T-Minus two years until the greatest baseball player in the game today hits the market.
That's how long the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have to prove to Mike Trout they are committed to yearly contention. Say what you will about the PR difficulty of marketing the best player in the league and maybe even one of the best in baseball history from the west coast, but an even greater travesty is the single playoff appearance Trout has seen in his first eight years.
In another universe, the 2019 free agency class, highly regarded as the best in recent memory while featuring names like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, would feature Mike Trout. The Angels delayed the inevitable by inking Trout to a six-year extension worth $144.5m; but if Harper, regarded as the inferior player to Trout, is expecting a $400m contract, how much could Trout have made after this season?
Consider: through Trout's first 1,000 games, his accumulated stats have exceeded even the best. He's racked up 1,126 hits, five off from Pete Rose's 1,231. His 224 home runs are more than Barry Bonds' 172 while simultaneously out-walking Bonds 638-603. And his 2,100 total bases are only 121 less than Hank Aaron's 2,221.
An entire article can be dedicated to Trout's career numbers. Alas, that's not the purpose of this article. To see where Trout ranks among all-time greats, ESPN has given a detailed listing of all major offensive categories and metrics. It's worth a look.
If there's one player who shouldn't be worried, it's Trout. He'll get his payday. Who should be worried is the Los Angeles Angels, who have failed to field a competitive, playoff-bound team in seven of the eight years. So how do they build a worthy team around the game's best superstar?
It starts with pitching
The signing of Shohei Ohtani was a savvy move to bolster a weak rotation. And for a while it worked. Ohtani took the MLB world by storm with his two-way prowess; a blazing 100mph fastball coupled with wipeout splitter, and a power left-handed swing that could turn on one of the best fastballs in the game.
Ohtani's dominance on both sides of the baseball, correlated with a rejuvenated ball-club, led the Angels to a franchise best 13-3 start. They were perceived as the team to challenge the defending World Series champs as the best of the AL West.
But now they sit nine and a half games out of first place, and six games behind the Seattle Mariners for the second Wild Card. Ohtani has been out for an extended period with a strained elbow ligament that many fear will require season ending Tommy John surgery. If that's the case, then you can't expect Ohtani until early 2020 at the earliest.
So now the Angels are back at square one: an okay pitching rotation that still fails to match the offensive potential that features names like Trout, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, and the aging but still dangerous Albert Pujols. The Ohtani injury has shown just how difficult it is to be a two-way player in today's game, while also confirming the fickleness of healthy pitching. Elbow injuries such as Ohtani's are the norm, and it can happen.
So, going into the 2019 off-season, the Angels have to focus on acquiring that one guy to lead a young and relatively inexperienced rotation. Names like Patrick Corbin can be an intriguing possibility; Corbin's familiar with the West, but just from the National League viewpoint. There's also Clayton Kershaw, who can opt out of his contract with the cross-town rival Dodgers.
Deepen the lineup
It's easy to ride the greatness that is Mike Trout, and Andrelton Simmons has emerged as one of the game's best shortstops now that his bat has finally caught up with his glove.
But there's not much else after that. Albert Pujols has performed admirably despite his advanced age, but the Angels are burdened with his $30m per year contract until his age 41 season in 2021. For as great as Trout has been this year, Kole Calhoun has been just as bad with a slash of .158/.209/.224. Ian Kinsler will hit the free agent market again, but at 36 years old and hitting only .220, it'd be surprising if the Angels tried to bring him back.
Now, the Angels can take their chances and go after the likes of Machado or Harper hoping they can out slug their opponents. But they share a division with the Houston Astros, who have the second-best hitter in Jose Altuve and arguably the best shortstop in Carlos Correa. There's also the beloved duo of Alex Bregman and George Springer.
Then there's also the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who, with the Astros, make up the only three teams at 50 wins and winning percentages over .650. As they stand, those three teams have the deeper lineups featuring youth and versatility, and more skilled and experienced pitching rotations.
So while the big names will entice the Angels, they should focus more on deepening their roster. Their payroll of $188m is higher than the Yankees, Astros, and other division rival Seattle Mariners; if they were to spend frivolously on Harper or Machado, it could see them eclipse the luxury tax threshold of $197m.
Names like D.J LeMahieu at second base and maybe even Yasiel Puig would be more intriguing options; players that won't break the bank while allowing the Angels to invest in more pitching help. Sure, not the best talent available, but perhaps the best opportunity for the Angels to develop a deep and complete roster.
The Angels are running out of time. If they can create a contending team for years to come, they might convince Trout to remain in L.A. Trout has fallen in love with the city, but if he becomes a free agent, expect a team like the Philadelphia Phillies, Trout's hometown favorite, in the mix.
But the Angels have down little to build a team around Trout. Secure a playoff-caliber team next year, and you might just be able to secure the future of baseball. Trout's recent comments have only confirmed his selfless nature and his desire to win, but if the Angels can't prove to him that the future is bright and the playoffs in sight, then they could lose him for good.
And that's a loss they can't afford to take.