When Vin Scully retired, we retired the phrase “soundtrack of summer in Southern California.” He was it, and it was him, and on we went.
As it turns out, we need to return the phrase to active duty, this time not with a comforting baritone emanating from Chavez Ravine but an ominous ticking tone from Anaheim. Mike Trout might turn out to be the greatest player in baseball history, and we might be little more than two years away from losing him.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Conventional wisdom says that Trout has little interest in considering a contract extension with the Angels until he knows he can get to the playoffs with them. Trout has a good and open relationship with Billy Eppler, the Angels’ general manager, so we asked Eppler whether Trout has said he might not stay if the Angels do not advance to the postseason.
“He has never said that,” Eppler said.
Trout can be a free agent after the 2020 season. Would he consider signing before then if the Angels do not make the playoffs, this year or next?
“I don’t know the answer,” Trout said. “I want to get to the playoffs. That’s my mindset. I can’t predict the future. So I just take it one game at a time now and see what happens.”
Trout made his debut in 2011. Since then, he has won more most valuable player awards (two) than postseason games (zero). In his six full seasons, he has played in three postseason games, fewer than Kyle Farmer, the Dodgers’ third-string catcher, played in one week last October.
We have earnestly pumped up Shohei Ohtani’s bid to become the first player to win 10 games and hit 10 home runs in the same season since Babe Ruth exactly 100 years ago. We should not exhaust our Ruth comparisons on Ohtani, not without noting that Trout could better what is considered the best season the best player ever put up: Ruth’s 1923.
Happily for the Angels, their path to the playoffs this year appears to have remarkably few obstacles, even with the possibility that the injured Ohtani has thrown his last pitch of the season. The American League is not about competitive balance this year.
In the East, three of five teams are done, all at least 14 games back entering the weekend. In the Central, two are done and two others are at least five games under .500. In the West, the Texas Rangers are done, and the Oakland Athletics aren’t convincing.
That could all but leave the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians in the AL playoffs, with the Angels, Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners fighting for the final two spots.
October is there for the Angels, if they are good enough.
“We are a playoff team, no doubt,” said Angels second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has played in 37 postseason games. “It just comes down to execution — winning the games that we should, and some we shouldn’t. We obviously have the talent in this room.”
Eppler, the guy charged with assembling the talent, does not hesitate to agree. He said he feels no more urgency this season than he did last season.
“My urgency has not wavered one bit in any of the years I’ve been here,” he said. “I want to be in the postseason.”
No more urgency with the Trout timer tick-tick-ticking in the background?
“All I think about is what’s best for the organization, what’s best for our fan base and what’s best for the guys in that locker room,” he said. “Every one of those guys deserves to be in the postseason.”
It is not clear that these Angels are good enough. Their starting pitchers are barely averaging five innings, even with the extra rest that has come with a six-man rotation. In the AL rankings for appearances, three Angels relievers rank among the top eight, five among the top 15.
The Angels on Monday fielded a lineup in which five players started the game with an on-base percentage below .300, including Kinsler at leadoff and Albert Pujols at cleanup.
“We’ve had some positive moves within our farm system,” Eppler said. “There might be an answer internally.”
Jaime Barria has come out of the farm system to bolster the rotation — his 2.48 ERA leads the team — and Justin Anderson has emerged in the bullpen. The Angels could get in-house help from infielder Jose Miguel Fernandez and outfielder Michael Hermosillo, both recent call-ups, first baseman Matt Thaiss and third baseman Taylor Ward, both at triple-A Salt Lake, and pitcher Griffin Canning, who is at double-A Mobile.
That would be a lot to ask, from a lot of kids. The Angels need to trade.
“It’s tough to get that starting pitcher,” Eppler said. “It’s tough to get that everyday bat, or impact bat. Those are harder to acquire.
“It’s interesting because oftentimes the best starting pitcher that is out there is just automatically painted as an ace. Sometimes that is not the case. But it’s just because he is the best starting pitcher out there.”
Translation: Why pay ace prices for a J.A. Happ, Michael Fulmer or even Cole Hamels, 34, who has given up more home runs than all but one pitcher in the AL?
Go on, Mr. Eppler.
“Typically, we’ve seen the trade markets be flush with relievers whose contracts are expiring at the end of the year,” Eppler said. “History has shown us that that’s what’s out there in quantity.”
In that category, the Baltimore Orioles could offer Zach Britton, who is expected to return next week from the disabled list, and Brad Brach. The Chicago White Sox could offer Joakim Soria. The Kansas City Royals could offer Kelvin Herrera.
The Angels have spent the money — they are paying more to the players on their roster this season than the Dodgers are — but now comes time to spend a prospect.
Eppler has led the revitalization of a dormant farm system. Baseball America ranked the Angels’ minor league system 14th among the 30 clubs this year, after ranking it dead last in three of the previous four years.
To win this year, Eppler is going to have to weaken the farm system.
“I like when players that are drafted internally and developed internally play here,” he said. “I want that group of guys to make it to the big leagues, to hold each other accountable, to push each other.
“If we’re presented with an opportunity that is going to impact our club, I always have to evaluate those things, but my preference is, let’s let this group grow and fulfill their potential here because that’s good for every part of the organization. It’s good for scouting, development, major leagues, environment, ownership, everybody.
“That is how you build a championship organization, not a championship team.”
However, unlike Dodgers counterpart Andrew Friedman, Eppler has traded his team’s top prospect. In his first trade as the Angels’ general manager, he sent minor league left-hander Sean Newcomb to the Atlanta Braves for shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Three years later — in his first full major league season — Newcomb is scheduled to start Sunday at Dodger Stadium. He is 7-1 for the Braves, with a 2.48 ERA. The Angels have no complaints; Simmons has retained his defensive brilliance and added a reliable offensive dimension to his game. Simmons had five years left on his contract; the Angels might add players with two or three months left on their contracts.
The Angels also are developing a surplus of high-ceiling, high-risk outfielders: Jo Adell, their first-round draft pick last year; Jordyn Adams, their first-round pick this year; Brandon Marsh; and — although they moved him to second base this year — Jahmai Jones. None has risen above the Class A level.
The Angels’ third basemen rank last in the league in OPS. Take one of those blue-chip outfield prospects and send him to the rebuilding Royals as the lure in a package that would get Herrera and third baseman Mike Moustakas — a left-handed bat, a need amplified by the injury to Ohtani — to Anaheim.
Zack Cozart can split his time among second base, shortstop and third base for the rest of the season. The Ohtani injury opens at-bats at first base and designated hitter, with Pujols most likely to return to full-time DH. If the Angels were to decide to pick up Moustakas’ option next season, Cozart could replace Kinsler at second base.
No prospect has Trout’s ceiling. If the Angels keep Trout, with Justin Upton signed through 2022, they do not need all those outfield prospects. If one of them surfaces in Kansas City three years from now — with Trout still roaming the Angels’ outfield, with playoff experience and a new contract, and still not even 30 years old — that is a win-win.