Twenty minutes after midday Sunday at Angel Stadium, his shoulder still throbbing from a 4-day-old fastball, Mike Trout approached the plate and tapped his bat barrel on the home-plate umpire’s left leg, as he does before every game’s first at-bat. For Sunday’s season finale, the retiring Bob Davidson patted Trout on the back in rare response.
Trout soon walked, then took off for second base. Entering with 29 home runs and 29 stolen bases, he was pushing for his second 30-30 season, and he nearly attained it. He swung hard and often, but flew out once and walked a second time before singling to drive in his 100th run in the sixth inning. As soon as he reached first base, he was removed from the game to an ovation.
“I knew about them, for sure,” Trout said of the round numbers. “I was definitely thinking about that the whole game. It’s always cool to get 30 stolen bases and 100 RBI.”
The Angels beat Houston, 8-1, but Sunday’s trivial pursuit signified the meaninglessness of their season, one sidetracked by injuries, individual struggles and, perhaps, expectations.
“It seemed like every time we felt like we were settling in,” pitching coach Charles Nagy said, “something happened.”
On the second night of the season, left-hander and No. 2 starter Andrew Heaney told Nagy his arm did not feel right. He did not pitch again and will not until 2018. One month in, ace right-hander Garrett Richards felt fatigued and an examination uncovered an elbow tear. He did not pitch again.
The exact cause and date of death is difficult to determine in any instance exhibiting several fatal flaws, as the 2016 Angels did. But some times stick out, like June 9, when the New York Yankees secured a four-game sweep to sink the Angels’ record to 26-34. Players packed for home without a word in Yankee Stadium’s visiting clubhouse.
“The team that’s left,” Manager Mike Scioscia maintained that night, “is a pretty good team.”
Not so much. The team that was left won 48 of 102 games, better but nowhere near enough to contend. The true nadir materialized months later in Cleveland. The Angels arrived having lost six consecutive games, and then suffered back-to-back 10-run defeats. The losing streak at a season high, they then lost twice more, heavy rain prolonging each affair. Albert Pujols was angrily ejected from the finale as the franchise succumbed to almost unprecedented depths. The team jetted home through the darkness in quiet, embarrassed and resolute to be better.
“It’s no way you want to go about a season,” Jered Weaver said that night.
They won 25 of the 45 games they played thereafter.
“We were out of it, obviously, but we finished strong,” Trout said. “There were a lot of positives when you look at it for next year.”
About next year: Scioscia said Sunday all his coaches will return in 2017. While many around the sport are skeptical, the club intends to compete. Richards’ availability for the season, to be confirmed this month at Arizona instructional league, will better inform the likelihood of their hopes coming true.
“We know we need to get better. We’re really confident we will get better,” Scioscia said. “There needs to be some talent added. We all recognize that. But I think the core in there is championship-caliber.”
In the middle of Sunday’s third inning, the Angels’ scoreboard congratulated Weaver on reaching 150 career wins last month. It was an unofficial goodbye, because the team does not want to close the door on his return. Most of the announced 28,083 fans arose and applauded. His teammates prodded him. Reluctantly, Weaver emerged from the dugout, tipped his cap, and swiveled his eyes around the ballpark.
He may not return next season, and if he does, certainly not at the $20.2-million salary he earned in 2016. Left-hander C.J. Wilson, the recipient of $20.5 million, will not be back. Conspicuously absent from the team photo distributed to Sunday’s attendees, he did not throw a pitch for the Angels this year.
But those two figures represent the vast majority of the salary the Angels will shed. Trout is guaranteed a raise, as is Simmons. Richards, right fielder Kole Calhoun and others eligible for arbitration should receive several million more between them.
The front office is amid a revamp. The Angels lost their director of pro scouting and their director of player personnel in recent weeks. They fired their director of amateur scouting in August and replaced him with 33-year-old Texas-based upstart Matt Swanson.
He will supervise the research and scouting for the 2017 10th overall selection that will match the Angels’ highest draft pick since 1997. Historically, players selected 10th have averaged nine Wins Above Replacement for their careers, better than the three preceding slots. It is not the fifth pick the Angels were once on pace for, but it should suffice. San Francisco selected Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner with the 10th pick in consecutive seasons.
Until that player arrives in the majors, there is always Trout, who concluded his fifth full season as, again, the best player in baseball. Again, he probably will not win the MVP his statistics warrant. He said he cannot think about that.
While his teammates filled their boxes to send home for the winter Sunday afternoon, the 25-year-old center fielder and lone star addressed a horde of reporters at his locker. C.J. Cron shouted over to remember to credit his teammates.
“It is what it is,” Trout said of 2016. “It’s been a long season, but it’s not where we want to be. We did end on a positive note, though, which is all you can ask for.”