The future for Mike Trout and the Angels

Image result for mike trout
Given what Mike Trout’s experienced as an Angel, this expression seems fitting.   Getty Images

The best baseball player in the world will be a free agent after the 2020 season. Those words reverberate through the hearts and minds of every Los Angeles Angels fan and executive. The clock is ticking.

Mike Trout, drafted by the Angels with the 26th pick in the 2010 draft, chose to sign away a few free agency seasons back in 2014 when he signed a 6-year, $144 million deal. It was a smart deal for both team and player.

For Trout, he made a lot of money. Injuries happen, even to the elite, and securing that much cash at a young age was wise. For the Angels, buying two of those free agency years (and thus keeping Trout off the market a smidge longer) was obviously wise.

And since then, he’s done nothing but be the unquestioned best player alive, a ridiculous combination of offensive explosiveness and efficiency at a premium defensive position.

I mean, just look at this:

Season wRC+ WAR
2015 171 9.3
2016 170 9.6
2017 181 6.9
2018 191 9.8

I promise I didn’t make those numbers up; Trout’s excellence is generational, if not something even bigger. Trout is so good that words fail me. We’ll be telling our grandkids about him.

By Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Trout sits right now at 64.7 after only 1065 games played. That’s ridiculous. He’s one normal Mike Trout season away from passing a bunch of Hall of Famers, including Tony Gwynn (65.0 WAR in 2440 games), Robin Yount (66.5 in 2856), Barry Larkin (67.0 in 2180) and Jim Thome (69.0 in 2543).

If he has two more normal Mike Trout seasons, he passes Reggie Jackson (72.7 in 2820), Derek Jeter (72.8 in 2747), Johnny Bench (74.8 in 2158) and Ken Griffey Jr. (77.7 in 2671). And, if by chance he goes nuclear and puts up 20 WAR in the next two seasons, suddenly he’s passed Joe DiMaggio (83.1 in 1736).

Think about that. Those are legends and Trout will likely cruise past so many of them in the next 24 months. Obviously, we can’t know how his thirties will play out. How could we? But as it stands now, Mike Trout has a  chance to be the best player who ever lived.

And he’s played exactly three playoff games. He’s won zero. Back in 2014, the Royals swept the Angels out of the playoffs unceremoniously, and that was that. The team has climbed over .500 only once since then.

How? Armed with Willie Mays reincarnate, how in the world have the Angels managed to be mediocre? To be fair, the 2018 AL West had three teams win at least 89 games. But, each year hasn’t been so stacked. Since 2016, the division has been roughly been Houston and everyone else.

The Angels have been pretty good offensively (I wonder why?) and generally not good at all on the mound:

Season wRC+ FIP
2018 100 (10th) 4.36 (21st)
2017 93 (29th) 4.43 (17th)
2016 99 (11th) 4.62 (29th)

You’ll never guess what happened in 2017; Trout missed a chunk of the season. Pull him off this team and they pick high in the draft, and that’s despite OF Justin Upton (okay-to-good) and SS Andrelton Simmons (great). One hopes that Shohei Ohtani comes back healthy after Tommy John surgery, but I have serious doubts about his future as a pitcher. (He’s probably a darn good DH, though. The power is legit.) 2B David Fletcher profiles as a solid regular and RF Kole Calhoun struggled through 2018 after an oblique strain and a spike in his strikeout rate.

Ultimately, the team is hurt by the complete collapse of 1B Albert Pujols (one wonders how the Trout era might look had Pujols declined more gracefully) and the return to normal of 3B Zack Cozart, who carries a solid glove but hasn’t hit a lick except for his contract year (and how he’s battling an injury).

The Angels boast fairly meh pitching — I mean, other than Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs, just look at the depth chart — and a glance at their farm system suggests nothing of impact is coming on the mound. The bullpen looks rough but more moves could be coming.

So how can they fix it? The Angels face a reckoning. There’s little reason to believe Trout, a native of New Jersey, will choose to stay throughout his prime with the Angels unless they offer such an absurd amount of money that to refuse would be foolish. The Angels could do so — they aren’t afraid to spend money, with payrolls the last three seasons higher than $164 million — but would he stay?

Consequently, these are crucial days for the Angels. You’ve got this winter and next to leap into contention. Ken Rosenthal reported earlier this winter that the team was more active than expected, and made runs at RHPs Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi. Neither panned out. Overall, the Angels have signed RHP Matt Harvey, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Cody Allen, 1B Justin Bour and C Jonathon Lucroy.

Harvey still might have some above-average years in his arm — then again, he also might only have 50 innings left. It’s a lottery ticket. Cahill was pretty solid last year in Oakland, but he hasn’t thrown more than 150 innings since 2012. Allen is fresh off a rough year closing for the Indians, but was an above-average reliever for several years before. There were superior bullpen options available to the Angels earlier this offseason.

Bour has shown flashes at the plate (unsure exactly where he plays with Pujols clogging first and Ohtani likely occupying DH). Lucroy was once a valuable player but has fallen apart with the bat. These moves aren’t likely to move the needle.

How can the Angels squeeze into October? Regression from Oakland and Seattle is possible (maybe even likely), but the Angels played roughly .500 ball against them last year. Houston should remain Houston. Basically, this team needs the big boys to be as good or better and then a breakthrough or three on the mound to contend. Is it possible? Yes. Who knows, maybe Ohtani blasts 50 homers. Maybe Cozart gets healthy and hits again. Maybe Pujols scratches out a 115 OPS+.

The path is visible. It can happen — but there are only two Wild Card spots and one of them belongs to New York or Boston. Things are tight. Adding a top free agent like Corbin or even one of the Machado or Harper would close it. But it won’t be cheap. An injury to Trout or Simmons ends things abruptly.

A Ken Rosenthal report last fall suggested the Angels will make Trout a huge contract offer, perhaps this offseason. But on the other hand, Jon Heyman suggested a deal is unlikely. Take that for what you will, but if he doesn’t sign, the Angels might consider a trade, greedy at the notion of what the return could be. I get it. It makes sense. Given where the Angels are now, close-ish to contention and Trout’s free agency looming ahead … sure.

But is that how Trout’s tenure in Los Angeles will end? Zero playoff wins? Not what fans had in mind when he debuted. Not at all.