From the highs of the WBC to the lows of the Angels

The Angels might be good in 2023. They also might just be the Angels, and then lose Shohei Ohtani forever.

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Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, the two best players on the Angels, faced off on Tuesday night in the World Baseball Classic final. Ohtani came in to close out a one-run game in the ninth, and he blew his teammate — one of the greatest hitters to ever take the field, whose only issue these days is actually being on the field — away with a couple of fastballs that gave away how much Ohtani wanted this match-up, and then a slider that not even Trout was going to be dialed in for. It’s going to be a lasting memory of the incredible 2023 WBC, and Angels fans are going to want to hold onto it, because they very well might need it.

The 2023 Angels might be pretty good! They usually aren’t, of course, but this year might be different. Ohtani has been teammates with Trout since 2018, and in that stretch, the Angels are 328-380. They haven’t posted a .500 record in those five years, never mind a winning one, and have lost 90 games in the season in which Ohtani didn’t take the mound, but could still show up to hit. Even with Trout batting .283/.369/.630 with a 178 OPS+ and Ohtani following up his MVP-winning 2021 with a .273/.356/.519 line and 2.33 ERA over 166 innings, powered by an AL-leading 11.9 strikeouts per nine, the 2022 Angels lost 89 games.

So why should things be different this time around? Well, they added Hunter Renfroe and Brandon Drury to the lineup, Gio Urshela and Brett Phillips to the bench, brought in 2022 All-Star (and 4-WAR pitcher) Tyler Anderson for the rotation, and worked to shore up the bullpen, too. It’s not a perfect team, but they should be a pretty good one, capable of competing for an AL wild card spot. They’re still on the precipice in a lot of ways, like they tend to be — the wrong injury or injuries or someone not playing up to their potential could be a real problem — but they’ve at least worked to fill in some of their holes and give themselves a better chance.

The thing that I can’t escape, though, is that this is the last year before Ohtani becomes a free agent, and yet, this is as far as the Angels would push. It’s very likely this is the last time Ohtani and Trout will be on the same team together — after 2023, any times they’re both on the field will be when they’re facing off against each other like they were on Tuesday. Except it’s not guaranteed to be a game with anywhere near as much meaning, since the Angels are the Angels. They’re the organization that, as said, has managed to never have a winning season despite having arguably the best baseball player in the history of the sport under contract, and also Mike Trout. Trout has been to the postseason one time in his Angels career — you know, the career that began well over a decade ago now, when he was still a teenager instead of in his early 30s. And in that one season, itself nearly a decade ago now, they were swept in the ALDS.

It’s easy to make excuses for the Angels, to act as if they have tried to win with Trout around while he was at peak Troutness: they’ve certainly spent big on some free agents, and the problem has often been which free agents they’re spending that money on. Albert Pujols was a star with the Cardinals, but his career took a downturn earlier than expected, to the point that people were openly speculating that he truly was older than he claimed to be. C.J. Wilson? Josh Hamilton? These were players to take financial risks on if the plan was to keep spending beyond the luxury tax threshold, but the Angels refused and continue to refuse to do that: when players like that didn’t work out, the Angels were simply bad instead of actively working to get better. And since the farm system hasn’t produced all that much besides Trout in his career, well, spending was the only option, and Los Angeles declined to take it again and again.

The Angels have only exceeded the luxury tax one time, in 2004, when they finished under $1 million over that year’s $120.5 million threshold. They’ve certainly bumped close up to the tax again and again: in 2012, they had the third-highest payroll in the league but remained under the threshold, and just once since then have they had a payroll, through the CBT’s specific kind of accounting, outside of the top 10 in the league. The refusal to go over, though, has held them back. And now they’ve got just one more guaranteed year of Shohei Ohtani before he ends up free to sign elsewhere. Owner Arte Moreno is at least on the record now saying that the club is willing to exceed the luxury tax in order to retain Ohtani going forward, but why wait? Not to be overly cynical, but it feels like something to say as a way to kickstart the “we tried” conversations after Ohtani walks. Promise that you would exceed the tax threshold for Ohtani, then don’t re-sign him, then it never has to happen — if only he had stuck around, things would be different, you know? Maybe Moreno is being sincere here, but given the way he’s operated for decades, with a staunch refusal to go over the tax threshold even when the only way the Angels were going to be any better was through spending more, it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I know people sometimes like to say that the Angels aren’t “wasting” Trout and Ohtani, that we still get to experience their greatness regardless of the meaning of the games they’re participating in, but I’d like those people to try to make that argument again after seeing the energy of Tuesday’s WBC final. Two of the best players in the world — two of the best players ever — took part in something special. Part of why it was special is because the Angels refuse to set themselves up in a situation where the two have had chances to play truly meaningful baseball before, but it’s also because it was just so cool to see, to experience, to anticipate and then have it delivered. Ohtani and Trout deserve more, and so do Angels fans. Hell, the rest of us do, too: people aren’t just going to clamor for Ohtani as a free agent because they want him on their team, they’re going to do it because they want him on a team that might actually give him a chance to star in October and take home a World Series, so that they and everyone else can have more of one of the most exhilarating players to ever don a uniform in their lives. The Angels are giving us all a better chance of seeing that than they have in the past, sure, but as per usual with them, it’s still not as much of a chance as it should be.

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