Everything seemed to be set up for the Los Angeles Angels to play postseason baseball this year for the first time since 2014.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon and manager Joe Maddon were lured to the franchise to bring some World Series pedigree to the operation. Shohei Ohtani was cleared to pitch for the first time since 2018. MLB decided to let over half of the league’s teams qualify for the playoffs. And most importantly, Mike Trout is still on the roster, and likely will be for the rest of his career.
Instead, after losing in extra innings to Oakland on Sunday, the Angels are in last place in the American League West with a record of 9-20. That puts them on pace to record the worst winning percentage (.310) in franchise history, potentially “surpassing” the .406 mark set during the club’s 65-95 campaign in 1980. They’ve won back-to-back games just once and have been swept by the Rangers and the Dodgers. Fangraphs gives them an 8% chance to snap their playoff drought. Baseball Reference is even more pessimistic, placing their odds at 1.2%.
One area that general manager Billy Eppler curiously failed to properly address over the offseason is the weakness that’s hamstrung the Angels for the better half of a decade: starting pitching.
Former Braves stalwart Julio Teheran was the only pitcher the team signed in free agency, and he’s already been demoted to the bullpen after he allowed 11 runs in just eight innings over his three starts.
The team did acquire Dylan Bundy from Baltimore in a trade, and he’s certainly been a bright spot thus far with a 2.58 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 38.1 innings. But he’s not invincible, as he proved by giving up LA’s lead in Sunday’s defeat. And he’s been the team’s only reliable starter thus far, as Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning and Patrick Sandoval have combined for two quality starts in 16 outings. Ohtani lasted all of 1.2 innings before succumbing to another arm injury.
As a result, the rotation ranks 28th in the Majors with a 5.84 ERA, and the Angels are in all likelihood headed for their fifth straight losing season, which would be the second-longest stretch in franchise history. That is a tough pill to swallow for a team with the sport's best player and enviable payroll flexibility enabled by owner Arte Moreno, who’s signed off on lucrative contracts for Trout, Rendon, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Justin Upton during the 2010s and reportedly offered Gerrit Cole $300 million last winter.
After Cole's rejection, Eppler elected to once again nickel and dime his way to a pitching staff. It was an eerily similar approach to the previous offseason, when the team settled for one-year pacts with Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill after failing to sign the likes of Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi and J.A. Happ. Eppler is on the last year of his own contract, and he may not get another chance to helm another foray into the free agent market.
The offense, which ranks 18th in runs per game, hasn’t held up its end of the deal, either, in part due to the price tags of Upton and Pujols. The pair's roughly $50 million annual combined cost has proven to be dead weight, as both veterans have seen their roles drastically reduced over the last couple weeks following terrible early returns. Those contracts have also prevented Los Angeles from adding more talent in past offseasons, with Pujols’ presence especially serving as a symbolic waste of Trout’s prime years.
The former Cardinal’s extended chase to tie Willie Mays’ mark of 660 home runs has become a sad slog. He’s been stuck on 659 for 17 calendar days, and that could go on for quite a while. Milestone chase or not, the Angels can’t keep playing a first baseman with a .627 OPS who hasn’t drawn a free pass in his last 34 plate appearances. Speaking of milestones, if Pujols grounds into three more double plays, he’ll be the first player in MLB history with 400 GIDPs. He may very well hit 400 before 660.
Of course, not everything that’s gone wrong with this club in recent years can be blamed on the front office or its pricy, aging veterans. The Angels have certainly experienced their share of misfortune, ranging from Ohtani’s injury troubles to Tyler Skaggs’ untimely death last summer.
So many baseball fans want to see this team succeed. If this season ends up as yet another missed opportunity to let Trout showcase his skills in the playoffs, the entire sport will lose. And one would think some Angels players, coaches and executives will lose their jobs.
- Kobe Bryant was honored by players and teams across MLB on Sunday, which would’ve been the Black Mamba’s 42nd birthday. Here he is throwing out the first pitch at a Dodgers game in 2000.
- Lewis Brinson robbed Juan Soto of a home run, showing why the Marlins continue to play him despite his ghastly slash line (.107/.219/.143).
- The Braves and Phillies treated Sunday Night Baseball viewers to a thrilling game that concluded with a play at the plate. Dansby Swanson has been Atlanta’s most clutch player over the last couple seasons, but he wasn’t quite fast enough to help the Braves pull off a late-inning comeback against newly acquired Phillies closer Brandon Workman for the second straight night.
- Jose Abreu’s first at-bat on Sunday resulted in a home run off Yu Darvish, making it four straight home runs against the Cubs after he rounded the bases during his last three at-bats on Saturday night. That tied a MLB record, and helped the White Sox set the MLB team record with 27 home runs over the past seven days.
- Zack Greinke unleashed a 54 mph eephus that clocked in as the slowest pitch for a strike this season. Even the batter—Padres outfielder Trent Grisham, who had launched three homers against the Astros on Saturday—could only chuckle and appreciate the audacity.