By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Columnist
@Dochalo's discussion about the "most important player" sent me down another line of thought, in terms of how to consider the team players in terms of their potential impact on the 2022 season. I didn't offer a serious answer in that thread because I couldn't answer it seriously without mentioning the one player that the good doctor asked us not to mention (Mike Trout). Very simply, the importance of a player really comes down to their potential contribution to the team. Meaning, the most important player is the best player; the second most important player, is the second best player, etc. You can adjust this for the depth behind that player, but as a general rule, that ordering holds true.
How to rank the players in this regard? Obviously the easiest way to do so would be via WAR, although one could argue that pitchers should be adjusted upward somewhat. To illustrate this, imagine you could choose for either Anthony Rendon or Noah Syndergaard to have a 4 WAR season in 2022. Who would you choose? 4 wins are 4 wins, regardless of how you come by them, right? The answer should be "Noah Syndergaard" without too much thought, in my opinion. If Syndergaard produces a 4 WAR season it means he was relatively healthy and close to his peak level, or at least his almost-peak level of 2018-19. If Rendon has a 4 WAR, it means he was OK, but far from his peak level. One could argue that both produce the same value, but I think a Syndergaardian 4 WAR season is more important to the team's success than a Rendonian 4 WAR season.
On the the other hand, Rendon's potential impact on the team is arguably greater because there's a solid possibility he performs well above 4 WAR, his last full season being his best, with 7 WAR in 2019.
But the point is, while WAR gives us our best easy baseline, it isn't only about WAR, or at least we can't divorce WAR from context. Potential replacements matter. For instance, imagine if Max Stassi goes out with an injury: the Angels are left with the catching options of Suzuki, Romine, Wallach, and Thaiss. Meaning, there is a huge gulf between Stassi and the rest of the pack, who are all various shades of mediocre back-up options. On the other hand, because Stassi's potential contribution is far less than, say, Anthony Rendon's, he's not as important to the Angels in 2022 (that is, having to swap out Rendon for a replacement level player is far more devastating to the team than swapping out Stassi).
Let's consider the team in tiers of relative importance:
Tier One (Key Players): Trout and Ohtani
These two are arguably the two best players in major league baseball, and certainly the duo with the highest potential. There's even a far-from-non-existent chance that they finish 1st and 2nd in WAR in 2022. If that seems crazy, consider that Ohtani led the majors in overall WAR in 2021, and Trout led it in his last full season in 2019 (and a bunch of years before that). An Ohtani repeat of 2021 (8.1 WAR) and Trout even just going back to his 2019 (8.4 WAR) gives the Angels 16.5 WAR from just two players. To put that in context, here are the best team duos over the last decade (16+ WAR duos in bold) :
2021: Phillies - Harper and Wheeler 13.9
2020: Padres - Tatis and Machado 5.5 (projected to 14.9 over 162 games)
2019: Astros - Bregman and Cole 15.8
2018: Red Sox - Betts and Sale 16.6; also Indians - Ramirez and Lindor 15.8
2017: Indians - Kluber and Ramirez 13.8; also Nationals - Rendon and Scherzer 13.4
2016: Red Sox - Betts and Bradley Jr 13.6; also Angels - Trout and Shoemaker 13.4 (note: they were second the best duo, despite Shoemaker ranking 81st in combined WAR...Trout was just that good)
2015: Nationals - Harper and Scherzer 16.2
2014: Dodgers - Kershaw and Puig 13.9
2013: Cardinals - Molina and Carpenter 15.0
2012: Tigers - Cabrera and Verlander 14.1
2011: Red Sox - Ellsbury and Pedroia 17.4; also Dodgers - Kemp and Kershaw 16.1
In other words, there are only four pairs of team-mates over the last ten full seasons who surpassed 16.0 WAR. That's 4 out of 300 teams (10 years x 30 teams), or 1 out of 75 teams (or 1 ever 2.5 years), or 1.33%.
So while Doc said "anyone but Trout," this angle on the question really requires mentioning him, and pairing him with Ohtani. No players are as important to the team's success in 2022, and it isn't all that close. The questions around them both are similar:
Can Trout stay healthy and, if so, will he return to his peak level of performance and, if so, will he be the "super-dooper great Trout" of 2012-13, 15-16, and 18--five seasons in which he reached 9.3 WAR or higher and averaged 9.8--or merely the "garden variety great" Trout of 2014 and 19, when he had 8.3 and 8.4 WAR, respectively?
