Angels observations: The Mike Trout question, Shohei Ohtani's confident and more

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Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani acknowledges the crowd after being pulled from the game against the Oakland Athletics during the second inning of a spring training baseball game, Friday, March 5, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani has nine strikeouts in two pitching outings and is hitting seven for 13 with one monstrous home run so far this spring. (Matt York / Associated Press)

As the Angels reach the halfway point of their Cactus League schedule, here are five observations from the first weeks of spring training.

Confident Ohtani

Yermin Mercedes’ body lurched forward. His knees buckled. His bat swung. The ball dove beneath it.

The Chicago White Sox catcher had struck out on a wicked curveball from Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani. And as he made his way back to the dugout, he pointed to Ohtani as if to say, “You got me.”

By that point in Saturday’s spring training game, Ohtani had thrown 58 pitches across 2-1/3 innings. He’d surrendered six hits and five runs. Despite four strikeouts, he’d been forced to grind. But upon seeing Mercedes’ reaction, the usually reserved Ohtani smiled and chuckled, cracking up at his opponent’s show of respect.

For as promising as Ohtani’s production has been this spring — he is seven for 13 with one monstrous home run and has struck out nine in two pitching outings — that kind of confident, positive demeanor has been just as noticeable.

In Ohtani’s first start this month, manager Joe Maddon liked how he flipped the ball to himself between pitches, looking relaxed and poised on the mound after making only two starts in his injury-plagued 2020.

Around the dugout and clubhouse, Maddon said he also has seen “more of a lightness about him. He’s smiling, laughing more easily. His confidence is growing.”

Where to hit Trout?

The Angels still are experimenting with a key question: Where will Mike Trout bat in the lineup, and who will be slotted in around him?

Sunday was the sixth consecutive time this spring Trout batted second (he hit third in his first two games). Trout has hit second in the majority of his 1,252 career regular-season games, although last year he hit third in 37 of 53 games. Historically, his numbers haven’t differed much in either spot (he has a 1.015 career on-base-plus-slugging percentage batting second and 1.022 batting third).

“I’m still wide open to all of that,” Maddon said. “We’re taking it for a test drive and see what it looks like.”

The other unknown is who will bat behind Trout. Maddon likes Anthony Rendon in that role, but so far this spring Rendon has been directly behind Trout only once. Ohtani and Jared Walsh have done it multiple times.

“It’s not etched in stone by any means,” said Maddon, who also has consulted the front office to help identify the most analytically beneficial batting order. “It’s purely speculative. We’re just looking at as many things as we can.”

Veterans bouncing back

Ohtani isn’t the only player who struggled last year and is heating up this spring.

Justin Upton, who posted a career-low .204 batting average in 2020, is batting .438 in camp with three home runs and five RBIs. And Albert Pujols, in the final season of his 10-year, $240-million contract and coming off his own career-low .224 average, is hitting .444 with three doubles and three RBIs.

“He’s raring to go,” Maddon said of Pujols, who hasn’t decided whether he will retire after the season. “I thought he reported in great shape, which you would expect. And when he’s seeing his pitch right now, he’s not missing it. It looks really good.”

Roster battles

While starters at each position seem settled, there are a few roster battles on the bench that remain undecided.

Among those vying for the fourth outfield spot, Juan Lagares has had the strongest spring thus far. After signing a minor league contract last month, he is eight for 16 with only two strikeouts. He also has three stolen bases.

Infielders Luis Rengifo and Franklin Barreto have earned praise and are hitting .267 and .353, respectively. Rengifo also has started a game in left field as he makes a bid for making the opening day roster as a utility player.

Other players having strong springs include Jose Rojas, who is four for 13 with eight walks, and Scott Schebler, who has two home runs. Meanwhile, Taylor Ward, Matt Thaiss, Phil Gosselin, Jon Jay and Anthony Bemboom are all hitting below .200.

Prospects on the rise

As he’s done various times this spring, Maddon on Saturday turned a question about a prospect — this time, Brandon Marsh — into an assertion about his club’s farm system at large.

“You realize how many young players we’re talking about that we like?” Maddon said. “You hear about us and people denigrate this younger group. But these are some really nice players.”

The “denigration” Maddon is referring to is the low ranking many outlets have given the Angels’ farm system (ESPN, MLB Pipeline and Baseball America all rank the club’s pipeline in the bottom third of MLB).

Maddon thinks the group is underrated, highlighting everyone from top pitching prospects Chris Rodriguez and Reid Detmers to such outfielders as Marsh and Jo Adell and younger players such as Jordyn Adams and Jeremiah Jackson as key cogs to the franchise’s future.

“A lot of great athletes that now, we have to get into the baseball component of it, and get them becoming better baseball players mentally and physically,” Maddon said. “[That is] the kind of guy that you love to work with.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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