FOR MOST OF MIKE TROUT'S INCOMPARABLE CAREER, L.A. HAS BEEN STUCK: UNABLE TO CONTEND, UNWILLING TO REBUILD. HURLER-HITTER SHOHEI OHTANI MAY FINALLY GET THE ANGELS OUT OF THEIR RUT. AND IT'LL BE FUN WATCHING THEM TRY
THE DOWNSIDE of having the best player in the game is that your franchise's failures are magnified. The Angels have doggedly—and, mostly, futilely—pursued the playoffs over the past six years, knowing full well that every World Series--less season squanders another chunk of Mike Trout's prime, that every meaningless game he plays in September is a tiny baseball tragedy. Los Angeles has handed nine-figure deals to risky free agents, unloaded top prospects for immediate help and taken fliers on marginal talents. Nothing has worked. The Angels have never finished in last place with Trout, never even lost 90 games. But a first-round sweep by the Royals in the 2014 ALDS represents the entirety of his postseason career.
THAT KIND of mediocrity doesn't do much for a team's buzz—and frankly neither does Trout's metronomic greatness (six full seasons, six top four MVP finishes), which is too easily taken for granted. But in December the Angels stumbled into their best hope yet for generating attention—and, perhaps, postseason contention. With no apparent advantages over many of the other 28 teams vying for the most intriguing free agent of the offseason, L.A. landed both an ace and a home run hitter in the same player. Over his five seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Shohei Ohtani displayed a dual dominance that no one in MLB has achieved (and few have tried) since Babe Ruth. Ohtani played only 65 games last season due to a right-ankle injury, but as a 21-year-old in 2016 he had a 1.86 ERA in 20 starts and was third in Nippon Pro Baseball in strikeouts. That alone might have been enough to attract the attention of major league front offices. But Ohtani also batted .322 with 22 home runs in 382 plate appearances that season; if he had qualified he would have led the league in slugging and OPS.
Now 23, Ohtani could have signed anywhere in the majors; under MLB rules governing international free agents, there was little variance in the financial terms of the offers he received. (More on that later.) He has yet to fully explain why he chose to stage his unusual act in Angel Stadium with an up-and-down franchise: His only public rationale so far has been, "I just felt something click." "Shohei Ohtani is Going to Be a Los Angeles Angel for Some Reason" read a GQ headline after he signed. Even Angels GM Billy Eppler, after taking the congratulatory phone call from Ohtani's agent, was so shocked that he completely missed his chair as he went to sit down.
Dozens of reporters from Japan have chronicled Ohtani's every move since his arrival in Tempe, Ariz., last month. To accommodate his daily media sessions the team erected a tent in the parking lot beyond rightfield at Diablo Stadium. Unfortunately for those attending, Ohtani's "click" quote is typical; he tends to be inscrutable. "There were good and bad parts," he replied to a question about the highlights of his first bullpen session of the spring. "And the good parts were the positive part of today."
Lacking much color from their subject, the journalists scatter daily throughout the clubhouse, asking the other Angels for detailed reports on what Ohtani ate for breakfast. His teammates try to remain patient through the bilingual interviews—"I'm gonna be famous in Japan!" starter Andrew Heaney shouted excitedly after one—and joke about the respite afforded Trout by the shiny new toy.
In fact they are nearly as intrigued as the hordes of reporters and the myriad fans clad in number 17 shirseys. Ohtani's new teammates spend his plate appearances and innings on the mound glued to the dugout rail. To a team that already had the greatest player, Eppler added the greatest curiosity. In just one winter, Los Angeles refashioned itself as the most interesting team in baseball.
IF YOU measure wealth by wins, baseball's middle class is disappearing. This season a dozen teams appear to be shooting for 100 victories. Another dozen or so might be shooting for 100 losses. ("You could argue there is more competition to get the No. 1 pick in the draft than to win the World Series," Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said in January.) When a club finishes close to .500 and lacks a bumper crop of prospects—hello, 2017 Angels (80--82)—it can be easier and cheaper to tear down and start over than to attempt to supplement an inadequate core. Teams no longer think it's worthwhile to aim for 85 wins, hope to get hot enough to grab the second wild card and take a shot to advance in a coin-flip game. The success of the Cubs (top four draft picks in consecutive seasons, then a World Series two years later) and the Astros (three straight 100-loss campaigns, then last season's title) have convinced front offices (and fans) that tanking and rebuilding works.
And yet there the Angels have been, year after year, finishing in third or fourth in the AL West, then pouring money into their roster. It was far more fun to propose Trout trades that would signal a teardown: Would the Cubs' Kyle Schwarber, Javier Báez and Jorge Soler have been enough? What about the Red Sox' Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts? Or the Yankees' Starlin Castro, Brett Gardner and Clint Frazier?
The real-life conversations were less fruitful. "Our chance was to draft [Trout] and we blew it," A's GM David Forst says. "Why would they ever in any situation accept [a trade]? We never even made the call." Says Giants GM Bobby Evans, "I'm afraid Billy Eppler would take me off his speed dial if I asked."
Eppler, who took over as GM in 2015, has never considered pulling the trigger on a deal. "I have a long drive home—40 minutes," he says referring to his prime time for reflection. "Forty minutes. Not once."