Can Ohtani stay healthy and repeat 2021 (8.1 WAR) or even, dare I hope, improve upon it and reach 9 WAR total? While that might seem greedy, consider that all you have to do to get Ohtani to 9 WAR is increase his BABIP a bit closer to his 2018-19 levels and add a few more innings. In other words, you don't even have to make him prove, just add a bit of luck and adjust his innings upward a touch, as is likely to happen.
Meaning, looking only at these two players yield a wide range of potential outcomes. Trout at his very best and even just minor improvement from Ohtani could yield 18 WAR, which would be the best combined performance of the last decade. In fact, to find an 18 WAR pair of team-mates, you have to go back to Barry Bonds who, with his 11.9 WAR, combined with Jason Schmidt for 18.5 in 2004.
On the other hand, disaster is also possible. I don't want to describe it, but you can use your imagination. But the key point is that there are reasonable scenarios--based upon the last four or five seasons of performances--in which these two players produce anything from 5 to 18 WAR. Where they end up on that spectrum will be the most important factor in how good the Angels are in 2022.
Tier Two: Other Key Players - Rendon and Syndergaard
We could do a similar chart to the above, but Dynamic Trios, adding Rendon into the mix. Taking their last healthy full seasons yields 23.1 WAR (Trout 8.4 in 2019, Ohtani 8.1 in 2021, Rendon 7.0 in 2019). That's a big ask--not only hoping that they're all healthy, but all performing at or close to their best. But it is possible, especially when you consider it is just combining their best performances from the last three seasons. Or to put another way, all three have exhibited a superstar caliber of performance within the last two seasons: Rendon in 2020, Trout in 2020-21, Ohtani in 2021. All that needs to happen is that they stay relatively healthy. Given recent history, that's easier said than done, but certainly not impossible - and maybe not even all that unlikely (if we emphasize "relatively").
To put that 23.1 WAR in context, the last time a trio of team-mates produced that high a combined total was the Red Sox in 2011, when Ellsbury (9.5), Pedroia (7.9) and Adrian Gonzalez (6.2) combined for 23.6 WAR.
As a more reasonable benchmark, if these three produce 20 WAR, the team is in great shape. That could be something like Trout 8, Ohtani 7, Rendon 5: all below their best, but good enough to mean good news (i.e. mostly healthy and playing well). 20 WAR trios happen somewhat frequently, but generally mean the best trio in the majors. The last trio to do so was the Astros in 2019, with Bregman (8.4), Cole 7.4), and Springer (6.4) combining for 22.2.
Or we could consider 400 total games played as an over/under for the team having a legit shot at the playoffs. Meaning, if by year's end those three combine for 400 or more games, chances are the Angels were, at least, still legit contenders in September.
I include Syndergaard with Rendon not because I think he's capable of Rendon's potential impact (6+ WAR), but because a healthy season from him gives the Angels a legit #2 or better starter, something they haven't had in years (although Ohtani was close in 2021, but just lacked the innings). We probably shouldn't even hope that "Thor" reclaims peak year of 2016 (6.0 WAR), but a return to 2018-19 (4.2 and 4.3) would give the Angels their first 4 WAR starting pitcher since Garret Richards in 2014 (4.3). They haven't had a 5 WAR starter since 2011, when both Dan Haren and Jered Weaver surpassed that number.
With both Rendon and Syndergaard, it isn't all-or-nothing. Even reduced performances from them, say 5 WAR from Rendon and 3 WAR from Syndergaard, greatly benefits the team.
Tier Three: Very Important Players - Sandoval, Suarez, Fletcher, Stassi, Iglesias
Here we have a group of players whose performance is very important to the team's outlook, but less so than the above quartet. Our eyes will be on Sandoval and Suarez to see if they can build upon 2021 with, if not improvement in quality, at least more quantity (that is, innings). Both performed as middle-of-the-rotation starters, but just in limited innings. If you get them both to qualifying innings (162 IP) at last year's performance level, Sandoval is at 2.8 and Suarez 2.1 WAR. Meaning, a solid #3 and a good #4.
