By Chad Stewart
At this point, we all know how awful Angels’ left fielders were last year, so there’s no need to harp on that. We also know that the left field situation looks pretty bleak for 2016. However, the left field production in Anaheim can’t possibly be as bad as last year, can it?
Well, maybe. But it’s not likely.
This year’s free agent class of outfielders was as deep as we have seen in a long time, and Arte Moreno passed on all of them, likely because of how so many of his prior investments have not exactly worked out, so there will be a competition for the left field job in Spring Training. Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry are the most likely to this year’s platoon partners, but there are others that have a chance to surprise some people, and make the team out of spring.
Daniel Nava is a switch-hitter, but fares better against right-handed pitching, so he would be this year’s David Murphy, and receive the bulk of the playing time. From 2012-2014, Daniel Nava batted .272/.361/.399. It’s kind of sad to say, but the Angels would be ecstatic if he produced those numbers in 2016. However, last year, in an injury-riddled season albeit, he batted just .194/.315/.245. Angels left fielders combined to bat .212/.274/.302 last year. I did say that it would be almost impossible for Angels left fielders to worse than last year, but this is what worries me. It would be nice to be able to say that there is no reason to worry about his 2015 numbers, as they could end up being no more than an outlier. But Nava’s entering his age-33 season, so his best years might be behind him. He has the potential to be a productive part of the team, but if he struggles to start the season, I hope the Angels have a much shorter leash with him than they did with Matt Joyce in 2015, and give someone else a shot.
Craig Gentry is a right-handed hitter, so he would only be playing against lefties. Throughout his career, Gentry has played above average defense, and has the ability to steal bases effectively with serviceable offensive output. Much like Nava, he has had a couple of standout years, but has struggled recently. He was not good in 2014 with Oakland, and spent much of 2015 in Triple-A. He’s entering his age-32 season, so, like Nava, a bounce-back season is unlikely. I’m not expecting him to put up huge offensive numbers, and he doesn’t necessarily need to. If he can continue to play solid defense and be a threat on the base paths, he could prove to be a useful piece.
While Nava and Gentry are the most likely to form the left field platoon, there are a few others who have a chance to win a spot on the team with strong Springs.
Rafael Ortega is the most intriguing to me. He is a speedy outfielder who plays quality defense, steals bases, and puts the ball in play. The 24-year old Ortega was once a top prospect with the Rockies. Unfortunately, injuries changed that, and he has only appeared in two MLB games, both in 2012 with Colorado. Last year, with the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, he batted .286/.367/.378 with 17 stolen bases in 131 games, and has stolen 136 bases in his 6-year minor league career (581 games). His combination of contact, speed, and defense makes him the type of player Mike Scioscia covets, so he has a legitimate shot at cracking the major league roster come Opening Day if he has a solid Spring Training.
Switch-hitter Ji-Man Choi could be another option, although he is a natural first baseman. The Angels selected Choi in the Rule-5 Draft from the Baltimore Orioles, so he is likely to make the team. In five minor league seasons, Choi batted an impressive .302/.404/.481 with 35 home runs. It will be interesting to see if the Angels try him out in left and deal with his likely sub-par defense in order to improve the team’s offense, assuming his numbers translate to the Show.
Two less likely options are Todd Cunningham and Chad Hinshaw. Cunningham is a great defender with some speed, but has produced lackluster offensive numbers throughout his minor league career and in 47 MLB games. Hinshaw is a player who has produced solid all-around offensive numbers, on top of being a constant stolen base threat (27 SB in 71 games in Double-A in 2015), but does not have experience above Double-A. He could make an impact on the major league team later in the year, but it is not likely he makes the team out of Spring.
Left field is an obvious weakness for the 2016 Angels, and the recent seasons of Nava and Gentry don’t make it look much better. However, players like Ortega and Choi provide a slight glimmer of hope for an improved left field situation. In the end, the Angels will receive better left field production this year than last. Probably.