Billy Eppler answered the question like a man who had grown tired of hearing it.
Eppler, in his third season as the Angels’ GM, is asked about that possibility basically every September. The subject of trading Trout came up again last week, moments after the Angels announced that Shohei Ohtani, their exceedingly talented two-way player, needs Tommy John surgery.
The Angels sit two games below .500 and 19 games out of first place heading into the season’s final three weeks. They will miss the playoffs for the eighth time in the past nine years, while burdened with a top-heavy payroll, an underwhelming farm system and one major source of anxiety: Trout’s expiring contract.
The six-year, $144.5 million extension that Trout signed in the spring of 2014 will come to an end in the fall of 2020, which basically gives Eppler two offseasons.
Two offseasons to turn the Angels into a team that can consistently contend.
Two offseasons to convince the greatest player of his generation that he should not leave.
Trout has produced 62.8 wins above replacement since 2012 — nearly double the output of anyone else in baseball — but the Angels have zero postseason victories in that seven-year span. By all accounts, Trout enjoys living in Southern California and likes playing for the Angels. But he also yearns to win, and he probably won’t stay if he doesn’t believe he can.
Eppler’s plan is to “continue to invest” in the Angels.
A complete rebuild is not an option.
“We’re going to continue to improve this club and watch the development of some young players emerging into the major leagues, be open-minded in the trade market and in the free-agent market, and put together a contending team next season,” Eppler said. “That’s our goal.”
The big-picture goal is to sell the future of this franchise to Trout, a homegrown superstar on a path toward becoming an inner-circle Hall of Famer.
Here’s a closer look at the complicated steps involved in that.
Settle on the right manager
Mike Scioscia’s 10-year contract is in its final month. Reports say he is set on retiring, but Scioscia, who turns 60 this offseason, has stressed that he has not made a final decision.
Regardless, it might finally be time for both sides to move on.
Scioscia has built what could be a Hall of Fame resume in 19 years as the Angels’ manager. He has won more than 1,600 games, claiming six division titles, capturing the franchise’s only World Series championship and outlasting three GMs along the way. But things have gone stale in recent years. And Eppler, the fourth of those GMs, has a chance to inject new life with his own guy.
He has some intriguing in-house candidates (bench coach Josh Paul, third-base coach Dino Ebel and special assistants Brad Ausmus and Eric Chavez). But Joe Girardi, who worked alongside Eppler with the New York Yankees, also is available.
Ohtani is the type of talent who would make Trout want to stick around for a little while. Despite being a 24-year-old rookie from a different country, Ohtani thrived in a two-way role that hadn’t been seen since the early days of Babe Ruth. He posted a 3.31 ERA in 51⅔ innings and has a .970 OPS in 297 plate appearances, with 19 home runs in only 86 games.
Eppler said he still sees Ohtani as a two-way player, and he should. If all goes well, Ohtani will be able to resume his two-way role by 2020, four years before he would be eligible for free agency. That’s a lot of value when you consider that Ohtani has contributed 2.7 WAR despite spending so much of his season rehabbing.
Ohtani probably won’t pitch in 2019, but he might hit. And based on what he has done this month — 11-for-23 with 4 home runs and 11 RBIs — it’ll be fun to watch him focus on only one skill for a little while. The news is grim, yes, but not as bad as it seems. The Angels are in good shape here.
It’s hard to say the same elsewhere in the lineup.
Get realistic about Pujols
Albert Pujols has produced an 84 park-adjusted OPS over the past two years — league average is 100 — and is coming off another knee surgery. He will turn 39 in January, with three years and $87 million remaining on his contract. He has a hard time playing first base consistently enough for Ohtani to get everyday at-bats as the designated hitter, and he hasn’t produced enough to warrant a permanent spot in the middle of the lineup.
So, now what?
Pujols said Monday that he will “try to play as many games at first base next year as I can,” and he sounded confident that a normal offseason would help him do that.
This probably won’t be the offseason when the Angels broach the subject of retirement with Pujols. But it might be the offseason when they begin the process of transitioning him into more of a limited role, one that would allow them to get the most out of both Pujols and Ohtani. Yes, it’s an exorbitant amount of money for a part-time player. But it’s a sunk cost nonetheless.
Pujols can still help, as long as he is used based on his ability instead of on his contract.
Eppler sent the Angels’ top prospect, Sean Newcomb, to the Atlanta Braves for shortstop Andrelton Simmons in November 2015, then acquired outfielder Justin Upton from the Detroit Tigers for a player to be named later in August 2017.
These are the types of opportunities Eppler needs to continue to capitalize on — using prospects to acquire young, established players who can help immediately.
The Angels have a clear hole at catcher and could use another corner infielder, but their biggest needs are on the pitching side. Ohtani could become the sixth Angels pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery this year, after Garrett Richards, J.C. Ramirez, Keynan Middleton, Blake Wood and John Lamb.
They need quality starting-pitching depth, they need legitimate back-end relievers and they need most of the guys they bring in to be young and controllable. If the Angels pick up their 2020 option for Kole Calhoun, they’ll have $242 million tied to six players over the next two years. Some wiggle room exists, but not much. Eppler needs to continue to work the trade market.
Hit on key prospects
Remember the name: Jo Adell.
Adell was the 10th overall pick last year and is now No. 10 overall on Keith Law’s midseason top 50 list. He’s only 19, but he’s already in Double-A. He boasts elite power and tremendous athleticism, and he could form a tantalizing outfield pairing with Trout as early as 2020.
That would be ideal. The Angels’ last seven draft classes so far have produced only two players — Middleton and infielder David Fletcher — who have contributed at least one WAR. Their farm system was considered the industry’s worst, by a lot, for about a half-decade. But Eppler has taken steps toward improving it by targeting more high-ceiling prospects in the early rounds of the draft.
Corner outfielder Brandon Marsh, starting pitcher Griffin Canning, second baseman Jahmai Jones and first baseman Matt Thaiss might contribute soon, but none is necessarily a can’t-miss guy. The margin for error with prospects shrinks significantly when one is attempting to rebuild on the fly like the Angels are. Eppler must hit on what little he has.
If not, it could cost him baseball’s best player.