Who is the real David Fletcher? The guy who produced 6.5 WAR in his first 283 games, averaging 3.7 per 162 games played, or the mess of a player we saw in 2021, with 0.3 WAR in 157 games? We can hope that we see at least something closer to the former, as the middle infield without the good (or, at least, better than replacement) version of Fletcher is a big weakness in the lineup. The Angels are already potentially carrying the shortstop position in 2022--unless someone emerges from the bag of mixed infielder nuts that is Luis Rengifo, Matt Duffy, Tyler Wade, Andrew Velazquez, Michael Stefanic, and Brendon Davis. Even a solid 2-3 WAR Fletcher would go a long way to stabilize 1/9th of the lineup.
As mentioned in the intro, the gap between Stassi and the rest of the catching options is enormous. Out of 56 catchers with at least 200 PA over the 2020-21 span, Stassi has quietly been 10th in overall WAR with 3.6. More tellingly, everyone above him on that list has more playing time. If a healthy Stassi means 3 WAR or so, there is no internal option that is likely to produce better than replacement level production, with the lone possible exception being Matt Thaiss, but who is likely to start the year in AAA to work on his catching skills and is buried behind Suzuki, Romine, and possibly Wallach on the depth chart.
Finally, Iglesias. Of all the players mentioned so far, he both has the fewest questions and also the lowest impact in terms of WAR. But this is also where WAR as a singular barometer breaks down a bit. 2021 was his best year by WAR at 2.0 (though he's had three seasons in the 1.4 to 1.9 range, and was on pace for about 2.5 in 2020), so even if he falls back to his 2019 level of 1.2, we're only talking about a 0.8 loss, far less than the potential loss of an injured Stassi or the 2020 version of Fletcher (both 2-3 WAR). But we cannot understate the psychological importance of having a reliable stopper in the bullpen.
As an aside to illustrate the importance of relievers, some people like to say wins are wins, no matter when they occur in the season, just as runs are runs, no matter when they occur in the game. But what is true for both, and especially true within the context of a game, is that there's a huge difference between being down 3-2 in the 2nd inning and 3-2 in the 9th. In the former, you have tons of opportunities to make up that one run, while in the latter, just one more chance. Or, conversely--and more relevant to Iglesias--being up 3-2 in the 2nd vs 3-2 in the 9th. This further points to the limitations of WAR in terms of the valuation of relievers.
Regardless, thankfully this year Raisel will have more help, but he's still a very important player for the Angels in 2022.
Tier Four: Important but not Crucial - Marsh, Adell, Walsh, Lorenzen, Barria, Canning, Loup
It is not that these guys aren't important, just less so than the first three tiers. Marsh and Adell are very important for the team's future, but really only need to hold their own in 2022, at least unless two of the three key trio goes down. I'd argue that Marsh gets the edge over Adell, because of his defensive utility.
Similarly with Walsh who, along with Stassi and Fletcher, only really need to produce more of the same. As nice as his breakout over the last year and change has been, it wouldn't be terribly devastating to lose Walsh's 2.8 WAR at 1B: Matt Thaiss could probably re-produce at least half that, not to mention Stefanic or Davis, or even Upton.
Lorenzen is in a similar category as Marsh and Adell in that his importance is more about what he could add rather than what he must add. Obviously every starter is important, but one could argue that a 2022 season that sees Lorenzen return to the bullpen is good news for the Angels, as it would mean that the younger starters (e.g. Detmers, Daniel, Canning) emerged to take his place. But Lorenzen is also a player who could be a stealth contributor, whether as a solid starter, good reliever, or hybrid.
With Barria, the Angels just need vaguely decent innings out of the 6th spot in the rotation. He doesn't have to make a surprise emergence, just be decent enough to pile up much-needed innings. I would put Canning in a similar category, that he
either needs to pitch a quantity of vaguely decent innings or needs to be solid when he returns from injury to give the rotation a bit of help.
After Iglesias, Loup is the highest upside reliever in the bullpen, and the best candidate to form a strong duo of relievers, something the Angels desperately need. But if he isn't as good as he was in 2021, there are other candidates who could potentially fill his shoes as second fiddle to Raisel. Arguably both Ryan Tepera and Mike Mayers should be in this category, but I wanted to rank them lower than Iglesias and Loup, so put them in tier five.
