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Column: Enjoy Shohei Ohtani while you can, Angels fans. His days in Anaheim appear numbered

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Illustration of four Angels players holding onto a giant kite with Ohtani's name and #17 on it to keep it from blowing away
(Madison Ketcham / For The Times)

Would the Angels actually trade Shohei Ohtani this season?

There’s no excuse for a big-market team to deal a star player, but if the Angels had to trade Ohtani, the time to do so was last year.

If they trade Ohtani three months before he becomes a free agent, the Angels would receive just a fraction of the bounty they would have gained by trading him a year earlier.

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So why is owner Arte Moreno implying the Angels could move Ohtani this summer?

Say farewell to the vision of a Dodgers-like transformation. Abandon the dream of a better tomorrow. Prepare for the worst.

Moreno is back.

I’ve written before that I think it’s in the best interests of both Ohtani and baseball for him to sign with another team next winter. He should have a chance of playing October baseball every season, and that won’t happen on a team owned by Moreno.

After Shohei Ohtani proved during the World Baseball Classic he’s made for the big stage, he must leave the Angels and play for a title contender.

March 22, 2023

That doesn’t mean the Angels should just let him go. On the contrary, they have to do everything in their power to keep him. If Moreno can’t re-sign Ohtani, what is he even doing in this business? Losing Ohtani would be the single greatest failure of an owner who has become synonymous with failure.

But rather than show he will fight to retain his star attraction, Moreno has started to construct a pathway for him to leave town. After deciding to not sell the Angels, Moreno promptly resumed giving a master class on what not to do as a team owner when he conducted an interview with Sports Illustrated this month.

“I will say it on the record,” Moreno told the publication. “We will not trade Ohtani while we are contending for a playoff spot.”

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Asked if he would make the same promise about a scenario in which the Angels aren’t contending, Moreno replied, “I’m not going to answer that, and I’ll tell you why.”

The explanation that followed wasn’t important. What was important was that Moreno answered the question by not answering it.

Angels owner Arte Moreno wearing sunglasses and a red zip up jacket.
Angels owner Arte Moreno pauses on the field before a spring training game against the Dodgers on March 3, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

He wouldn’t promise to keep Ohtani.

Moreno is 76. Maybe he misspoke. Maybe he wanted to leave himself an out in case another pandemic brings the global economy back to its knees. But it’s hard to read that and not think the Angels will be dealing their main attraction at the deadline.

Once again, this raises questions about why the Angels didn’t sell Ohtani last year if they didn’t intend to hold on to him through the upcoming season regardless of their performance. The delay in trading him could have cost them a chance to restock their depleted farm system with high-end talent, which could have included can’t-miss prospect Jasson Dominguez of the New York Yankees.

The oddly timed flip-flop only reinforces the industry-wide view of the Angels as lacking any kind of long-term vision, good or bad, and that’s on Moreno.

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The good news: Ohtani will be in Southern California for at least four months more.

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The Angels’ appalling failure to take advantage of his presence at a below-market rate — he made just $3.5 million when he won the American League most valuable player award in 2021 and $5.5 million last year — shouldn’t take away from his status as a once-in-a-lifetime performer.

Enjoy him while he’s still here.

Ohtani is entering his sixth season and will turn 29 in July, but his most productive years still could be ahead of him.

With arm trouble limiting him to a combined 12 starts over his first three seasons with the Angels, Ohtani didn’t have his first full season as a two-way player until 2021.

“He still has limitless room for growth,” San Diego Padres right-hander Yu Darvish said in a recent interview on former Japanese league player Yutaka Takagi’s YouTube channel.

Japan's Shohei Ohtani smiles during the player introduction before the World Baseball Classic championship game
Japan’s Shohei Ohtani smiles during the player introduction before the World Baseball Classic championship game March 21 in Miami. “When you win, it’s fun,” he told reporters.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
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Darvish played with Ohtani for Japan in the World Baseball Classic and carefully observed him. In his conversation with Takagi, Darvish mentioned Roki Sasaki, a 21-year-old right-hander who has touched 102 mph with his fastball. Sasaki, who plays in the Japanese league, is considered the best pitching prospect in the world.

Darvish said of Ohtani, “I think he’s a pitcher who has as much room for growth as Sasaki.”

In the quarterfinals of the WBC, Ohtani threw a 102-mph fastball against Italy — his fastest recorded pitch since he signed with the Angels.

On the mound last year, Ohtani was 15-9 with a 2.33 earned-run average in 28 starts. He batted .273 with 34 home runs and 95 runs batted in.

The life of a Japanese journalist, one assigned to cover the country’s biggest star playing in Major League Baseball, is all-consuming and relentless.

March 21, 2023

Whether the Angels win or lose, Ohtani is a show all his own. In his interview with Sports Illustrated, Moreno used that as justification for rejecting trade offers for him last year. He said Angels fans are “going to tell their grandkids, ‘I saw Ohtani play.’ ”

Great point. But why doesn’t that logic extend to the upcoming season? Why isn’t Moreno closing the door on trading Ohtani under any circumstances? So what if Ohtani doesn’t sign a contract extension with the Angels before the season? Shouldn’t they keep him and exhaust every possibility of re-signing him?

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Now, with six teams from each league qualifying for the playoffs, it’s very likely the Angels still will be in contention at the trade deadline and as a result will keep Ohtani through the season. Still, Moreno’s philosophical inconsistencies are alarming, and Ohtani is too attentive not to have noticed them, regardless of any language barrier.

By now, Ohtani has to know the Angels won’t ever win with Moreno in charge, even if the politeness built into the Japanese culture won’t allow him to voice these concerns.

A little more than a week after his interview with Sports Illustrated was published, Moreno addressed Ohtani’s future again in a scrum with reporters at the Angels’ spring training complex.

Moreno said to the reporters without any trace of irony, “Ohtani has to want to be here too. It’s a two-way street.”

Ohtani wants to win.

Before his start in the WBC quarterfinals, Ohtani was asked about how he was smiling and how much fun he seemed to be having playing for Japan.

“When you win, it’s fun,” Ohtani told reporters in Tokyo. “When you lose, it’s frustrating. I think it’s that simple.”

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Ohtani experienced the greatest triumph of his career in the WBC, striking out Mike Trout to close out Japan’s 3-2 victory over the United States in the championship game. He has since returned to an Angels franchise that last made the postseason in 2014.

Next winter, Ohtani will have the option of escaping to a team that can make the game more fun for him. The Angels will be stuck with Moreno.

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