No one really knows exactly why Shohei Ohtani chose to sign with the Angels when he announced his decision to join the club on December 8th, 2017. It may have been the balmy weather in Southern California and the city’s relative approximation to his home country of Japan. It might have been a level of comfort he had with the team’s front office and the team’s promise to let Ohtani continue to both hit and pitch regularly like he did playing for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in NBP. It could have been the presence of Mike Trout – the undisputed best player in the world at the time – and the opportunity to form one of the most potent superstar pairings in the history of the game. But even if we don’t know why Ohtani chose to join the Angels, everyone knows why he chose to leave them for the crosstown Dodgers as a free agent after the 2023 season: after being deprived of winning his whole MLB career, he wanted to finally have a taste of it.
One of the most mind-boggling fun (or perhaps un-fun in the case) facts in baseball is that during Ohtani’s six-year Angels tenure, his team didn’t merely not make the playoffs, but never even had a winning record. During that timespan, between Ohtani and Trout, the Angels featured half of the league’s six MVP winners (and had the runner-up two on two other occasions) yet still failed to crack .500 even once. Despite their two superstars providing the most enviable foundation for a winning team in the league, the Angels tried to use popsicle sticks and glue to construct a roster around them, and the results were predictably flimsy. The numbers can attest to this – since 2018, Trout and Ohtani have combined for a staggering 41.40%(!) of the team’s total fWAR.
|Trout + Ohtani fWAR
|Rest of Team fWAR
|Trout + Ohtani fWAR %
** The 2020 season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the Angels couldn’t build a winner with Ohtani in tow, it’s hard to imagine them winning without him. This is especially true with Trout beginning to show signs of decline; he has struggled to stay healthy over the past several seasons, averaging only 79 games played a year since 2021, and when he was on the field in 2023 he looked mortal for the first time in his career (of course his 134 wRC+ still led all non-Ohtani Angels by a wide margin).
To make matters worse, the Angels have struggled to develop young players and emptied their already bare prospect cover in a last-ditch effort to make the playoffs in Ohtani’s final season in white and red. As things currently stand, the team projects to have one of the league’s worst big league rosters and also one of its worst farm systems. Increasing the pressure on Angels General Manager Perry Minasian and the rest of his front office is the fact that the Angels are tied with the Tigers for the longest playoff drought in MLB, last appearing nine seasons ago in 2014.
So what exactly should the Angels do to get out of their current predicament? There is no easy answer, but let’s take a look at a few of the potential paths the team could take as they embark on the post-Ohtani era.
Path #1: Aggressively Spend and Try to Win Now
When your team hasn’t made the playoffs in nine seasons, fans tend to get impatient. 2014, the last year the Angels played October baseball, was a really long time ago. For some context, José Abreu and Jacob deGrom were the rookies of the year. Those guys are grizzled veterans now! Deciding that after this sustained run of failure, it would be in the team’s best interests to not make an earnest push for the postseason feels like a dereliction of duty.
Of course, the Angels are a long way away from competing for the AL West crown, where the past two World Series Champions reside. Last season they finished 73-89, 17 games behind the 90-win first-place Astros. However, a team’s Pythagorean record – or projected record based on run differential – is usually a better measure of team quality than a team’s actual win-loss record. Looking at the AL West Pythagorean standings from last season puts the Angels even further behind the eight-ball.
2023 AL West Pythagorean Record Standings
|Los Angeles Angels
That’s a lot of ground for the Angels to make up even to be the third-best team in the division next year. The loss of Ohtani only increases the gap by another 9-10 wins (fWAR had him at 9.0 in 2023, bWAR at 10.0). None of the Astros, Rangers, and Mariners have made major upgrades this offseason, but using last year’s performance as a baseline gives them a roughly 30-win buffer.
Things don’t look a lot better when it comes to the wild card race. The Orioles, Rays, and Blue Jays all made the postseason last year and should be in the thick of the race yet again. The Yankees are coming off a disappointing year but still had a winning record and added Juan Soto to the mix this offseason. Even the Red Sox and the Guardians were solidly better than the Angels last year, and while neither team has made a super splashy addition, they also aren’t losing a 9-10 WAR player from their 2023 efforts. Throw in whoever among the Rangers, Astros, and Mariners comes up short in the division, and the odds of an Angels postseason birth start to feel really long.
