This story appears in the July 25–Aug. 1, 2016 double issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
For a club to consider undergoing the extraordinary surgery of trading away away the best player of this generation, it must be afflicted by a specific constellation of symptoms. Its record must be dreadful, despite the player's contributions. It must have little hope for improvement in the form of an imminent infusion of talented minor leaguers. And it must be bereft of less drastic alternatives, like trading other star players for help.
The Angels have Mike Trout, the obscenely talented 24-year-old centerfielder who is on pace to lead the majors in baseball-reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement for the third time in five years. (He still led the AL and finished second and third, respectively, overall in those other seasons.) But they entered Wednesday with a record of 42–52, 12 1/2 games back in the AL West. Their farm system is a dust bowl, without a single prospect in any of the four major current top 50 or 100 lists. And the player who represented by far their second-best trade chip—No. 1 starter Garrett Richards, Trout's longtime housemate—blew out his elbow in May and may be out for the year. In other words, with all conventional remedies unavailable, the team might soon have only one course of action left.
A rival executive points out that from a cold-eyed business perspective, Trout's valuation is astronomical. His six-year, $144.5 million contract runs through 2020, and he will make $33.25 million in each of the last three seasons of that deal. But even that is a steal for a player whose annual WAR equates to about $70 million in production. To make up that kind of surplus value, says another rival executive, Los Angeles would have to receive a package of under-25 players that would start with three definitively elite prospects plus two big-league-caliber pitchers. But if he were Billy Eppler, the Angels' first-year GM, and that sort of offer came in, could he actually go through with such a deal? "Ha," the exec says. "Yeah, I dunno."
Indeed, the concept of trading Trout has its emotional components as well. Neither Eppler nor Arte Moreno, the team's owner, wants his obituary to lead with the transaction as if he was a latter-day Harry Frazee, or to endure a lifetime as the butt of jokes involving a failed fishing trip. In fact, at last week's All-Star Game—his fifth straight—Trout, who has a full no-trade clause, revealed that Eppler had already reassured him, "You're not going anywhere." Would Trout trade himself, given the L.A.'s situation? "No, I don't think so," he admitted.
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There is a lot to be said for the sheer pleasure of watching the best player in the world perform his magic every night, both from Angel Stadium's stands and its executive suite, even if the team as a whole isn't any good. And maybe, by some front office alchemy, Eppler will in the next four years be able to conjure a winner around his superstar. As of now, though, it seems more likely that Trout's contract might expire after a decade in Anaheim without his having won a single postseason game. In that case, all those gargantuan blasts and acrobatic catches won't have added up to much.
Eppler could probably wait a year or two, with the confidence that Trout's trade value won't appreciably diminish. But what if, say, the Nationals, imagining a championship outfield pairing of Trout and Bryce Harper, dangled starter Lucas Giolito (No. 4 on Baseball America's just-released midseason Top 100 prospects list), shortstop Trea Turner (No. 5), outfielder Victor Robles (No. 13), starter Reynaldo Lopez (No. 48) and 23-year-old major league starter Joe Ross before the Aug. 1 deadline? In Anaheim, these are desperate times—and you know what those call for.