How to get Los Angeles Angels with Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout into October this yearESPN PLUS ($ MATERIAL)
It's quite rare for baseball's two best players to reside on the same team, as you might have guessed. In fact, only twice since 1950 have the two leaders in FanGraphs wins above replacement also been teammates. It happened with Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs on Boston Red Sox from 1987 to 1988, the first of which finished 20 games out of first place and the second of which won a division title. And it happened with the 1996 Seattle Mariners of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, an 85-win team that missed the playoffs by 2½ games.
This is not the Los Angeles Angels' situation in reality, but it potentially is in theory. You can make a case -- pretty easily, actually -- that they now employ the two best players in the sport. One is Mike Trout, the predominant player of the 2010s who was on his way to another MVP-caliber season before a strained calf sidelined him on May 17. The other is Shohei Ohtani, a two-way sensation who is putting together what might be the most impressive -- and is definitely the most unique -- season in baseball history.
But one issue persists: The Angels continue to fail around singular greatness.
They began the second half by dropping four of five to the Mariners and the Oakland Athletics, two of the three teams ahead of them in the American League West. Now they sit two games below .500, 11 games behind the first-place Houston Astros and 7½ games out of the final postseason spot with five teams ahead of them. FanGraphs lists their playoff odds at a mere 6.6%. The trade deadline is six days away, and the Angels face the prospect of yet another summer in which they look to the future rather than load up for the present.
That's no fun. Trout, the major league leader in WAR by a ridiculously wide margin since he debuted 10 years ago, deserves to finally let his talents shine in October. Ohtani would be an absolute joy to watch on baseball's grandest stage. And so it's worth wondering if a path there still exists.
The prevailing industry sentiment seems to be that the Angels have no choice but to embrace reality, punt on another season and use their veteran players to help build the type of depth that is sorely lacking throughout the organization. But Trout will turn 30 in two weeks, Ohtani's two-way prowess isn't guaranteed to continue and the Angels, who have made the playoffs only once since 2010, are perpetually striving to contend. As one longtime scout noted: the return on their pending free agents might not be good enough to justify throwing away another chance to do so.
Below are five steps to help the Angels sneak into the postseason, or at the very least set themselves up to play meaningful September games for the first time in nearly half a decade.
1. Acquire controllable starting pitchingA lot of teams will be seeking just that over these next six days, but no team requires it more. The Angels' desperate need for controllable pitching was best illustrated by the way they approached their first draft under general manager Perry Minasian, who selected pitchers with all 20 picks -- 19 of which came from the college ranks. Angels starting pitchers have produced the second-lowest WAR in the majors since 2015, a failure rooted in a persistent inability to develop from within. Every offseason since, the Angels have been forced to go bargain hunting in free agency to fill legitimate holes in their rotation. It's a dangerous way to live.
They're set up to do that again this offseason:
Dylan Bundy: pending free agent.
Andrew Heaney: pending free agent.
Alex Cobb: pending free agent.
Jose Quintana: pending free agent.
Jose Berrios of the Minnesota Twins and Kyle Gibson of the Texas Rangers are the types of arms they need to go after. The question is whether they can access pitchers like that, both controllable through only 2022, without parting with Jo Adell or Brandon Marsh. The Angels would prefer to use one of their premium outfield prospects on a better, more controllable difference-maker for the rotation -- the type who might not be available this month.
2. Bolster the bullpenThe Angels will undoubtedly field a lot of calls on Raisel Iglesias, who owns a 0.90 WHIP and an 8.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In save situations, he boasts a 2.28 ERA. Iglesias, 31, is a pending free agent, and trading him would seem like the practical move for a team in the Angels' position. A more ideal path, though, would be extending Iglesias and bolstering the group around him.
Outside of Iglesias, Minasian's hopes of building a bullpen on the fly this offseason has not worked well. Alex Claudio, Steve Cishek and Tony Watson -- all pending free agents on one-year contracts -- have combined for a 4.49 ERA in 106⅓ innings. A bevy of relievers will be available over the next week, as is usually the case this time of year. The Angels would be wise to pounce on a couple of them with control beyond 2021.
3. Get the big guys healthyThere's a segment within the Angels who would prefer to at least stand pat at the trade deadline simply to see what this team is capable of with a lineup at full strength. Trout is approaching 10 weeks since his injury but could be nearing a rehab assignment. Anthony Rendon, who has been in and out of the lineup and sports only a .712 OPS in 249 plate appearances, could be back from his latest hamstring injury by the end of next week. And Justin Upton, who was OPS'ing 1.020 in his last 25 games before his latest injury, was re-activated on Thursday. Those three, combined with Ohtani, a resurgent Jared Walsh, a red-hot David Fletcher and an underrated Max Stassi give the Angels a playoff-caliber lineup.
4. Keep Ohtani's arm freshOhtani hasn't been on the injured list this season, and yet 101 pitchers have made more starts. Angels manager Joe Maddon has talked all year about giving Ohtani more freedom, but he has also been careful with his innings, deploying a six-man rotation and giving him extra days between starts whenever it feels warranted.
It's the necessary approach for a player who takes on such a burden, and Ohtani has answered by seemingly getting stronger as the season progresses. He has walked only one batter over his last two starts, an encouraging sign for a man who struggles more with command than anything else. Take away a disastrous first inning at Yankee Stadium, and Ohtani has a 2.00 ERA since the start of June.
All told, Ohtani has accumulated 73 innings this season (in addition to his 370 plate appearances). In four years prior, he compiled only 79⅔ innings, with Tommy John surgery tucked in between. The Angels need to continue to tread carefully if they hope to maximize his value.