That’s not to say the Angels don’t have some interesting pieces on their roster – they have a lot more talent in place than, say, their division rival A’s. Despite the downturn in performance, Trout should still be one of the better hitters in baseball if he can stay on the field (a big if these days). Zach Neto showed promise as a rookie last year, playing as a capable shortstop and holding his own against big-league pitching as a 22-year-old; he’s firmly in average big-league starter territory. Taylor Ward is a solidly average corner outfielder. Logan O’Hoppe missed much of last season due to injury but looks like a surefire starting catcher. Nolan Schanuel got on base at an impressive .402 OBP, albeit with only a .330 SLG, in 132 PAs last season; perhaps he can do his best Daric Barton impression and OBP his way into being a solid starter.
The rotation has three reliable starting pitchers in Reid Detmers, Griffin Canning, and Patrick Sandoval, even if none of them project to be aces, and Chase Silseth could be sneaky good too. And Robert Stephenson – recently signed to a 3-year, $33 million deal – was arguably the best reliever in baseball for the Rays last year, giving the Angels a potentially serious bullpen weapon. If you put on a pair of rose-colored glasses and then squint through them a bit, you can see a team with a puncher’s chance of being around .500.
Considering that they are not teaming with promising young talent waiting in the wings, if the Angels want to build a competitive team they need to go out and acquire a bunch of good players to fill the holes on their roster. They may not have enough compelling players to net a Dylan Cease or Corbin Burnes on the trade market, but free agents only cost money.
What if the Angels ponied up for Cody Bellinger to shore up their offense and Blake Snell to anchor their rotation? It would be expensive, with both players likely commanding average annual values in the $20-30 million range, but beyond Trout and Anthony Rendon, the Halos have minimal long-term payroll commitments. As things currently stand, they are estimated to be about $50 million off from the $237 million luxury tax threshold, meaning they could most likely sign both players and still duck under the tax. This team hasn’t made the playoffs in nearly a decade – why not go all out on spending to get a taste of October baseball!
— MLB Trade Rumors (@mlbtraderumors) December 22, 2023
The biggest issue with this plan is that even in the absolute best-case scenario Snell and Bellinger will likely only combine to produce about as much value as Ohtani himself did last year. Last season, Bellinger had his best season since he won the MVP in 2018 and Snell won the Cy Young award; repeating those career seasons again is something of a best-case scenario for their signing teams. Yet even in their own superlative 2023s, Bellinger and Snell combined for 8.2 fWAR, a total below Ohtani’s 9.0 mark. bWAR, which takes a sunnier view on Snell’s season, put the free-agent pair at 10.1 bWAR last season, just a smidge over its 10.0 evaluation of Ohtani. So even if the Angels ink Bellinger and Snell, they have a whole lot of work to do to catch up to the rest of the AL.
If the Angels seriously want to make the playoffs next year, they can’t just sign one of Bellinger and Snell and call it a day. In fact, they can’t even settle on signing both of them. They’d need to convince Arte Moreno to blow past all luxury tax restrictions and go on a free-agent spending spree the likes of what we’ve never seen before. Think something like Snell and Bellinger, plus Jordan Montgomery, plus Matt Chapman, plus Jorge Soler, plus J.D. Martinez, plus Michael Lorenzen, plus Phil Maton. It sounds ridiculous to say it out loud, but considering the hole the Angels find themselves in, it might take this much spending to catch up.
Will the Angels actually do this? Absolutely not. Should they do it though? There’s certainly substantial risk involved. If the free agents flop the Angels’ future could grow even more cloudy than it is now. But is there really any other avenue to bring post-season baseball back to Anaheim in the short-term future?
Path #2: The Tear-Down Rebuild
The 2023 Baltimore Orioles won 101 games after a long rebuilding process. Baltimore’s roster is full of talented young players they drafted and developed, from Adley Rutchsman to Gunnar Henderson to Cedric Mullins to Grayson Rodriguez. They also have one of the game’s best farm systems, featuring top shortstop prospect Jackson Holliday. Everyone wants to be the Orioles right now, a young contending team with an inexpensive core that should be around for a long time.
