Every February, a groundhog named Phil is extracted from his Pennsylvania burrow to predict the weather: either six more weeks of winter, or an early spring. Across the Delaware River in New Jersey, a similar ritual follows a few weeks later. Mike Trout emerges from his cave of hibernation and travels to Tempe, Arizona, for spring training. Once he’s there, the question can be asked: Will this be the year the Angels finally stop wasting the best baseball player in the world?
The Ringer has tried to tackle this question more times than I care to remember; in December 2017, after the Angels signed Shohei Ohtani, I wrote a column titled “The Angels Might Finally Stop Wasting the Best Baseball Player of His Generation.” In it, I linked to three previous takes on the issue, and the conversation has not really changed since then. No doubt I’ll write about this again next winter, when Betteridge’s law of headlines strikes again, and fold this pained listing of the Halos’ previous failures into that column, like a matryoshka doll of slightly sub-.500 baseball. This time, at least, Trout himself has acknowledged his team’s shortcomings in this area:
Mike Trout, on the Angels’ playoff drought: "It's definitely weighing on me. I hear it every year. The only way to change that is get to the playoffs.”— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) February 22, 2021
Even if banging on about the Angels’ playoff drought seems repetitive, there’s a reason we can’t stop talking about it. Since Trout debuted in July 2011, he’s taken part in 10 MLB seasons. The Angels have made the playoffs just once in that span, in 2014, and they fell in three games to the white-hot Royals in the ALDS. Most of the rest of the time, they haven’t come particularly close to the postseason.
Trout has participated in just four winning seasons in his career, one of which was the year of his debut, when he hit .220 in 40 games as a 19-year-old. The last of those winning seasons was in 2015. This despite Angels owner Arte Moreno—and the four GMs he’s employed since Trout’s draft year—pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into big-name veteran help: Albert Pujols, Anthony Rendon, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Josh Hamilton, and C.J. Wilson. A farm system that’s been fallow for most of Trout’s tenure has nonetheless produced such heralded prospects as Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, and Jo Adell. Then there’s Ohtani, whose talent tantalizes even more than Trout’s.
I remain absolutely mystified that a team that’s had this much talent for this long hasn’t won a single postseason game in the past decade. And each winter—as the Angels make one or two savvy free agent signings, take a flyer on the odd interesting starting pitcher, or call up a prospect like Ohtani or Adell—I buy in again and predict that this will finally be Trout’s year.
An optimist could look at this current Angels roster and predict the same in 2021. Trout and Rendon are an elite one-two hitting combination just on their own. David Fletcher has emerged as a solid table-setter, and while Adell and Ohtani were both terrible last year, they are too talented not to pick up the pace this season. The rotation lacks a true no. 1 starter, but it’s as deep as it’s been in years. And that group is buoyed by a bullpen that lost mainstays Cam Bedrosian, Noé Ramirez, and Keynan Middleton, but more than filled those gaps by acquiring Raisel Iglesias and Álex Claudio.
As for the rest of the lineup, well, Upton, Pujols, Dexter Fowler, Kurt Suzuki, and José Iglesias have all seen better days. I haven’t seen this many washed guys in one place since the Last Supper, when Jesus tried to teach his disciples a lesson about human equality.
At least one of these players probably has some tread left on his tires and is set for a late-career renaissance. But I won’t get sucked in again. If the Angels make the playoffs, it won’t be because their roster has taken some huge step forward; it’ll be because the rest of the AL West has come back to the pack.
Last year’s fifth-place AL West club, the Texas Rangers, are in the throes of a serious long-term rebuild, brought on by the dissolution of their successful 2010 to 2016 team and a series of high-profile player development misses. And while there are reasons to be optimistic about the division’s other four clubs—including the Angels—those teams also provide reasons for skepticism.
The Mariners have been in the news recently because of now-former team president Kevin Mather’s career-ending comments to the Rotary Club of Bellevue, Washington. (Of all the venues for an all-time professional own goal …) Therein, Mather called talismanic third baseman Kyle Seager “overpaid,” mispronounced Jarred Kelenic’s name, and went in on top prospect Julio Rodriguez and beloved former Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma for their perceived lack of ability to speak English. Mather also announced in no uncertain terms the team’s intention to hold its top prospects, including Kelenic and pitcher Logan Gilbert, in Triple-A in order to delay their eventual free agent status.