Instead the Angels go for it, again and again. Last August they traded for leftfielder Justin Upton, who, rather than opt out and hit the stagnant free-agent market this offseason, signed on for another year at $17.5 million. That move paid off twice: Upton spent the fall telling Ian Kinsler, his old Tigers locker neighbor, how much fun he was having in Anaheim. While Detroit, in the early stages of its own teardown, had several offers this offseason for the 35-year-old second baseman with one year and $11 million left on his contract, Kinsler only waived his no-trade clause to join the Angels.
Zack Cozart could have played shortstop, his natural position, for any of a handful of rebuilders, but he chose to play third for L.A. After seven years with the Reds—two good, five dismal—Cozart, 32, wanted deeply to join a contender. "It's hard when you're not a young player," he says. "A young player's just excited to be in the big leagues, but I've been to the playoffs and it's like, Man, these seasons are really long, and they're really long when you're not good."
Before signing in December for three years and $38 million, Cozart told Eppler that he did not want to end up with a team that would sell off its assets at the first sign of weakness. Don't worry, Eppler assured him. "Arte's not going to let us try not to win."
That would be owner Arte Moreno, 71, an outdoor advertising magnate who bought the team in 2003. Moreno grew up rooting for the 1950s Yankees—a decade in which they played in eight World Series—and he disapproves on almost a moral level of stripping a team down to rebuild. Agreement on that point would be a condition of the job for his GMs. "I wouldn't even put him on the list," he says of a proponent for tanking. "I wouldn't do it to fans. Lose 100 games a year and then say, 'We're gonna fix it'?"
Sometimes this attitude leads to deals like the five years and $125 million Moreno gave Josh Hamilton before the 2013 season. Hamilton was 31 and had a history of drug abuse; he played 240 games for L.A. before the team ate his salary and traded him to the Rangers. The signing came a year after the Angels sank $240 million over 10 years into a 32-year-old Albert Pujols. Hampered by foot injuries, he was the worst player last year by WAR (--1.8). A year before that, they took on the $86 million owed over four years to 32-year-old Vernon Wells. He hit .222 over two seasons before being traded to the Yankees.
But that approach can also produce an offseason like this one. On a back field in Tempe, Moreno watches as his 26-year-old two-time MVP takes batting practice. "What are you gonna do?" he scoffs. "Tell Trout you're getting rid of everybody?"
THE SUBTEXT of every conversation about L.A. involves the Trout Window, which is scheduled to close at 9 a.m. ET the day after the conclusion of the 2020 World Series, when—barring an extension—he will become a free agent. If the Angels are going to take advantage of Trout's unprecedented talents, they may not have much time left.
Eppler and manager Mike Scioscia insist that they do not hear the clock ticking on their centerfielder. Trout himself laughs and says, "I don't think there's a Trout Window." But Moreno demurs: "There's a little bit of a window." He's already discussing what it would take to make Trout an Angel for life. "If you're coming to a ballgame," Moreno says, "you want to see the stars play."
The serendipity of this offseason is that Moreno landed the Japanese Babe Ruth without having to break the bank. On the open market Ohtani might be worth $200 million, but under MLB rules that govern international free agents he would have had to wait until he turned 25 to be the subject of an unlimited free-agent bidding war. Instead, every team except the Marlins offered the same $20 million posting fee to the Fighters—Ohtani gets none of that—while agreeing to pay him the major league minimum of $545,000 this season. Ohtani, who got a $2.3 million signing bonus from L.A., remains under its control for the next six years.
The plan as it stands now is for him to pitch every six days and DH two or three times between starts. Scouts report that Ohtani on the mound is ahead of Ohtani at the plate. Though he has given up nine runs in 22/3 innings, his delivery is clean and his slider has induced gasps. He has shown raw power in batting practice but struggled with his timing in games, with just two hits in first 20 at bats. "I can only say that Shohei's talent is real," Scioscia said last Saturday. "Obviously we believe in it."
In person, Ohtani is both larger and less imposing than he appears in those videos. When he isn't unfolding his 6'4", 203-pound frame to launch 100-mph fastballs he is slouching around the clubhouse in toe socks, hands in the kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt. He slides down his chair, groaning, when he loses a round of the video game Clash Royale to closer Blake Parker. He communicates almost seamlessly with his teammates through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, and trades Japanese lessons for ones in Spanish; he's already made enough progress to surprise catcher Martin Maldonado, although hombre (man) and hambre (hunger) have posed a problem. He goes out to dinner with the rest of the starters, where they compare photos of their dogs.
Yet Ohtani's place in the clubhouse hierarchy is unique. In camp he missed some pitchers' fielding practice sessions—or PFPs—to hit, and skipped some batting practice sessions to throw. Then there's his impact on how the 25-man roster is constructed: If he succeeds as he did in Japan, Ohtani will essentially take up the playing time of not one player but two. The Angels acknowledge the potential for tension. Says starter Matt Shoemaker, "You could imagine guys being threatened or just being jerks—'If he doesn't have to do PFPs today, then I'm going inside'—but there's been none of that. We embrace it. Go do what you gotta do, 'cause you've gotta help us win. Go take a nap if you've gotta take a nap! I don't care."
Winning, of course, will paper over any discomfort. And this goal is what sets the up-and-down Angels apart even more than their two-way experiment. In the deadest offseason in three decades, they spent $170 million, including Ohtani's posting fee, to try to do the most unusual thing in baseball right now: to jump from the middle of the pack straight to the top of the heap.