The Los Angeles Angels and Mike Trout are reportedly finalizing a new contract that will keep him with the club through the 2030 season. By locking up the best player in the world—maybe the best player ever—the Angels have ensured that they’ll be able to compete for years to come. That this take is forehead-smackingly obvious diminishes neither its truth nor its importance.
Trout has finished in the top two in the AL in both bWAR and MVP voting, winning twice, in six of his seven full seasons. But apart from his personal excellence, the hallmark of Trout’s tenure with the Angels has been his club’s inability to translate the center fielder’s presence into postseason success. Despite a couple of close misses, the Angels have made the playoffs only once in the past seven seasons, in 2014. That year, as the American League’s top seed, they were swept in three games by the upstart Royals, who went on to win the pennant. The sum total of Trout’s postseason career to date: three games, 15 plate appearances, one hit (a solo home run), three walks, and one unsuccessful stolen base attempt.
Trout’s new deal would give the Angels an opportunity to change that. Before the extension, Trout’s contract was due to end in 2020, giving Los Angeles just two seasons to make the playoffs before its 27-year-old franchise bWAR leader had a chance to walk. The Angels seem set up to be quite competitive this season, but an injury-prone pitching staff and the presence of the Houston Astros in the AL West make the climb to the playoffs this year difficult.
But next year, things will start to look up.
It’s reasonable for a baseball team to undertake a long-term rebuilding—i.e., tanking—project when its big league roster is so bad and tied up with unproductive veterans that it can’t compete and its farm system is so bankrupt there’s no help on the way. Sometimes, declaring institutional bankruptcy and starting over is the least painful option. This is what the Astros did, and it might have been the best course of action for the Angels as well had it not been for Trout, who’s good enough to turn a 70-win team into an 80-win team all on his own.
Apart from Trout, the Angels of the 2010s have devoted significant playing time and financial resources to Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, Vernon Wells, and other disappointing veterans. At the same time, their farm system has produced almost nobody of value since Trout, which is less noticeable than their free-agent failures, but is more important. From 2013 to 2017, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Angels farm system 30th, 30th, 28th, 30th, and 29th in baseball. As the unproductive veterans aged out, there were no promising prospects to replace them.
That’s changing. The Angels have turned around a moribund amateur recruitment program and are starting to produce exciting young players. Their 2017 second-round pick, UCLA right-hander Griffin Canning, should contribute to the big league team this year, and other homegrown pitchers—Jaime Barria, Justin Anderson, Keynan Middleton—have started to fill important roles in the majors. Then there’s two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who may already be a bigger star than Trout internationally, and 19-year-old outfielder Jo Adell, the no. 10 pick in the 2017 draft and BP’s no. 2 overall prospect. Adell is a five-tool center fielder who would have replaced Trout (insofar as such a thing is possible) if he had left the club, and will now serve as Trout’s sidekick through the mid-2020s.
But the fully realized Next Good Angels Team is still probably another year off. Adell isn’t quite big league ready, and even if he were ready, he wouldn’t be available immediately after he suffered a bizarre baserunning slip this spring in which he strained his left hamstring and sprained his right ankle. And the pitching staff still hasn’t recovered entirely from the Tommy John epidemic that wiped out the Angels’ 2018 season: Ohtani won’t pitch at all in 2019, while Middleton is out until August.
But in 2020, the Angels will be back to full strength, while their biggest obstacle in the AL West, the Astros, will have to start reorganizing the roster that made the playoffs in three of the past four years. Houston has so far avoided swimming in the deep end of the free-agent pool during its recent run of success, but Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander will both be free agents at the end of the year, forcing the Astros to spend or lose their two best pitchers.
The Angels will also have decisions to make about key players: Andrelton Simmons, their second-best player and one of the top 15 position players in the American League, will be a free agent after his age-30 season in 2020. So will Tyler Skaggs, who with Ohtani on the shelf is probably the Angels’ best starting pitcher. But with Trout locked in, the Angels have a clear direction for their franchise: They intend to win for the foreseeable future, which means they should hang on to Adell rather than trade him for short-term help, and they can offer Simmons and Skaggs extensions with the knowledge that they’ll fit in with the franchise’s timeline to contend.
Placing a two-year deadline on any franchise is an immense instrument of pressure; baseball is so unpredictable that it’s nearly impossible to weatherproof a roster for injury or drama. For a club like the Angels—which could win a World Series by 2020, but only if a lot of things go right—Trout’s expiring contract was like the sword of Damocles. By signing their best-ever player to an extension that could outlast civilization as we know it, the Angels have alleviated that pressure, and can push for a title on a timeline of their choosing.