I’m going to be totally honest with you here, I was absolutely dreading having to write this column for the Angels franchise. Once upon a time, the “other LA team” was as formidable a Free Agent foe as there was. The Angels seemingly endless pockets saw them dish out absurd contract offers to some of the game’s highest profile stars. Guys like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and CJ Wilson were paid handsomely to suit up in an Angels’ uni. But those massive deals never really panned out, and because of it the Angels have become far more timid on the open market. Plus if you take into account the fact that their farm system has been unable to produce any quality talent since Mike Trout back in 2012, this isn’t exactly an organization that’s churning out breakout stars on the regular.
An anomaly came last year in the form of rookie sensation Shohei Ohtani. But seeing as the big league-ready Japanese star spent no time in the Angels’ farm system, I don’t really credit them with his development or early success. If anything, the mismanagement of Ohtani proved to be something of a detriment, and it has resulted in a couple of early stints on the DL which will extend at least through mid-season this year depending on the results of his Tommy John surgery.
So with the Angels, the trick is to identify a current member of the big league roster with surprising upside and the frequent opportunities laid out in front of him to capitalize on. That list is obnoxiously slim, and because of that I’ve even given some legitimate thought to naming new manager, Brad Ausmus as my pick. There’s some merit to that claim here too. In his very young coaching career, he already has a 90+ win season under his belt. But because of how stacked that 2014 Detroit team was, he is often ignored as a contributing factor…and perhaps that’s fair given that in the next 3 seasons he sputtered out to 224-260 record before eventually getting the ax. But if he could make a contender out of this roster of misfits that LA has assembled around Mike Trout, then there has to be some consideration for him as their breakout star of 2019.
As enticing as that idea is, I think my money is in much safer hands if I role with a middle reliever with closing potential. The Angels have tons of holes in their lineup and rotation, but perhaps the most disappointing feature of this roster has been their bullpen. Where the rest of baseball has turned the corner in properly evaluating and prioritizing their bullpen in recent years, the Angels have maintained this pretty old-school thought process in which relievers are a legitimate after thought. Outside of adding former All-Star Closer, Cody Allen from the Indians over the winter, there has been little else done to improve on a very weak bullpen.
This opens the door for one of their own to really establish himself as a late inning threat. Seeing as most of the other guys out there have a slew of blown saves already on their resume or have been relegated to the bullpen as punishment for being a bad starter…only one guy really has a chance to establish himself as a prime setup-man to Allen. That guy is 25 year old righty, Keynan Middleton. After making his debut in 2017 to the tune of a 2.04 ERA over 17 and two-thirds innings, Middleton regressed to a degree in 2018. He faced more hitters and his weaknesses were exposed at a much higher clip. But he was able to sustain his ability to strike guys out, making hitters miss to the tune of a K an inning.
Middleton will likely be getting the first crack at late inning relief for the Angels, and unless the entire starting rotation miraculously learns to routinely give strong outings, odds are that Middleton will be seeing a lot of innings. Sure more innings means more opportunities for opponents to get the drop on you, but if Middleton is ready to take that next step then more innings really means more chances to show the world what he’s got.