If you keep turning the corner, you’re just going around in a circle.
When MLB opted for the expanded playoffs this year, a common response from baseball observers — mostly in a resigned tone to the whole idea — was that at least Mike Trout would have a good chance to play in playoff games. He’s played three of them though his nine full seasons in Orange County, winning none, as the Royals clocked the Angels hard back in 2014. It’s been a lament of fans and media alike that possibly the greatest player of all time has rarely played in a game with real stakes.
This season, like most of his career, the rest of the Angels couldn’t produce enough around Trout to even get them close to the playoff spots that were just lying in the road at the end of this abbreviated season. In response, owner Artie Moreno fired GM Billy Eppler yesterday. That kind of thing happens because there’s never been a recorded instance of a baseball owner firing himself. Now the Angels are at yet another crossroads, and they’ve been at enough of these of late to feel like it’s a crop circle.
It’s the point that every team gets to, which is to plug the leaks and forge ahead or start over. But to start over, the Angels would have to make the one move that would replenish the entire system’s pitching supply, their main downfall of late, and that’s move Trout. In the mid-pandemic world, it’s hard to know what team would take on his contract, but we can be pretty sure the number would be higher than zero. It’s not a move Trout has ever asked for, and it’s not something the Angels have ever considered. But there isn’t really anything else for them to cash in. They’ve been here before, which is a mark of Moreno’s stewardship from the captain’s chair.
Moreno took hold of the Angels in the season after they won their only World Series. He immediately lowered beer prices, and that’s been about all he’s gotten right. The Angels have won one playoff series under his stewardship, and even with Trout out front for the past decade, have only managed that solitary playoff appearance.
The problem is that Moreno either can’t decide what he wants the team to do, or doesn’t exhibit the patience to let it actually build, or let Mike Scioscia wield his little-ball influence far too much influence for far too long, etc.
When Trout was ready to become an institution in 2012, Moreno knew he couldn’t waste this gift from the heavens, and went all-in that winter. He signed C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols, the two biggest free agents available. A season later Moreno signed Josh Hamilton out of Texas, just like Wilson, though that became a money-inferno the very next season. But Pujols was 32. Wilson was 31. Hamilton was 32. After that 2014 season, none ever came close to being what they had been, and/or were out of the game within a couple of seasons.
That ineffective splurge seemed to scare Moreno off from trying to become Hollywood Baseball, and Eppler was hired with the idea of improving the farm system and producing players to play alongside Trout instead of buying them. Eppler was able to find some bargains on the free-agent and trade markets, such as Tommy La Stella, Dylan Bundy, and Andrelton Simmons. David Fletcher came through to be a decent enough role player in the infield. Jo Addell and Luis Rengifo have come up this year, though with some rough results.
But at the same time, the Angels went chasing after Shohei Ohtani, and they got one year of two-way play for him and now have to figure out if forcing him to be a contributor as both hitter and pitcher is keeping him from being a real star as just one or the other. They brought in Anthony Rendon, who has been great, but also is in his 30s and doesn’t pitch.
And that’s Eppler’s downfall: the failure to produce or fix the rotation. In five years the best pitcher the Angels have had is Andrew Heaney, with a 4.35 ERA. That’s... bad.
The question is, what does Moreno want to do now? Rumors have Dave Dombrowski as a leading candidate, which means Moreno once again is ready for a GM to strip-mine every young player that he didn’t draft or acquire to get name players, and also go full turbo with his owner’s checkbook. That’s what Dombrowski did in Boston, flogging prospects from the previous regime for Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, and Nathan Eovaldi, while signing J.D. Martinez and David Price to contracts that thudded when they hit the table. If Dombrowski does end up in Anaheim, Adell and Rengifo might as well pack their bags right after the press conference.
Until Moreno decides firmly what it is he wants the Angels to be, they’ll continue to be not much at all.