The Los Angeles Angels are on the verge of being baseball’s grandest on-field tragedy in decades. Arguably, actually, they have already achieved it. The two greatest ballplayers of this generation both play in Anaheim. Mike Trout was the best player of the 2010s by a country mile, beating the next-closest hitter by nearly 20 wins above replacement in those years. He has remained elite in the 2020s but has been supplanted as the best player in the world, only because his teammate Shohei Ohtani has probably become the literal greatest baseball player of all time. He’s one of the small handful of best hitters alive at the same time as he’s one of the very best pitchers, something that even Babe Ruth gave up on being when he stopped pitching to focus full-time on hitting. There have only ever been a few players like Trout, and there has never been a player like Ohtani, and the Angels have had them together for six years. Those seasons have yielded no playoff appearances—Trout’s career going back to 2011 has featured just one postseason, a first-round loss—and now lightning is about to exit the bottle. Ohtani is a free agent after this season and, for now, has little reason to stay. The Angels’ combined winning percentage since he joined the team is .471. As much as anything, this Angels era may be remembered for a single tweet:
But the Angels, in the nick of time, are doing something inspiring: They are acting like a baseball club that knows it can only pair two of baseball’s rarest commodities for a finite period of time. The 2023 team is a medium-to-long shot to make the postseason, and Trout is currently injured. But the club’s management has realized that when you have Trout and Ohtani in the same organization, tomorrow can’t matter. In that spirit, the Angels have found a little bit of courage, and they’re pushing in their last chips to maximize what little chance remains of doing something serious with the duo on the team together. On the surface, it’s a matter of making the playoffs or dying trying. But the choice is less stark than that, because if the Angels had moved Ohtani at the trade deadline on Monday and let their season fade away, they would’ve been dead anyway. The last weeks of Trout and Ohtani are going-for-it time, and the Angels are going for it. In this case, death while trying beats not trying.
The centerpiece of the Angels’ do-not-embarrass-yourselves strategy was the team’s decision not to trade Ohtani in the final months before his free agency. It is tempting to say the Angels didn’t have a choice: They’re four games back of a wild-card spot with two months to go, and Ohtani is probably worth three or four wins on his own in that time. Trading him—which the club has said it won’t do and now really can’t do given their other moves—would have all but foreclosed the chance of a late-season rally. But there’s a certain kind of MLB front-office brain that would have traded Ohtani without blinking. The Angels are probably not making the playoffs anyway, this brain would note, and so converting Ohtani into multiple years of “team-controlled assets” is the obvious play. That line of reasoning works for a lot of players, but it really doesn’t work for Shohei Ohtani, who is baseball’s sun and moon and stars all rolled into one right now.
The Angels have two months in front of them with one of the greatest players ever being at the peak of his powers at the same moment as they have another one of the greatest players ever still at a capable point of his own career. Giving up on all of that, after years of failure, would have caused the team and its fans alike to ask existential questions. If you do not build to maximize the Trout-Ohtani moment, then why build at all? Add that Ohtani is a unique hitter-pitcher who has literally never existed, let alone been traded, and it seems quite possible that the Angels could never have gotten fair value for him in a trade. So they’ll accept the risk of losing him for a mere compensatory draft pick instead of a shinier set of prospects.
That’s just the baseball operations argument. There’s also an entertainment argument. Ohtani has a real chance to hit 60 home runs (he currently has 39) and even challenge Aaron Judge’s new American League record of 62. The Angels should reap huge ticket sales and TV ratings down the stretch even if the wild-card hunt goes poorly. The team is a business, and sending out Ohtani would be bad for business.
Keeping Ohtani even if the Angels had miniscule playoff odds, rather than kind-of-low odds, would be defensible in that spirit. Trading him represents a kind of white flag–waving that a team in the Angels’ historic position should want to avoid at all costs. But retaining Ohtani is obviously more valuable if the team has a decent chance to make a run at it. And with their playoff odds sitting around 17.5 percent, the Angels are on the fence between a real chance and a tiny one.
To inch that number upward, the team just parted with top-100 catching prospect Edgar Quero, a 20-year-old who’s already reached Double-A, in exchange for starting pitcher Lucas Giolito and reliever Reynaldo López. Both are impending free agents, and neither is a star. But Giolito has a 3.85 ERA and gives the Angels six solid starters, the kind of depth they’ll probably need in order to keep things together down the stretch. López was one of the best relievers in baseball last year and could be again if he stops giving up so many home runs. He’s an important addition for a pretty average Angels bullpen. The Angels also just went out to get first baseman/designated hitter C.J. Cron, a normally good hitter (and former Angel) who’s had a down year but is better than the subreplacement-level talent the Angels have occasionally put in the lineup of late. That deal with the Colorado Rockies also brought in outfielder Randal Grichuk, yet another former Angels draft pick who’s amid one of his best seasons. Combine all those with a deal earlier in the summer for third baseman Mike Moustakas, and the Angels have done a good job padding out their roster with respectable big leaguers who can keep them afloat while they wait for some of their biggest-ticket players to get back from the injured list.
Chief among those studs is Trout. The three-time MVP and perennial All-Star has had significant injury trouble since 2021, and he hasn’t played since July 3 as he deals with a fractured bone in his wrist. Trout isn’t what he was at his best, but he was having another fine season before he got hurt, racking up about three wins above replacement in 81 games. He’ll give the Angels one of baseball’s best center fielders when he comes back, ostensibly some time in the next month or so. Infielder Brandon Drury, a lefty-masher who can play a couple of positions, should be back imminently. And third baseman Anthony Rendon, who’s still supposed to be an above-average hitter when healthy, may come back from the injured list someday. By some point in the next few weeks, the Angels will have added not just Gioloto, Grichuk, Cron, and López, but also their franchise player in Trout and a few more guys who can hit. That’s a quarter of a roster, and it provides some hope that the Angels have more of a chance to make the playoffs than a typical team sitting 4.5 games back.
The trade additions represent a new level of investment for Arte Moreno, the team owner who gave a long look to selling the Angels last year but decided to hang on to them. Moreno doesn’t belong on a list of the league’s most tightwadded, nontrying owners: He did sign Albert Pujols, after all, and his front office also swung huge free-agent deals for Rendon, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Justin Upton. The problem with the Angels’ big moves has been that they haven’t worked, not that the owner hasn’t given the club a chance. But the Angels have never been one of MLB’s biggest spenders overall, and the deal for Giolito and López pushed them into territory where they’ll pay a luxury tax penalty for the first time since 2004, right after Moreno bought the team. The bill may not turn out to be much more than a million bucks, but at least the Angels understand the score. At least they’re supplementing their roster in a way they apparently would not have earlier in this era. There are times to break organizational budgeting philosophies, and this is one of those times.
The same is true in player development. Teams do not usually draft players in mid-July and put them on a fast track to maybe be in the majors by August or September, but the Angels are doing that now with their recently selected first-round pick, versatile 21-year-old Nolan Schanuel. The end of the Ohtani-Trout pairing arriving without a single playoff appearance would be apocalyptic. Every hand should be on deck, and now it is.