Of course, this current success came with a cost. In 2018 the team bottomed out and lost 115 games. The following year they lost 108. After being merely bad in the pandemic-shortened 2020, they lost 110 games in 2021. Watching a team with triple-digit losses year after year takes a serious toll. As good as the Orioles are now, and as fun as it is to root for a homegrown young core, it will take years of winning and winning and winning some more to wipe away the scars of their rebuild.
Tearing it down to the studs has never been the Angels modus operandi. In fact, they’re the only team in the league to never lose 100 games in a season. But if they are not going to aggressively pursue upgrades to their 2024 roster, maybe they should start asking around to see what they can get in a trade return for some of their established players. First on that list would be Trout, who the team has previously signaled an unwillingness to move. Trout also has a no-trade clause due to his 10/5 rights, though one has to imagine that he would be willing to waive it if he could get to a contender. Even so, Trout is complicated.
The outfielder is owed a smidge over $37 million a year through 2030, a number that will scare a lot of teams considering his extensive recent injury history and that he’s coming off his worst season since his 2011 September cup of coffee in the bigs. Right now his trade value is as low as it ever has been, to the point that the return would feel really underwhelming for the greatest player in franchise history. The team could pay down a significant portion of Trout’s salary to juice up the return, much like the Mets did at the trade deadline with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, but even in that case, it is hard to envision a superstar-level return. The Halos may be better off waiting to see if Trout can prove he’s healthy and able to play like an MVP again and try to trade him at the deadline or next offseason.
#Angels GM Perry Minasian shot down rumors of a Mike Trout trade
“Mike Trout’s an Angel. We’re excited to have Mike Trout.
He’s somebody we love to be associated with and, I go back to it again, somebody that’s gonna help us win a lot of games.”
— BTH (#SellTheTeamArte) (@BeyondTheHalo) November 8, 2023
Even if they wait to trade Trout, there are other players who could fetch a solid return right now. Luis Rengifo has turned into an average everyday second baseman and, with just two years of arbitration left, likely won’t be around for the next good Angels team. He could likely bring back a mid-tier prospect or two. Taylor Ward came back to Earth last year after a breakout in 2022 but still has three years of team control left and would strengthen any lineup in the league. On the pitching side, all three of Detmers, Canning, and Sandoval are good controllable pitchers, one of the most coveted player types in the league today with the number of arms needed to get through a season. Detmers in particular could fetch a massive return, as he has yet to even reach arbitration. Selling high on Mickey Moniak could even net the Angels an interesting flyer.
In addition to beefing up their farm system via trade, by virtue of their being fewer competent players on the big league roster the team would likely stumble to a worse record and improve their draft position. This is not the NBA – where in order to draft a superstar you (generally) have to pick at the very top of the draft – but all things being equal a higher pick has a better chance of hitting than a lower one. The Orioles have done an excellent job with scouting and player development in their return to relevance, but we can’t pretend that getting the top overall pick in two separate drafts, allowing them to select Rutschman and Holliday, didn’t play a major role in getting them to where they are today.
It is interesting that the Angels have actually treated the draft more like they are an NBA team than an MLB one recently, as they’ve made it a pattern to use their top picks in the draft to make an impact at the big league level with minimal seasoning in the minors. Since 2019, each of the Angels’ first-round picks were polished college players who seemed just about ready for the majors, even if they didn’t have star-level upside. Those selections include Detmers and Neto, each of whom was promoted the year after they were drafted, and Schanuel, a 2023 selection who made his major league debut a few short months after being selected 11th overall out of Florida Atlantic. The rationale behind this strategy was likely attempting to find complementary pieces to put around Ohtani and Trout before the former reached free agency, though Neto and Schanuel were pushed to the majors much faster than anyone would have expected due to injuries and underperformance on the Angels’ roster.
