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The Angels are baseball’s sneakiest almost-maybe contending team

It takes some imagination to get the Angels into the postseason, but they’ve been making some quietly productive moves.

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Start with the obvious. The Angels have the best player in baseball. They have one of the best players ever to play baseball. He is so, so, so very good. If all the players in the world were thrown into a hat, and teams had to start over with a massive, 30-team expansion draft, the Angels would have the equivalent of the first-overall pick, and it’s not especially close. There’s a reason why Kole Calhoun got an extension.

What’s that? Forget it, I’m rolling. When a team starts with the best player in baseball, and he’s just 25 years old, that team has one of the biggest roster-building advantages in history. Here’s a player who’s almost twice as valuable as some of the very best players, and he’s all yours. Figure out the next 24 spots. It’s a simple math equation, really.

Last year, the Angels solved for x, but they did it in one of those adorable Amelia Bedelia ways that gets shared on Facebook. They lost 88 games, dropping out of the race around the end of May. In the wild American League West, they entered the offseason looking like a distant fourth- or fifth-place lock. They were, in the words of one square-jawed, no-nonsense writer, “hosed.”

Except, what if they weren’t that bad to begin with? Focusing on the 88 losses is understandable, but their Pythagorean record was a more respectable 80-82. Their entire rotation fell into a wood chipper except for their worst starter, and there were several failed experiments that seemed like good ideas at the time — Jhoulys Chacin, Tim Lincecum, and the Craig Gentry/Daniel Nava platoon come to mind.

My prognosis last year:

So if they can't rebuild or reload, what can they do?

N ... nothing?

There isn't a damned thing the Angels can do other than hope for assorted miracles until the good young pitchers heal.

Rebuilding was out of the question because they still had Trout, and there’s no sense in not building around him. Reloading would be hard because the farm system was empty and the budget was stretched. The Angels needed to make quiet, smart moves that didn’t cost a lot of money, and they needed to get their starting pitchers healthy. Good luck with that.

Except, hold on, that’s just what they did. They traded for Danny Espinosa, which isn’t very exciting at all, but it just might give them the best keystone defense since Vizquel/Alomar, and it replaces a total void in last year’s lineup. They traded for Cameron Maybin and signed Ben Revere, which isn’t very exciting at all, except they replace a total void in last year’s lineup. They signed Jesse Chavez, which isn’t very exciting at all, except it replaces a total void in last year’s rotation.

You can see the pattern. Then they signed Luis Valbuena to a very reasonable $15 million deal, which was one of the best contracts of the offseason. Suddenly, their lineup looks ... well, I’m not going to write that it looks good. But it looks like it has a purpose. It looks like there’s some reason behind it, with players who are likely to help on one side of the ball, at least.

The rotation is murkier, with the Angels hoping that last year’s unlikely resurgence from Ricky Nolasco was the new rule, not an exception. Garrett Richards opted for rest and rehabilitation on his elbow instead of Tommy John, and Andrew Heaney probably won’t be back in 2017. The minor leagues should offer very, very little help, unless they can scrounge up another Matt Shoemaker-type gem no one is expecting.

So I come here today not to suggest that, wink wink, you should buy stock in the Angels and their surprising 2017 title run, but that there were a lot of ways they could have screwed up a bad situation. Instead, they’ve made things a little better, while not mortgaging their plans to spend again in the post-Hamilton future. They could have splurged $120 million on Yoenis Cespedes. They could have come away with Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner, and a middle finger extended toward the north, and that might have been an improvement over all the moves up there, but it wouldn’t have made fiscal sense, not for a team still trying to establish a long-term identity.

I’ll guess 78 to 84 wins, with a better chance at 95 losses than 95 wins, but that doesn’t mean you can’t admire the Angels’ pragmatic, opportunistic offseason. They haven’t done anything that will hurt their future. They still have a glimmer for their present. And assuming they weren’t going to out-White Sox the White Sox and tear the roster down to the studs by trading a 25-year-old Hall of Famer for a farm system, they needed that glimmer. Andrelton Simmons is young and can improve. Richards and Tyler Skaggs are young and can improve. Albert Pujols is ... well, he can be as good as he was, at least.

And they still have Trout. The difference is that instead of slapping him together with a replacement-level player and pretending they have two four-win players, they get to sprinkle guys with a chance to do something in 2017. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but once it was clear the Angels were unspeakably hosed in May of last year, this was pretty close to their best-case scenario.