Over the last ten seasons, otherwise known as the Trout Era, the Los Angeles Angels have underperformed, to say the least. They’ve made the playoffs once (2014) but didn’t win a game, have broken 90 wins only once, finished third or lower in the American League West seven times, and in 2020 stumbled through their fifth losing season in a row despite an inflated payroll and a perennial MVP.
Mike Trout, now through his age 29 season, is arguably the best player in the world. He has been the centrepiece in Anaheim since his debut in 2011, but the front office has yet to build a contending team around him. The organisation has been mired in unsuccessful moves that have impacted their ability to build a competitive lineup. It hasn’t been pretty seeing players in the clubhouse consistently underperform while the prospect pool struggles to provide much hope for the future.
I’ve nailed down a couple of reasons why the Angels have been this way for so long. It’s not necessarily a product of bad management or a lack of trying. Instead, I actually think it’s a kind of stubbornness that has led the team to, time and again, attempt to buy and trade their way to victory. That’s just not how it works in this game.
High-profile signings with largely unfavourable results
Under the leadership of general managers Jerry Dipoto (2011-2015) and Billy Eppler (2015-2020), the Angels have gone after some big names. The Angels have a history of buying talent at a premium that hasn’t added the kind of impact they’d hoped.
Albert Pujols is probably the biggest name on this list and is emblematic of the team’s struggles to see production from their high-potential additions. He signed a ten-year $254 million free agent deal with the Angels in December of 2011 that will take him through 2021, his age 41 season. In hindsight, he signed in what was the backside of his career peak. In his final four seasons with the Cardinals in which he won two NL MVP awards, he led the majors in multiple offensive categories and never hit fewer than 37 home runs. Three of the four seasons he notched a batting average of over .310 and reached a career high 9.7 WAR in 2009.
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But since he arrived in Anaheim, things have been different. No disrespect to The Machine, but he’s a great example of deep investment in an aging star that hasn’t worked out in the Angels’ favour. His batting average hasn’t risen above .300 over his nine seasons and he’s been named to the American League All-Star team only once, in 2015. In those nine years, he’s hit 217 home runs compared to 445 in eleven years as a Cardinal.
Though on a much different scale, the same can be said for troubled slugger Josh Hamilton, whom the Angels signed prior to the 2013 season to the tune of five years and $125 million. As a Texas Ranger, Hamilton was an All-Star in each of the five seasons prior to the deal and hit 43 home runs in 2012. But in line with the theme, he played just two uninspired seasons of his L.A. contract, plagued by a shoulder injury, and was dealt back to Texas in 2015.
On paper, both players were a great fit for the direction the club was going. The Angels knew they had a budding star in Trout and worked (and paid) to add the productive veterans around him with varying degrees of success and longevity.
The last few years have arguably been closer to the mark with the addition of elite defender SS Andrelton Simmons, young two-way phenom RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani, and former NLCS and World Series MVP 3B Anthony Rendon all adding more fight to the lineup. That being said, this round isn’t going quite as expected, either.
Simmons is a four-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop with a decent hit tool, but he’s struggled with a recurring ankle injury, opted out of the second half of 2020 and is headed to free agency. Ohtani has struggled to regain his pitching form following Tommy John surgery and focused on his DH role to below-average results. Rendon seems to be the highest payoff of the group so far, having put up a strong .286/.418/.497 batting line this season and holding it down well at third. The good news is that Rendon is locked in for six more seasons.
Even with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in household names in the last decade, the Angels are still leaning heavily on their franchise player. Outside of Rendon and starter Dylan Bundy in 2020 and Simmons in 2017, no other Angels players have outpaced Trout in the WAR category since 2011.
There’s more work to do. Angels owner Arte Moreno is known for getting involved in front office dealings and paying top dollar to help his team win. It’s time to get a little more creative than always seeking the slugger. Part of the conversation has to be about making sure the players joining the team are moving toward their peak rather than descending from it, which casts attention to the lack of organisational depth.