Tier Five: Worth mentioning but not as important - Upton, Ward, Rengifo-Wade-Duffy-Stefanic-Davis, Suzuki, Mayers, Tepera, Warren, Buttrey, Daniel, Thaiss, Bachman, etc.
I won't go through these guys individually, because any one of their individual performances is less importance than that, as a group of depth, bench, and role-players, they are vaguely decent. Or rather, that a bunch of them are decent. The importance of depth is crucial: not that they need to be really good, but that they need to be adequate and in quantity. In a way, it is not as much that you win because of your depth, but that you lose when you lack it.
Players like Daniel, Thaiss and Bachman shouldn't be relied upon to contribute much in 2022, whether because they're far down the depth chart (Thaiss) or they are unlikely to be ready sooner than late in the season at the earliest (Daniel and Bachman). But they are all players who could have an impact, if they both get an opportunity and make good of it. Meaning, I mention someone like Bachman not because of what he needs to bring, but because of what he could add to the team.
Here is a list of players from tier 4 and 5 who are the "swingiest" in terms of being able to be significant contributors
- Brandon Marsh
- Jo Adell
- Michael Lorenzen
- Taylor Ward
- Mike Mayers
As I implied above, the pressure is only minor to moderate on Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell: all they really need to do is continue to improve at a modest pace, building upon their "semi-breakthroughs" in 2021. As I and others have mentioned, despite being a below average offensive contributor (86 wRC+) in 2021, Marsh produced 1.0 WAR in 70 games, which is a pace of 2.3 over 162 games. Meaning, he could make a significant impact if he continues as is defensively and on the base-paths, and just reaches average with the bat: A 100 wRC+ over 140 games could yield 3-4 WAR.
Similarly with Adell: continued improvement with the bat and approaching adequate defense makes him a solid regular. It is not hard to imagine that 90 wRC+ reaching 110 in 2022.
Michael Lorenzen is a bit of a lottery pick, but is a candidate to put together smatterings of what he's done in the past. He's the type of player who might not attract much notice during the season but, when all is said and done, could add 2-3 WAR through some combination of starting, relief, and even a few at-bats.
Taylor Ward: the misbegotten child. As much as he's been seen as both a drafting guffaw and no more than organizational depth, he actually hit pretty well last year (.250/.332/.438, 111 wRC+). While he was sub-par in the outfield, he was at least a warm body. I'm starting to Brian Goodwin vibes. Goodwin was a clean peanut pick-up who procued a 106 wRC+ and 1.7 WAR in 136 games in 2019. That is really only a mediocre regular, but it is the type of player you want as depth. Meaning, Ward is a player who could become important if one or both of Adell or Marsh struggle and/or Upton doesn't bounce-back.
Finally, Mike Mayers. While 2021 seemed like a disappointment after his breakout 2020, which saw him with a 2.10 ERA and 1.0 WAR in 30 IP, he was still solid (0.7 WAR, 3.84 ERA in 75 IP). A middle-ground between those two performances could make him the third best reliever in a good bullpen.
Honorable Mention: Ty Buttrey. While the Angels aren't relying upon him, if his returned interest in baseball also means a return to 2018-19 performance, all of a sudden the Angels bullpen isn't just good, but deep and strong.
Conclusion: The List
Alright, I'll take a stab at arranging these in order of importance.
- Mike Trout
- Shohei Ohtani
- Noah Syndergaard
- Anthony Rendon
- Patrick Sandoval
- Max Stassi
- David Fletcher
- Raisel Iglesias
- Jose Suarez
- Brandon Marsh
- Joe Adell
- Aaron Loup
- Jared Walsh
- Michael Lorenzen
- Jaime Barria
- One of Luis Rengifo, Matt Duffy, Tyler Wade, Andrew Velazquez, Michael Stefanic, Brendon Davis*
- Ryan Tepera
- Mike Mayers
- Justin Upton
- Austin Warren
- Taylor Ward
- Ty Buttrey
- Sam Bachman
- Matt Thaiss
- Davis Daniel
- A bunch of other guys in the high minors
Or something like that. The higher up the list, the more important the player's performance is to the team's overall success.
*Quick note: I struggled with how to rank these guys. Taken as a single player, none of them are all that important because they come in quantity, but it is pretty important that one of them is at least decent.