This time a year ago, the buzz that surrounded Angel Stadium ahead of the exhibition Freeway Series pertained to the intrigue of baseball’s best two-way player since Babe Ruth.
As the Dodgers and Angels prepare to begin their annual spring finale in the Los Angeles area on Sunday with a game in Anaheim at 5 p.m., the buzz has shifted. Shohei Ohtani, who became the American League rookie of the year, will not be pitching and hitting this season and so he is not on the brink of assembling another historic campaign.
But the attention is still on the Angels, who signed Mike Trout last week to a 12-year, $426.5-million contract. The 27-year-old center fielder, a two-time most valuable player and seven-time All-Star, was rewarded the contract with the intent of making him a lifelong Angel.
“He's got his upbringing home and his offseason home,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “But we're his baseball home. To be able to keep him here and keep him home, as far as his professional life is concerned, was important to us. I'm very glad we were able to get that done.”
Interest also abounds for the Dodgers, of course.
They’re sporting a new look. They shipped off outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, signed A.J. Pollock to play center field, brought back catcher Russell Martin and opened up the bench to top prospect Alex Verdugo, who is still blocked in the outfield but has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.
Although they are fresh off a second consecutive World Series loss, the Dodgers seem poised to run roughshod over the National League West.
“We’re a better ballclub than we were last year,” manager Dave Roberts said.
How they get there is the question. The Dodgers’ starting rotation has taken some hits in the last month and a half. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw is injured again, only this time he is sidelined before the season begins. Shoulder inflammation ruined his spring training and terminated his streak of opening-day starts at eight. Rich Hill, who suffered a knee injury, will also start the season on the injured list.
The last time the Dodgers played in Anaheim, they were the reigning NL champions and had fallen short of a World Series title.
Little has changed on that front. The Dodgers shouldered their way back into the playoffs and captured another pennant, only to lose in five games to the Boston Red Sox in the Series.
Still, that’s more than the Angels have been able to brag about lately. Even with Trout entrenched in center field, the Angels have languished near the bottom of the AL West. They haven’t been to the postseason since 2014. They have failed to post a winning record in three consecutive seasons.
The Angels’ long-term commitment to Trout indicates at least one thing: Owner Arte Moreno is not going to shut his wallet to Eppler. He’s not going to over-spend, either, but he will allow Eppler to make prudent acquisitions that improve the talent surrounding Trout. Moreno has done so several times already, as when he parted with a top pitching prospect and veteran shortstop Erick Aybar to nab Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons. And when he signed outfielder Justin Upton to a five-year, $106-million contract. And when he convinced Ohtani to choose the Angels over six other teams that had made the two-way player’s final cut.
The Angels aren’t the center of the baseball world. They’ll have to win a postseason game first. They haven’t done that since 2009.
But by keeping Trout, nurturing Ohtani through his first contract — if not beyond — and bolstering a farm system that has made big strides since Eppler took over, the Angels could at least begin to topple the balance of attention in Los Angeles.