Mather’s comments have sparked leaguewide criticism and discussion (though Mather’s venality and pettiness isn’t unique among MLB executives; he was just dumb enough to get recorded saying so). And they’ve also obscured the fact that the Mariners aren’t as hopeless as they might seem.
Behind the likes of J.P. Crawford and Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, Seattle finished third in the division in 2020, and could finish even higher in 2021. Kelenic, Rodriguez, Gilbert, and Taylor Trammell could all reach the majors this year. When, exactly, depends on many factors, including how scared the Mariners are of a grievance after Mather’s comments. But once there, they could all become impact players. Kelenic, for instance, has become an object of near-religious fixation for Mets fans, after the New York club traded the former no. 6 pick to Seattle for Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz. And Rodriguez might be even better.
The Mariners might not be ready for a run at the playoffs just yet, but they could be good enough to take a chunk out of the AL West’s front-runners. In 2019, MLB’s last full season, Seattle famously went just 1-18 against the Houston Astros, which played a major role in Houston’s winning 107 games and clinching a playoff berth with almost two weeks left in the season.
Speaking of the Astros. Houston’s 29-31 record last year isn’t indicative of the team’s true talent; the Astros suffered unforeseeable injuries to their bullpen and lost staff ace Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery after one start. José Altuve forgot how to hit during the regular season and forgot how to throw during the playoffs. World Series hero Jose Urquidy couldn’t pitch in the majors until September after an extended COVID quarantine kept him out of camp, and 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez—perhaps the team’s best hitter—played in just two games before a torn patellar tendon forced him into season-ending surgery. The possibility of a post-banging-scheme karmic plague is unlikely, but it’s also impossible to rule out for certain.
The Astros probably won’t be quite as snakebit this coming season. But there are still reasons for concern. The team will once again be without Verlander. Zack Greinke and Yuli Gurriel will be a year older. And they’ve also lost George Springer, their most consistent offensive threat over the past six years, and replaced him in center field with Myles Straw. The 26-year-old Straw, one of the fastest players in the game, has been a successful pinch runner for Houston over the past three seasons, but with a career batting line of .246/.327/.322, it bears repeating that you can’t steal first base. It’s unlikely that the Astros will return to their sub-.500 form of 2020, but it’s vastly more likely than a return to the 107-win form of 2019.
And the Astros are better off than the A’s, who won the division last year but lost starting shortstop Marcus Semien, star closer Liam Hendriks, and key left-handed bat Tommy La Stella, and didn’t do much to replace them. Oakland traded underachieving DH Khris Davis to Texas for Semien’s replacement, Elvis Andrus, who’s a two-time All-Star but has aged like a potato left in the sun. His batting line over the past three seasons is a meager .260/.306/.378, good for an OPS+ of just 76. And while free agent DH Mitch Moreland should be an upgrade on Davis, he might not be enough to offset the loss in production from Semien to Andrus.
Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both give the Astros about a better-than-even chance to win the AL West, with the Angels and A’s several games off the pace. And while Oakland is the kind of team that seems likely to outplay its median projection, the gap between it and Houston is still substantial. What stands out, however, is the Angels’ position within the American League in general.
BP puts the Halos at 86.4 wins, fifth best in the AL and just a fraction behind fourth-place Tampa Bay. FanGraphs pegs them for 84.2, or sixth best in the AL. Now, a lot of the inherent variance in projection systems comes from uncertainty over playing time, which is less of a factor for a team with Trout and Rendon than it would be on teams that don’t have two absolute killers slated for a combined 1,300 plate appearances. And a fifth-place projection isn’t high enough that Trout ought to cancel his Eagles tickets now.
But the Angels don’t have to beat the Astros to make the playoffs. They only have to finish in the top five in the AL—and that’s much more doable. The conference’s middle class took a steel-toed boot to the junk during an offseason that saw most of the available talent get magnetically flung to New York and Southern California. Cleveland, last year’s no. 4 seed, dealt away Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. Toronto took a step forward by adding Springer and Semien, but both of those moves weakened the Angels’ intradivision rivals. The Rays jettisoned their two best starters, and the Red Sox are still reeling from their trade of Mookie Betts.
Are the Angels as good as the no. 4 and no. 5 seeds of previous seasons? Absolutely not. And when the time comes to make playoff predictions, I’ll most likely leave the Angels out. But with Cleveland, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Oakland all shedding impact players, there’s a playoff spot ripe for the taking in this league. All it takes is for one presumptive contender to fall apart.
The trouble for the Angels is that, over the past decade, they’ve usually been that one. But that’s got to change sooner or later, right?