The good news for the Los Angeles Angels is that they’re still technically in the playoff hunt heading into the 1 August MLB trade deadline. That is also the bad news. You see, that slim hope of a postseason berth complicates their upcoming decision on whether to trade the greatest player in baseball or risk losing him in free agency and gain nothing in return.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, starting pitcher and designated hitter Shohei Ohtani is in the midst of one of the most impressive two-way performances in sports history. Ohtani leads the majors in home runs, OPS and slugging percentage, all while doubling up as one of MLB’s best pitchers. Imagine an NFL player who led the league in touchdown throws and sacks. Or a soccer center-forward who scored 30 goals a season and saved penalties.
The last time we saw a performance like this … well maybe we haven’t. It’s arguable that even Babe Ruth himself, essentially the only comparable player, was not this dominant at hitting and pitching at the same time.
One notable difference between the two players: Ruth was part of seven World Series-winning teams. When he was traded from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, it famously tilted the balance of power in the American League in New York’s favor for nearly a century. Ohtani has not had similar success with the Angels. They have never made the playoffs with him on the roster and are currently deep into a playoff drought that dates back to 2014.
The team thought their fortunes would change when they signed Ohtani in 2018. The Angels already had Mike Trout – the star center fielder who has won three AL MVPs since they drafted him in 2009 – but they still underachieved. By 2018, Trout had only appeared in a single playoff series (which lasted a measly three games, at that). However, if Ohtani turned out to be even 75% of the player he was with the Nippon Ham Fighters back in Japan, they would be adding both a quality hitter and pitcher to the roster in one move.
And Ohtani has matched even the most outrageously optimistic predictions. He won the AL MVP in 2021 and would have certainly won it again last year if not for Aaron Judge’s historic home-run campaign. If he doesn’t get traded to the National League, he will probably win it this year too.
In the NBA, where starting lineups are just five men deep, having two players this dominant on one team would practically guarantee a postseason appearance every year. That’s not how it works in baseball, however. Even with Ohtani and Trout on the roster, they account for only two out of every nine plate appearances per game and one out of five slots in a regular season starting rotation. All that’s even before you get into the question of the bullpen and the bench.
Bringing in Ohtani was a huge move, without question, but the Angels struggled to construct a consistently winning team around him and Trout who, in fairness to the team, has struggled with injury in the last few years. Even when MLB did them the favor of expanding the playoffs, the Angels couldn’t capitalize. In baseball terms, the Angels hit two mammoth home runs but have been mostly striking out ever since. (Indeed, this probably describes more than a few actual Angels games.)
With Ohtani’s contract ending at the end of this year, the Angels knew that 2023 would be make-or-break. This season, as usual, the Angels have mostly been breaking. Trout has been out with a fractured wrist, while third baseman Anthony Rendon – who is still owed $115.7m – has played in just 43 games thanks to a shin injury. All of this puts more pressure on Ohtani to keep up his historic season just to keep the team’s hopes of a postseason berth alive. As of Monday morning, Fangraphs had the Angels’ playoff odds at a mere 13.6%.
At this point, the Angels’ string of bad decisions and bad luck have turned them into one of the league’s laughing stocks. Just last week The Onion got into the act as it published a fake story about Angels GM Perry Minasian admitting that they were “the most incompetent franchise in the history of professional sports” for wasting Ohtani’s prime.
This constant ridicule may explain why team owner Arte Moreno has been hesitant to trade Ohtani even as it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s the more rational move. If he gives up on Ohtani it’s a direct acknowledgment that Moreno’s critics were right: his organization had two of the best players in the game at their peaks and could do nothing substantial with them.
So, Moreno’s finger hovers hesitantly over the franchise reset button as he hopes for something to happen to convince him that this team will beat the odds should they sneak into the playoffs. Assuming Ohtani, Trout and (to a much lesser extent) Rendon are all healthy come the postseason, it’s not impossible that they play their best baseball in October. After all, the 2006 St Louis Cardinals won the World Series after recording a .516 winning percentage in the regular season. Heck, even a deep postseason run could be enough to persuade Ohtani, who has said all the right things about staying with the Angels, to re-sign.
That’s a lot of “ifs” however. There is only one certainty here: they would get an unprecedented amount back for a “rental” player whose contract ends when the season does. If the Angels don’t trade him, they essentially forfeit their ability to get any sort of return for one of the rarest talents the sport has ever seen. The more logical move would also mean, in a very fundamental way, admitting defeat and potentially alienating fans.
It shouldn’t have come to this. The Angels have committed baseball malpractice by wasting the primes of Trout and Ohtani. It’s hard to overstate what a huge advertisement for the sport it could be to see the two of them doing impossible things together in the playoffs. Instead, the only time fans have seen them in the same meaningful game was during the last at-bat of the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
On 1 August, Ohtani will either be with LA or elsewhere. But it’s looking like – barring a miracle – we will soon witness the end of an Angels era that never properly began.