It is an annual cry from well-meaning baseball fans: Mike Trout needs to be liberated from the Angels. The cry has been heard again in recent days, with the Angels crashing into last place in the American League West.
If Trout were desperate for liberation, he would not be here. He likes the Angels, from the owner to his teammates. He believes he can win here. He approached free agency twice, and each time he signed a contract extension in Anaheim.
What if Shohei Ohtani does not feel the same way?
With the Angels teetering toward another lost season, and with Ohtani emerging as baseball’s must-see attraction, that question looms larger by the day. At the end of this season, Ohtani will be two years from free agency: the time when Trout made his most recent commitment to the Angels, and the time when the Angels could get maximum trade value for Ohtani if he were not prepared to make a similar commitment.
The Angels are caught in a vicious cycle: an owner respectfully unwilling to tank, a bottom-tier minor league system, a wave of unproductive drafts, and consistently poor pitching that undermines a pretty good lineup. In the last few years, the attempted fix has been short-term contracts to fill out the rotation.
If that were to work, that still would leave a hole or two for the following season. It has not worked for the Angels, with the worst earned-run average in the major leagues, four starters on expiring contracts, and a first-round draft pick who might or might not be able to replace one of those four starters.
The Angels also lead the majors in errors. And, for the “at least they can hit” crowd, well, the hitting is not very good this year.
The Angels and Dodgers each had eight players with at least 100 plate appearances entering Tuesday. The Dodgers had seven players who rated above league average, all but surging infielder Gavin Lux. The Angels had three: Ohtani, first baseman Jared Walsh and Trout, likely to remain on the injured list into July.
Of the five Dodgers starting pitchers, all rate above league average. Of the six Angels starting pitchers, only Ohtani rates above league average.
The Angels have not posted a winning record in six years, have not played a postseason game in seven years, and have not won a postseason game in 12 years. Angel Stadium might reopen to full capacity next month, but not to sold-out crowds.
“There are some exciting players on this team,” general manager Perry Minasian said Tuesday. “It’s early in the season. There’s a lot of season left. Walking through that room, and knowing the personnel we have, and the personalities, this is not a team I would give up on.”
When I asked Minasian how the Angels could get out of their vicious cycle, he was not ready to give up on the team’s latest stopgap winter.
In his first offseason as general manager, he fortified the roster with veterans on one-year contracts, including closer Raisel Iglesias, starting pitchers Alex Cobb and José Quintana, shortstop José Iglesias, catcher Kurt Suzuki, outfielder Dexter Fowler and just about an entire bullpen. With the exceptions of relievers Steve Cishek and Tony Watson, all rate below league average.
“We felt good about what we did this offseason,” Minasian said. “Guys haven’t necessarily performed up to their capabilities.
“We’re still in May. There’s a lot of season left. I know we’re not happy with where we are in the standings, but … there have been teams that have gotten off to slow starts that turn it around. We hope to be one of those clubs. We like the guys we have in that locker room. We think there is talent here. We need to play better.”
The Angels could play better, or they could blow up the roster by the time Trout returns. If they do, that would leave Ohtani’s future as a looming question.
There is no indication Ohtani is unhappy in Anaheim. The Angels have afforded him maximum flexibility. And, given that he left about $200 million on the table by not waiting another two years to come from Japan, money does not appear to be his driving force.
What if the Angels do not win? He could stay in Southern California and win. In 2024, the first year after Ohtani’s commitment to the Angels expires, the Dodgers have only Mookie Betts on their payroll. There is little the Dodgers love more than positional flexibility, and what could be better than an ace and slugger all in one?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.