Inside a cramped indoor batting cage at Wrigley Field in the fall of 2017, as Clayton Kershaw drenched his Dodgers teammates with bottles of Korbel Brut and Budweiser to celebrate reaching the World Series, one of his bosses outlined the debt that baseball teams owe their pillars.
The duo of president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi inherited Kershaw at the height of his powers in 2015. They considered him a precious asset, one they should not exploit, one who deserved to have a championship core built around him. They would kick themselves, they believed, if they wasted the prime of Kershaw.
“I’ve always felt,” Zaidi said that night in Chicago, “like part of the job for the front office of this organization was being the caretaker of the greatest pitcher of this generation.”
The same responsibility now awaits Angels owner Arte Moreno and general manager Billy Eppler, as they cradle in their hands the career of star outfielder Mike Trout. The organization has handled the most expensive, but simplest, portion of that responsibility by agreeing to a 12-year, $426.5-million extension Tuesday. Trout has agreed to eschew an opt-out and forsake the open market. It is now up to his employers to build a team worthy of sharing his clubhouse.
The Dodgers haven’t won a World Series with Kershaw. But the Angels haven’t won even a playoff game with Trout. His postseason experience is limited to a three-game sweep by the Kansas City Royals in 2014.
Moreno, Eppler and the Angels now have a dozen years to check that box. The group must confront this challenge by maintaining a willingness to spend, despite hefty commitments to Albert Pujols and Justin Upton, while demonstrating the dexterity to discover assets in an era when fewer stars reach free agency. Only a couple of weeks after Bryce Harper vowed to help persuade Trout to join him with the Philadelphia Phillies, Trout chose the security of the Angels over the volatility of the market. Other stars in other cities could follow his example.
Trout, 27, received a day off Tuesday at Tempe Diablo Stadium. His absence underscored the imperfections of his supporting cast. Baseball Prospectus projects the team to win 80 games for the third season in a row. The offense could be productive, but the bullpen will rely on a resurgence from closer Cody Allen and the rotation could feature Matt Harvey, who has posted a 5.39 earned-run average since 2016, as the No. 2 starter.
The adulation was not limited to the Angels’ clubhouse. Across the Salt River Valley in Chicago Cubs camp, 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant joined the chorus. For the Angels, Bryant reasoned, the investment might even be considered a bargain.
“He deserves every penny of it — and more,” Bryant said. “The guy is the best player in baseball. He’s probably one of the best baseball players ever. I don’t even think there’s any question about him signing that deal. He obviously likes it out there.”
Trout has flourished in Anaheim. He has won two American League MVP awards and finished in the top four of voting in all seven of his full seasons. He has led the AL in on-base-plus-slugging percentage in three of the past four years. The reason for the dearth of appearances in the playoffs lies at the feet of his teammates, and at the feet of the men who have assembled his teammates.
Since his first full season in 2012, Trout has been worth at least 6.7 wins above replacement each year, with five of those campaigns totaling nine wins or more, according to Baseball-Reference. Across that span, he has played with a teammate worth more than 5.5 WAR in any given year only twice: Andrelton Simmons in 2017 and 2018.
The trade for Simmons in November 2015 serves as the brightest move of Eppler’s tenure. Eppler acquired Simmons from the Atlanta Braves only a month after Moreno hired him to replace Jerry Dipoto. An exquisite shortstop and a useful hitter, Simmons is a worthy sidekick to Trout. He sounded pleased for his teammate.
“You locked up the best player in the game,” Simmons said. “That’s a big first step to take. You can build off of that.”
Asked what the next steps might look like, Simmons shook his head. “Oh, that’s way over my head,” he said. “Way, way over my head. We’ve just got to try to win, whatever it is. You’ve got Mike locked down. Now you try to get the pieces around him to win. I don’t know exactly who those are, but I think that’s the goal.”
It is reasonable to envision a future for the Angels featuring Trout, Simmons, two-way player Shohei Ohtani and outfield prospect Jo Adell. But Simmons can become a free agent after 2020. Ohtani has only 367 big league plate appearances and is recovering from elbow ligament reconstruction. Adell is 19 and has played 17 games above Class A.
The free-agent group next winter could include St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon. In two years, the contracts of Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom and Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto all run out. The following offseason’s class could feature Bryant, his Cubs teammate Javier Baez, Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman.
The only problem: How many of those players will follow Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado? Earlier this spring, Arenado agreed to a $260 million extension. The appeal of playing with another superstar — even a future Hall of Famer such as Trout — pales when weighed against the prospect of a nine-figure payday.
“It’s kind of funny,” Bryant said. “It’s like there’s going to be no free agents.”
Spending alone will not save the Angels. Moreno has dropped commendable sums on Pujols ($240 million), Josh Hamilton ($125 million) and Upton ($106 million). That largess cannot be considered enough at a time when teams rely more on the strength of their 40-man roster than the excellence of their five best players.
Without meaning to do so, Pujols hinted at the team’s lack of depth while praising Moreno for his financial commitment. “Every year, we have a championship ballclub coming into spring training,” Pujols said. “The thing that hurts us is the season. Last year, losing almost half of your pitching staff with injuries, it is hard to replace those guys who you can count on.”
Eppler must correct that deficiency. He has begun to reshape the organization this spring, with Brad Ausmus replacing Mike Scioscia as manager. The combination of Ohtani and Adell offers promise. Simmons and Upton provide big league production. And the new contract for Trout ensures a degree of certainty about a player without peer.
“He’s the biggest piece, really,” Simmons said. “He’s the main figure in baseball. And for the Angels, he is massive.”
Mike Trout is all those things. For his employers, though, the extension struck this week is only the start.