Farm system woes
OF Brandon Marsh and LHP Reid Detmers are two bright spots in an otherwise underdeveloped Angels prospect pipeline. The two players, of which Marsh is the closer to big league play, are the only two Angels prospects in MLB’s top 100. Many of the Angels’ other top names are young, potentially two or more years away from being ready to help the big club.
Outside of the big-time free agent signings, the Angels have also been fairly active on the trading block, which has impacted their organisational depth. To acquire current number one starter Dylan Bundy from Baltimore, they surrendered four pitchers; in exchange for Simmons, they traded top prospect LHP Sean Newcomb to Atlanta; and for lefty Dillon Peters, who only started one game for L.A. and lasted just one and two-thirds innings, the Angels sent promising power arm Tyler Stevens to Miami.
Strictly speaking, perhaps the Angels have a “right here, right now” problem, where the allure of immediate success is clouding their ability to plan for the future, roster-wise. The other issue is that so many of the prospects who have been sent elsewhere in these trades have been pitchers, which is the biggest and most pressing concern for the Angels if they want to work themselves into AL West contention alongside the dominant A’s and Astros. To even think about contending in the next few seasons, the arms have to be there, and they have to be effective enough to deflate the atrocious team ERA that’s plagued this team for years.
I just said it, but I’ll say it again. This team is suffering from a classic problem: they surrender more runs than they can score. The Angels ranked 27th of 30 in team ERA in 2020 and 20th over the last five years. No matter how many home runs Trout, Rendon and co. can hit, they just won’t win if the rotation consists of three pitchers and two tall houseplants and the bullpen struggles to hold a lead.
Free agents like Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Wheeler who would have shored up the rotation ended up signing elsewhere during the free agency season of winter 2020, despite Moreno and Eppler offering big money. What’s to be done if the biggest names just won’t come? If this season taught the Angels anything, it should be to count on the medium names. The workhorses who have been around a little bit and have been consistent are the guys to call on for stability and a chance to win.
Look at Dylan Bundy, who’s a prime example. He was steady with the Orioles, good for thirty starts or so a season with average stuff, then arrived in Anaheim and put up career bests in ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts per nine. The ball stayed in the park when it was in the air and he induced ground balls to the tune of over 40%. That’s how a team can win ball games.
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When asked about his offseason priorities, manager Joe Maddon talked about what he learned from the final series of the season, getting swept by the division champion Dodgers. “On the field, we can play with them any day of the week,” he said. “But we have to pitch better in order to beat that particular group, which is something that really was highlighted.”
If I were making the decisions, I’d do three things with the pitching corps:
- Add a couple of strong relievers to the bullpen for middle- and late-inning leverage situations. Free agents like Philly’s Brandon Workman and Minnesota’s Trevor May could be good fits.
- Invest in an elite starter. Trevor Bauer, Rick Porcello, and Masahiro Tanaka are all free agents this offseason and would be great number ones to complement Bundy, Andrew Heaney, and Griffin Canning in the rotation. Even a guy like James Paxton, who’s coming into free agency after only starting five games due to injury, offers a huge upside if he bounces back. Plus, the club won’t have to give up any prospects to get them.
- Keep Ohtani off the mound for now. Even though Maddon and Angels leadership have expressed support for his continued pursuit of two-way play, he’s been taking ground balls at first and working in the outfield, which I think is good news. He’s 26, can hit for average and for power, and has many years ahead of him to get that elbow in pitching shape. For now, though, having him in the rotation is more risk than is worth it, especially since his command and velocity have been well off the mark since returning to the mound. If the team can add a little extra firepower in the offseason, he can build back up without the added pressure of maintaining a starting spot.
Angels president John Carpino said, in the days following the end of the shortened 2020 season, that “every day” he feels the responsibility of doing right by Mike Trout. ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez absolutely knocked it out of the park when he said that the Angels “aren’t merely squandering opportunities – they’re tarnishing the legacy of one of the greatest players in baseball history,” by letting another October pass without Trout in the playoff mix.
Trout has said himself that he “doesn’t like losing,” and has ostensibly signed on to be an Angel for life with a twelve-year $426.5 million contract in March of 2019. With ten years left and his age 30 season approaching, the Angels have to move quickly and decisively if they want to reach the next level of success with their superstar at the helm.
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