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Every spring, a temptation arises to declare the onrushing season The Year. This will be The Year that the Angels either break through and make good on the fact that they have Mike Trout, or collapse, crater, and are forced to trade Trout in order to kickstart a rebuild. For five full seasons now, the best player of the 21st century has worn an Angels uniform and they have only one (brief) playoff appearance to show for it.
Something has to give, especially with three of the big-name guys Arte Moreno signed to surround Trout at the beginning of his ascent dropping off the baseball map—one too injured to matter anymore (Josh Hamilton), one retired and devoting himself to racing cars (C.J. Wilson), and (worst of all) one joining the Padres’ rotation (Jered Weaver).
That’s not the way this works, though. Much has changed in baseball during the 50 years between the peaks of Willie Mays and of Trout. Almost everything has changed and most of it has changed multiple times. This hasn’t. There will always be transcendent, brilliant, superstar players—guys clearly headed to the Hall of Fame before they even turn 30—who nonetheless fall into a rut and play mostly for forgettable (if not always bad) teams throughout their best seasons. The prime seasons of elite players slide by without their changing teams or making a deep run into October. It happens all the time.
No, 2017 will not make or break the Mike Trout Era in Anaheim. It will just bring it 25 percent closer to being over (or at least possibly over). That’s why general manager Billy Eppler didn’t decide to rebuild around Trout over the offseason, so much as to reload around him. The last two winters have seen the Angels trade for Yunel Escobar, Andrelton Simmons, Cameron Maybin, and Danny Espinosa, all at deep discounts. Each player was unwanted by their former team, with pressing concerns about character, money, and/or in-house logjams forcing the issue.
That has allowed a team that seemed positively decrepit at times over the last two years to reinvent itself as a relatively dynamic one. Defensively, Simmons and Espinosa should be the best double-play combination in the American League. Escobar has batted a very quiet .309 over the last two seasons. Picked up on bargain free-agent deals, Ben Revere and Luis Valbuena add depth to a team that sorely lacked it for each of the past two seasons. Kole Calhoun, Albert Pujols, and C.J. Cron would form a shaky middle of the order, but with Trout in their midst they suddenly seem like a viable offensive core.
None of that will matter, of course, if the pitching doesn’t take a gigantic forward leap. The Angels finished dead last in cFIP last season, 29th in DRA (24th for relievers, 29th for starters), and 27th in pitcher WARP. If Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, and Matt Shoemaker stay healthy this season, and if Ricky Nolasco’s apparent turnaround after being traded from Minnesota last summer is sustainable, then they might be able to pull off the needed turnaround.
That crew has a pretty shaky track record where health is concerned, though, and with Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano shelved for the year by Tommy John surgeries last summer, there’s very little depth behind them. John Lamb is the one modestly interesting option, but only if his continued recovery from back surgery goes well. The bullpen, to put it nicely, has a great chance to finish at least 24th in DRA again.
In a division crowded with flawed but talented teams, the Angels embody that best. They could break through this season. They have a better set of position players surrounding Trout than they have ever had before. What was a below-average fielding unit and an average collection of baserunners should be a bit better than that. They have incrementally more flexibility to make a key midseason addition, if the opportunity presents itself, than they have had in recent years, and they will probably have incrementally more talent in the farm system with which to entice would-be trade partners.
The clock is ticking, but as long as Trout is still around the Angels still have a chance. Eppler’s offseason is a testament to the value of Trout. He makes even marginal players into winning pieces. That Eppler worked so hard to give him a few more of them is laudable. If the team still fails, the glare of the spotlight will turn toward Moreno. The worse the Angels’ record, the more visible will be the ghosts of all the good players the team has not even tried to acquire over the last two winters because of ownership’s fear of repeating old mistakes.
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