While these selections largely have not flopped, I’m sure the team would like to take back their 2019 selection of Will Wilson. Thought to be a fast-moving college bat, Wilson was sent to the Giants as part of a salary dump trade ridding the Angels of Zack Cozart. The pick one selection after Wilson in 2019 (cover your ears Angels fans): a high school outfielder named Corbin Carroll. In committing to a full-scale rebuild, the Angels should consider taking more prep players like Carroll and slow-play their development if needed. They can the same approach in trading from their current big league roster, placing a premium on upside over proximity to the majors.
Recent Angels 1st Round Draft Picks
|MLB Debut Year
For a lot of teams stuck in the middle, I think bottoming out and rebuilding with a clear plan for the future can be a wise strategy, even if it is at times a really painful one. But for an Angels team that already hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014? It feels cruel to set the timeline back even further. Almost everything went right for the Orioles to get them from over 100 losses to 100 wins, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The Angels’ front office’s inability to put together a winner around Ohtani and Trout doesn’t make me feel confident they’d nail the much more challenging task of a rebuild. On top of that, the Angels roster isn’t chalk full of attractive trade chips that could help supercharge a rebuild the way the White Sox did with Chris Sale and José Quintana. After being mediocre for so many years, being dreadful for a few seasons with a significant risk of not coming out on the other end stronger just doesn’t feel worth it.
Path #3: Split The Difference
Often times the best plan lies somewhere between two extremes. It would take a lot of spending to make the 2024 Angels a contender, and it would involve a lot of losing to pursue a full-on rebuild. But making some marginal upgrades to the 2024 roster while also keeping an eye on the future? Now that sounds pretty good.
Some could argue that the Angels are doing this right now, but I view it more as them doing a whole lot of nothing. Out of their free-agent signings, only Stephenson projects to be particularly useful when it comes to winning games in 2024. When it comes to trades, the only move they’ve made was shipping off Max Stassi and David Fletcher to Atlanta for Evan White and his underwater contract and 28-year-old reliever Tyler Thomas. These are not moves do not move the needle much for 2024 or for the future.
Even without committing to a full-blown rebuild, the Angels should be aggressively canvassing the league to see what their pending free agents could fetch in trade. Brandon Drury and Carlos Estévez might help the Angels win 76 games instead of 74, but trading them gives the team an outside chance of acquiring a player who can be a part of the next great Angels team. Rengifo, Canning, and Sandoval are all two years out from free agency, but the team should be willing to explore moving them for the right return. Especially if one of them gets off to a hot start to the year, they have to strike while the iron is hot.
2024 is also a great time for the Angels to see what they have internally. Schanuel and Neto seem to be pencilled into starting roles, which gives the Angels are real chance to challenge them and see if they can truly be building blocks. But they should continue to push their young guys. Let José Soriano pitch in the high-leverage innings. Give Jo Adell a full season to prove if he is really a quad-A guy or if he can be something more akin to the player people thought he was going to be when he was a top prospect. See what Micahel Stefanic, who has shown promising on-base skills, looks like in a full-time role. If these guys hit, that’s great! If not, then you at least have fully definitive answers that they won’t.
Even if they don’t go after Bellinger or Snell-level free agents, why not poke around on the margins? Sign some minor league free agents with upside. Scour the waiver wire. Be willing to take on a bad contract in a trade if it can net you some interesting prospects. The Giants have been the king of these sorts of maneuvers over the past several years, and it’s netted them good big leaguers like Mike Yastrzemski and Thairo Estrada. These are the battles the Angels need to win over the next few seasons.
I also like the team going out to get Stephenson and Matt Moore to shore up the bullpen, in part because it makes them a little better today but also because it gives them some valuable trade chips come July if they perform up to expectations. There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, so why not take a few shots on some guys they like and if needed see what they can get in a flip? Some personal favorite targets of mine would be centerfielder Michael A. Taylor, who would provide a tremendous boost on the defensive end and showed some pop at the plate last year, and pitcher Jakob Junis, who posted a solid 20.4% K-BB% for the Giants as a swingman last year.
Regardless of what tack they take, the Angels have a lot of work to do to be competitive again. No path is a guarantee to be a success, and the loss of Ohtani is not something that can be replaced in one trade or signing. But Minasian and the rest of the Angels’ front office need to pick a direction and execute it, or the future will only be another nine years of mediocrity.