Of everything that’s been written about baseball since 2010, the single item I think about most isn’t a column about economics or a groundbreaking statistical find or a wide-ranging, exhaustively reported feature. No, it’s a blog post by Sam Miller, then of Baseball Prospectus, about the 2009 draft. This thought exercise, using a little back-of-the-napkin math, comes to a conclusion that gets cited on this site pretty much whenever we write about Mike Trout: “It’s probably fair to say that the Angels have wasted Mike Trout to a degree that has almost no precedent in any major sport.”
In the six years since Trout first became a full-time player, the Angels have three winning seasons, three losing seasons, and a .519 winning percentage, or about an 84-78 pace, which is a record that hasn’t gotten a team to the postseason since the 2008 Dodgers. They’ve made the playoffs once, in 2014, and as heavy favorites over a Royals team that had won nine fewer games that year, went 0-3 in the ALDS. In the two years since Miller wrote that fateful sentence, the Angels have gone 74-88 and 80-82. It’s gotten worse.
In those six years, Trout’s been worth 41.4 wins above average, according to Baseball Reference, or 6.9 wins per year. If a totally unspectacular, league-average team goes 81-81 and replaces its league-average center fielder with Trout, that team now has the true talent of an 88-74 outfit. Since 2012—Trout’s rookie season and the first year of the two-wild-card era—57 teams have won at least 88 games, and 54 of them have made the playoffs. The three exceptions are the 2012 Rays, who won 90 games and finished third in a loaded AL East; the 2013 Rangers, who went 91-71, tied for the second wild-card spot, and lost a one-game playoff to Tampa Bay; and the 2012 Angels, who went 89-73 with Trout, but finished four games out of a wild-card spot.
The best baseball player since Barry Bonds—possibly the best of all time once he’s done—emerged from a New Jersey bog six years ago, fully formed and wearing an Angels uniform. And the Angels have consistently failed to surround him with a league-average team, which isn’t really that hard when you’re running a top-10 payroll, as the Angels have done every year since 2004.
This year, however, something’s changed: The Angels are finally building a league-average team around Trout.
Last year, by wins above average, the Angels were below average at every position except center field, relief pitcher, and shortstop, where Andrelton Simmons had the best year of his career. The year before that, they were below average everywhere except center field, shortstop, and right field, where Kole Calhoun posted a 116 OPS+. In 2015, the year before they traded for Simmons, the Angels were below average everywhere except center, right, and shortstop, where Erick Aybar was almost exactly league-average.
Trout’s the best player of his generation, Simmons is very-good-to-fringe-MVP-level, and Calhoun is average-to-above-average, depending on the year. As of five months ago, that’s all the Angels had. Otherwise, their lineup was a gurgling tar-filled maw of outs. Five American League players posted a WAR of minus-1 or worse last year and the Angels had two of them: Albert Pujols and Danny Espinosa, who posted an OPS+ of 40 (FORTY!) in 254 plate appearances before his release in July.
From a performance standpoint, that’s obviously bad. But from a team-building standpoint, it’s great news, because one of the dirty secrets of building a baseball team is that while upgrading from an average player to a good or great player is incredibly difficult, and takes some measure of luck and savoir faire, climbing from the gurgling tar-filled maw of outs back up to average isn’t that hard if you’ve got a little money.
Next winter, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are going to make enough money between them that they could probably buy a controlling interest in a team of their own. The reason for that is not just because their production is worth $35 million a year—though it is, and then some. It’s that there’s only one Harper, and only one Machado, and they don’t hit free agency that often. There is no player of that caliber on the free-agent market this year, and acquiring one would therefore necessitate a prospect trade haul that the Angels simply don’t have. Though it’s improved in the past 12 months, the Angels’ farm system landed 29th on BP’s organizational rankings before the 2017 season. In 2016, it was dead last, described as “lack[ing] anything with even remote projection to impact talent and much in the way of useful organizational depth in the high minors.”
But if all you need is an average corner outfielder, or an average third baseman? You can get that whenever you want. The Angels traded for Justin Upton in August and Ian Kinsler last week. Both are (or were, in Upton’s case) free agents to be, so the Angels picked them up for four prospects we’ll probably never hear from again, just because the Tigers are in teardown mode and don’t need to spend market rate for league-average production. Neither of those trades are particularly ingenious or clever, nor is the five-year, $106 million extension the Angels signed the 30-year-old Upton to after the season, but their impact is enormous.
Last year, Angels left fielders, even with Upton out there for a month, posted minus-0.3 WAA. Over the course of the whole year, Upton was a 3.5 WAA player. Last year, Kinsler was a 0.1 WAA player, while Angels second basemen were a combined three wins below average, the worst in baseball at that position. Now, the add-up-the-WAR model of analysis is misleading, because Kinsler had his worst season in a decade in 2017, and could bounce back, or could continue to decline at age 36. Similarly, Upton was better than he’d been in years in 2017 and could also decline. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s call this a six-win upgrade at the cost of four fringy prospects and $27 million in salary.
While the Angels were trading for Kinsler, the Yankees made the biggest move of the offseason, acquiring The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, along with his contract, for Starlin Castro and two prospects. Last year, Yankee left fielders were 1.7 wins above average, while TMGS, who’ll make $25 million in 2018, posted 5.5 WAA in the best season of his career.
That’s why it’s so important to understand where the Angels are starting from: These two unremarkable moves, paying the going rate for competent big leaguers, could very well improve the Angels as much as trading for Stanton improved the Yankees.
That’s not all. The Angels also spent $38 million over three years to ink Zack Cozart, who had the best season of his life at age 31. Cozart, a superb defensive shortstop, will move over to third base alongside Simmons, who is one of only a handful of shortstops good enough to push the former Red off his position. Nobody thinks Cozart will post a 141 OPS+ again, so the biggest headlines to come out of this signing had to do with Cozart finding a place in Orange County for his donkey to live. But if Cozart is even a league-average player—as he has been in six of his seven big league seasons—he’ll be worth another two wins or so over the Yunel Escobar–led coalition he’s replacing.
There’s no reason the Angels couldn’t upgrade other positions in a similar fashion. Last year, Angels catchers hit .216/.263/.348, while first baseman C.J. Cron was a league-average hitter, which is to say, quite a bad hitter for his position—he got the bulk of the at-bats at first base, where the Angels were almost two wins below average last year.
Then there’s Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old two-way Japanese superstar who signed with the Angels two weekends ago. Ohtani should shore up the Angels’ rotation, which wasn’t very good last year, and possibly steal at-bats from Pujols at DH. Ohtani doesn’t solve the Angels’ pitching shortfall on his own, but he helps as much as anyone on the free-agent market could have, and at a fraction of what he’s really worth. If Ohtani, a left-handed hitter, is even a replacement-level DH on the long side of a platoon with Pujols, he could add a win or two with his bat as well.
All of a sudden, the Angels have a bunch of competent big-league ballplayers surrounding the core of Trout and Simmons, and apart from Ohtani, they built that supporting cast by taking the easiest, most obvious route possible. After hitting the lottery twice in a decade, with Trout and Ohtani, the Angels don’t need to get cute; they just need to not screw up, and for the first time in years, they’re not doing so. Maybe none of second base, third base, and left field turn into strengths, but the Angels don’t need to increase their strengths—they need to reduce their weaknesses.