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As Shohei Ohtani turned in yet another brilliant performance Sunday, his team’s many shortcomings were on full display. The two-way star twirled seven innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts and no walks, and even went 1-for-3 at the plate. But he was denied his 10th win of the season thanks to a hapless offense and a bullpen that surrendered four runs within the first six batters it faced after his exit. The defeat secured the franchise’s sixth consecutive losing season, the second-longest streak in Angels history.
While Los Angeles's inability to reach the playoffs despite rostering Mike Trout is nothing new, there was an air that the consistent lack of competitiveness was nearing a breaking point. Manager Joe Maddon expressed frustration with the team’s losing ways earlier in the week, per MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger: “This can’t continue to go on. We can’t annually be in this position. This organization is better than that. We deserve better than that. We have to go out and earn it.”
Trout echoed those sentiments days later, adding, “Obviously, there’s a lot of money to spend. Hopefully we go out there and get some big guys,” per The Athletic’s Sam Blum. The loudest and most meaningful voice came from Ohtani himself after Sunday’s outing, when he was asked about whether he likes playing for the Angels.
“Yeah, definitely. I really like the team. I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team,” Ohtani said, per Blum. “But more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. So I’ll leave it at that.”
The Angels have long operated with a "win-now" mentality, only to consistently fall short of that ethos. For years, their wasting Trout's prime years has been among baseball's most frustrating story lines. When Ohtani wins the AL MVP this year, it'll be the fourth time in the last eight years that an Angels player has won the award. Only once in that span did they reach the playoffs—2014, the first of Trout's three MVP seasons—and they lost all three of their postseason games.
Trout is under contract through 2030, his age-38 season, and he has no opt-outs in his deal. His words carry weight because he's the best player in franchise history, but he has little leverage beyond his status to put pressure on the front office. Maddon similarly holds influence as the club's most public non-player face, but he can't force ownership to spend more money. And, because his job requires him to talk with the media daily and his job security depends on how many games he wins, it would be more surprising if he didn't say that this team needs to do better.
If these most recent gripes are going to change anything, it'll be because they're coming from Ohtani, who has two more years of team control before he reaches free agency after the 2023 season. It's his emergence as the face of MLB and the threat of his possible departure in a few years that could compel Angels ownership to do more to put together a perennial playoff contender. Still, no matter how vocal Ohtani is moving forward about his desire to play for a winning team, it won't be easy for general manager Perry Minasian and the rest of the front office to engineer the type of overnight turnaround few clubs are able to pull off.
One of the teams that has quickly gone from also-ran to contender is the Giants, who went through four straight losing seasons from 2017-20 before their historic 2021 campaign. How the Angels would go about that type of resurgence would be quite different from San Francisco’s approach, but the fact that the Giants stand as an example that such an extreme shift can be done is at least a reason to believe that one winter can dramatically change a franchise’s fortunes.
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The most obvious and persistent problem the Angels have had during their seven-year run of missing the playoffs is pitching, and that need remains as glaring as ever. Their 4.71 ERA is the fourth-highest in the American League this season, while their starting pitchers have the second-highest walk rate (3.47 BB/9) and average fewer than five innings per outing. They aimed to address this issue for the long term by taking only pitchers in this year’s draft, but more immediate reinforcements will be needed this winter.
Options on the free agency market are plentiful, and the headlining piece currently pitches 30 miles north for the Dodgers. Max Scherzer is 37 years old and has over 2,600 innings under his belt (including the postseason), but there’s little doubt he still has what it takes to be one of the game’s most dominating pitchers. Other veterans in the twilight of their careers include Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, though the former is coming off of Tommy John surgery and the latter has been ineffective down the stretch and might not make Houston’s playoff starting rotation.
There are younger (and likely more expensive long-term) options as well, like Marcus Stroman, Carlos Rodón, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani. The latter two were relatively buy-low acquisitions by the Giants over the past two seasons that the Angels would be wise to emulate. Gausman posted a 5.72 ERA in 2019 before signing a one-year, $9 million deal with San Francisco that winter. In 42 starts with the team since, the righthander is 17–9 with a 3.05 ERA. DeSclafani, meanwhile, made just seven starts for the Reds in 2020 and had a gaudy 7.22 ERA when he signed a one-year, $6 million contract this past offseason. He’s revitalized his career in San Francisco, making 30 starts with a 12–7 record and 3.27 ERA.
Scraping out diamonds in the rough like that requires a dogged scouting department, strong player development and a little bit of luck, things the Angels have sorely been lacking. In recent years, they've been unsuccessful with their buy-low signings, such as Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill and José Quintana. The front offense has also taken big swings at pitching help—most notably with their efforts to sign Gerrit Cole in 2019—but come up short. That’s not to mention the team’s need for an everyday shortstop—a deep position this free agency class—as well as a bullpen that will likely need to be rebuilt from the ground up. Another winter of missed opportunities could cause growing discontent for both the game’s brightest star and this generation's greatest player.
Similar uneasiness existed in 2019, when Mike Trout was nearing free agency and the Angels mired in a then-unthinkable four-year playoff drought. The team signed Trout to a record-breaking extension to avoid possibly losing him in free agency, but it appears the franchise will have to prove it’s worthy of such a pledge from the new best player in baseball. Ohtani has redefined what we think a baseball player is capable of in 2021. For the Angels to keep him in tow long-term, they’ll need to reevaluate how they go about building a contender—and do so quickly.
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