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ANAHEIM — Within a 48-hour span earlier this month, the Angels revamped their infield by acquiring veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler from the Tigers and signing longtime shortstop Zack Cozart to a three-year, $38 million deal to play third base. While the moves solved two of the Halos’ biggest holes this offseason, one side effect is that they also created a murky situation at first base.
With Cozart slated to be the club’s primary third baseman, a logjam now exists at first, where the Angels are projected to deploy some combination of Luis Valbuena, Albert Pujols and C.J. Cron, with Pujols and Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani splitting designated hitter duties.
The one who stands to lose the most playing time under this arrangement — and thus, the one who could be the most expendable — is Cron, a streaky right-handed hitter who’s limited defensively to first base. Cron, 27, was twice demoted to Triple-A Salt Lake in 2017, though he heated up in the second half after receiving regular playing time in the Majors, and he finished the season batting .248/.305/.437 with 16 home runs in 100 games.
Cron, who earned $565,000 this past season, will be due for his first big raise in 2018, his first year of arbitration, and he will not be eligible for free agency until 2021. As it stands, Cron would likely be limited to starting at first base against left-handers on days when Pujols is manning the DH spot, making his potential impact for the Angels tenuous.
Valbuena, who is owed $8 million in 2018 with a mutual option for ’19, could also be a trade chip, though he’s more valuable to the Halos due to his ability to play both corner-infield spots and his left-handed bat, one of the few in the club’s predominantly right-handed lineup. The 32-year-old veteran batted only .199 in ’17, though he posted a .727 OPS and finished third on the team with 22 homers.
During a conference call to discuss the Cozart signing, general manager Billy Eppler said he would wait until next year before determining the optimal way to divide at-bats at first base.
“We don’t have to fill that out right now,” Eppler said. “We’ll let the rest of the winter play out before we start figuring exactly how that stuff is going to fall.”
Pujols, of course, will be a significant factor in that decision, as it’s unclear how much first base he’ll be able to handle as he enters his age-38 season. Lower-body injuries have hobbled Pujols in recent years, diminishing his foot speed and limiting the former Gold Glove Award winner to only 34 starts at first base between 2016-17. But manager Mike Scioscia has said he’s optimistic Pujols will be able to play the field a couple of times a week next season to free up at-bats for Ohtani.
Unlike the previous two winters, Pujols did not require any offseason surgery this year, allowing him to focus solely on improving his conditioning and nutrition ahead of Spring Training. The Angels are hopeful an uninterrupted fitness regimen will help spur a bounceback season for Pujols, who hit 23 home runs with 101 RBIs in 2017 but also batted .241 with a career-worst .672 OPS.
“I think that he’s going to get a full offseason of conditioning as opposed to rehab, so you would expect that to lead to him coming into Spring Training with a little more strength than he maybe had before when he was rehabbing,” Scioscia said during the Winter Meetings.
The Angels’ .703 OPS at first base was second-last in the Majors in 2017, so the impetus for improvement rests on the mix of Cron, Valbuena and Pujols. But it’s unlikely that the Halos will have room on their roster for all three come Opening Day, especially since they seem to be leaning toward adopting a six-man rotation, which would limit them to a three-man bench and create a greater need for flexibility among their position players. Tough decisions could be ahead for the Angels, but for now, depth is not a bad problem to have.
Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com.