- The Angels had the game's best player, but were one of baseball's most forgettable franchises. By signing Shohei Ohtani, Orange County becomes one of baseball's hotbeds.
This is Billy Eppler’s third winter as the Angels’ general manager. Over the previous two, he’s received tentative feelers from most, if not all, of his counterparts.
Hey Billy, just wondering …
Hey Billy, checking in …
Hey Billy, doing due diligence here …
The subject around whom those rival GMs were circling was Mike Trout and whether Eppler’s view on the possibility of trading him had evolved. For most clubs, the concept of willingly parting with the best player of his generation, one only in the early stages of his prime, would be absurd. But it wasn’t for the Angels, and that’s why the GMs kept texting.
Even with Trout aboard, the Angels have seemed to be stuck in neutral. Since he debuted in July of 2011, they have won zero playoff games. Over the last three seasons, they have gone 239–247, and they showed little signs of improving. Their major league roster was the game’s second-oldest in 2017, with an average age of 29.8. They had very little in the minor league pipeline: Baseball America ranked their farm system 29th in the league this year, a year after it was 30th, a year after it was 27th, a year after it was 30th.
In fact, you didn’t have to squint very hard at the Angels to see a club that, except for Trout, resembled one of their AL West rivals—the Astros of a half-dozen years ago, before they burned themselves down to build themselves up. And though it would’ve been a very tough call, there was a strong, logical argument that the Angels should commit to the path blazed by Houston, by trading Trout—an enormous value, given that he is signed through 2020—and thereby giving their rebuild a boost that no other asset could provide.
But Billy Eppler always said no, in response to all those texts. He always told Trout not to listen to the speculation, that he wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe, with Trout providing a singular head start, Eppler would be able to somehow scrounge together enough talent to contend at some point before 2020. Maybe a miracle would happen. If it did, he’d want Trout around for that.
The miracle happened on Friday. Shohei Ohtani, the two-way Japanese superstar, announced that he had appreciated the efforts of the other 29 major league teams, but he had decided to sign with the Los Angeles Angels.
“What mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels,” said his agent, Nez Calelo of CAA, in a statement. “He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals.”
The miracle wasn’t just that Ohtani picked Anaheim. It’s also that they will have to pay him so little—a maximum bonus of $2.315 million. That is the amount the Angels accumulated in their international slot money pool, and the bonus to which Ohtani knew he’d be subjected. In the end, the Angels had the third most available bonus money among the seven Ohtani finalists; both the Mariners and Rangers had just more than $3.5 million. So he would’ve been cheap—an almost unbelievable surplus value, for a player whom most scouts agree is a potentially generational talent as both a hitter and a pitcher—no matter where he ended up.
Of course, Trout—even though his salary will jump to $33.25 million this year—represents an enormous surplus value himself, as his baseline production is worth at least twice that annual wage. Suddenly, a club that appeared stuck at a dead end has found an escape route, as if by magic. A club that had virtually no prospects to speak of now has by far the best one there is. And a club that already had the best player in the world might, if Ohtani makes good on his promise, might now have the two best.
Ohtani’s choice will benefit the Angels in other ways, besides giving Eppler enormous flexibility to build around his two under-compensated superstars. One: his addition could instantly push the Angels into the playoffs, even with the rest of the current roster untouched. Two: he could do what Trout alone never seemed to, which is to suck Southern California’s attention away from the Dodgers. The spectacle of watching the duo— Trohtani? Ohtrouti?—interact every night will be a draw, but so will Ohtani’s own efforts to become the majors’ first legitimate two-way star since Babe Ruth. The guarantee of playing two ways is something the Angels presumably promised they’d allow.
So yes, Billy Eppler’s phone will buzz often in the coming months, starting at next week’s Winter Meetings, as he tries to add complementary pieces around his new tandem. This year, though, nobody will even tentatively ask about Trout. There’s no point. Mike Trout will be in Anaheim for a minimum of three more seasons, and though it might have taken a miracle, Eppler’s steadfast refusal to consider any other option was proven correct on Friday, once and for all.