from injury, was an excellent signing with 26 bombs and an .803 OPS, while Luis Rengifo proved in the back half of the year that he could handle everyday AB’s, with much better production than as a utility player off the bench.

That’s probably where the positives end.

What else derailed the season

I’m not one to make excuses for this team. The issues over the past decade go so much further than this, but it has to be noted it’s another season for the Halos completely derailed by injury. The Angels placed 34 players on the injured list this year, some on multiple occasions, and less than a handful of players lasted the full season on the roster. This injury record was the third-highest in the majors and one that Angels fans have become accustomed to. Trout missed several months of the season, again, having played only 50% of games over the last three years. Rendon once again missed the majority of the season, proving to be the worst contract in baseball by a significant margin. On top of that, his attitude and body language suggests a disdain for the franchise, for the fans and the game of baseball. Injuries happen, they’re inevitable and frustrating for all parties, but how you handle them makes a big difference and Rendon’s behaviour leaves a sour taste in the mouth for most Angels fans. On top of this we saw major injuries to Gio Urshela, Brandon Drury, Zach Neto, Logan O’Hoppe, Taylor Ward and Luis Rengifo and Shohei Ohtani down the stretch. It’s extremely hard to compete when the majority of your lineup goes down for significant periods of the season. The same can be said of the young bullpen arms that were brought up this year. Players like Sam Bachman and Ben Joyce who should have key roles going forward for the Angels, succumbed to injuries alongside a host of bullpen arms.

In the off-season, I talked up this rotation. With Shohei leading the way, I thought we had some great depth behind him who were about to take the next step in their development. 2022 was a good year for Halos pitching and the rotation, and the logical conclusion was that they were continuing improving this year. Patrick Sandoval, coming off the back of a stellar performance against Team USA at the WBC and a 2022 ERA of 2.91, should have been a leader in this rotation. And yet, what we saw was a pitcher seemingly unable to control his emotions and an unravelling on the mound that led to regressing to a 4.11 ERA and a 7-13 record.

Nick with Angels pitcher Patrick Sandoval
Image credit: Author’s own

I also expected Reid Detmers to improve, a pitcher with the potential to be a front line guy, but it was a season plagued with inconsistency. He ended it with a 4.48 ERA, a 4-10 record and question marks about what happens next. He did end the year on a positive note with a strong run of games, but he is going to need to step up next year as a leader.

The backend of the rotation was good at times. It was nice to see Canning healthy and pitching again, Silseth flashed his promising stuff on occasion, but there is plenty to work on and not huge amounts of depth. No Angels pitcher got over the 150IP mark this year, and Tyler Anderson, the off-season pitching acquisition, was extremely disappointing with a 5.43 ERA. I think everyone expected regression from him coming over from the Dodgers. But the levels of the performance got nowhere close to living up to the terms of the three year deal he was signed to.

What now?

The Angels are now entering the off-season with a host of question marks and big decisions to make. This year felt like last-chance saloon before acknowledging the need to change approach and potentially rebuild. How often can they continue patching together these rosters around ageing superstars that cannot stay on the field? Questions around Trout’s ability to stay healthy remain, and his future as an Angel. Nothing suggests he or the team have any intention of initiating trade talks, and I’ve always maintained Trout will remain an Angel for life. However, you could tell in his post-season interview how visibly upset and frustrated he was to have another year truncated by injury. The Angels cannot afford to rely on him as they once did and need to find solutions that work with and without Trout in the lineup.

They need to come to a decision on Anthony Rendon too. They cannot rely on him at all, and yet, with such a huge financial commitment attached to him, how do they reconcile with that situation? I’ve suggested previously that they just need to buy out that contract, take the huge hit, and try to move forward with the young players they have. I cannot see any way he contributes to the team going forward. They are likely to lose their other superstar to free agency, freeing up cash, but leaving holes at DH but, most importantly, at starting pitcher. How do the Angels mitigate for these massive gaps appearing on the roster, in a weak free agent class, and with a team unable to win even with him on the field every night? The Angels have always refused to go into full rebuild mode. In many ways, this is admirable to have that commitment to winning, despite a failure of strategy, but ultimately, it’s left them now in a position with no viable options to quickly improve. Do they need to break it all down and commit to a fullscale rebuild around the young talent on the roster? We’ve seen it work for some division opponents, but also fail for others in the league, such as Detroit. 

The AL West is an extremely tough place to be now. The Astros continue to be perennial World Series contenders. The Rangers have rebuilt and then spent big to put together a playoff squad, and the Mariners have a pitching staff to the envy of most of baseball. For the Angels to compete with them, they need major upgrades in the rotation, bullpen and the lineup, and yet, after the season we’ve had, and the farm system as it is, it’s hard to see where that could come from. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as despondent after a season as this one, but it does feel like things could get worse before they get better.

Phil Nevin has already paid the price for another losing season. He’s out as Angels manager, and, while I’m not sure he got everything right, I do feel sorry for him for the hand he’d been dealt. The problems this year certainly went well beyond his management of the team.

Nick meeting Angels Manager Phil Nevin in May
Image credit: Author’s own

Perry Minasian seems to be staying on as GM, and he really needs to earn his paycheque. He has some huge decisions to make and not many obvious options. The final discussion point from this year is the impact of Arte Moreno staying on as owner. There was widespread jubilation at the prospect of him selling the team. Angels fans were ready for a new approach. For money to be spent in the right areas on player development and scouting. For a new stadium or major renovations that are desperately needed. And on the right spending for the Major League team. Areas that the Angels have lagged behind on for some time. Their fanbase was ready for a new era and, when the sale process was terminated, I think it left a lot of fans incredibly disappointed. Despite going over the tax for the first time this year, there is a major disconnect and disillusionment between the fanbase and its ownership and a feeling that nothing will ever change unless Moreno leaves.

In closing

It’s been a tough year for all connected with this team. For the players, the staff, the front office, ownership, but, most importantly, the fans.

I did, once again, make it over to Anaheim in May. We still had hope and promise. It was another incredible trip – I love my time there, the people I meet and connect with and the staff in the organisation that truly excel at offering their hospitality. I cannot speak highly enough of them. But this franchise deserves better. This fanbase deserves better. I try to remain optimistic, but right now, after the year that was, it’s hard to see where that improvement comes from.

Nevertheless, Go Halos.

Featured image – Author’s own.

Nick Wright is the Los Angeles Angels correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. Follow him on X @LAAngelsUK.

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