This past week probably was the worst one of an already terrible season for the Angels, a franchise that has become allergic to winning. But their problems are starting to extend well beyond 2022 and happen to involve two of the sport’s biggest stars: Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout.
That the Angels (42-58 entering Saturday) couldn’t find a way to win with both on their roster is bad enough, but alternating severe injuries robbed them of consistent playing time together the last few years. Now their futures in Disneyland are murky, at best, for very different reasons.
In Ohtani’s case, Angels general manager Perry Minasian — now in season two of his four-year contract — is faced with the impossible task of figuring out what to do with one of the planet’s most coveted players. For a team going nowhere with serious question marks, it would make sense to shop Ohtani, who will be a free agent after next season and at that point will be seriously pursued by big-market, big-spending teams much better positioned for a World Series title than a Mickey Mouse operation like the Angels.
But how do you make a trade knowing that it will be impossible to get equal value in return? Ohtani, only 23 and last year’s American League MVP, is making a serious push to repeat (21 homers, .826 OPS, 9-6, 2.81 ERA) while being the greatest bargain in MLB, earning $5.5 million this season before his final turn at arbitration next year.
The only comp for Minasian? He’d have to go back to 1920, when the Red Sox sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000. Factoring in inflation, that amounts to roughly $1.8 million these days. The New York Post reported this past week that the Angels were seeking, at minimum, a team’s top four prospects in any package, but even that seems like a low ask. As agent Scott Boras pointed out last week in regard to Juan Soto’s availability, a precedent doesn’t exist for trades like these because no GM would think it feasible to survive the blowback from making such a deal.
Minasian’s only logical move at the moment would seem to be holding on to Ohtani, then gauging his interest in staying over the coming months before revisiting the trade option by next year’s deadline. That would give him more time to salvage whatever he can from an unwinnable situation, which leads us to his other worrisome scenario involving Trout’s back condition.
Trout hasn’t played since July 12, when he left that game with what initially was described as back spasms. The Angels officially put him on the injured list with rib cage inflammation, but his condition took a darker turn this past week when team trainer Mike Frostad revealed Trout was dealing with a “rare” spinal condition that will require intensive maintenance.
The prognosis didn’t sound all that different from what David Wright had to endure during his final seasons with the Mets before having surgery for the spinal stenosis that resulted in his premature retirement in 2018 at age 35. There’s been no mention of any surgery for Trout — only a recent cortisone injection — but he remains out indefinitely with no specific time line for a return.
Another similarity to Wright’s situation: Trout is consulting Robert Watkins III, the same back specialist who performed the surgery on the former Mets captain.
“The doctor [Watkins], who is one of the most well-known spine surgeons in the country — if not the world — doesn’t see a lot of these,” Frostad told reporters. “And for it to happen in a baseball player, we just have to take into consideration what he puts himself through with hitting, swinging on a daily basis just to get prepared, and then also playing in the outfield, diving for balls, jumping into the wall, things like that. There’s so many things that can aggravate it. But this doctor hasn’t seen a lot of it.”
Trout tried to make light of Frostad’s chilling comments, saying, “I’m appreciative of all the prayer requests, but my career is not over.”
What that career looks like, however, now may be in question for the three-time MVP and 10-time All-Star. There’s also the not-so-minor detail of the $296 million that Trout is owed after this season, through 2030. Just add that to the list of headaches for the Angels, a franchise with plenty to stress out about before Tuesday’s trade deadline, along with months and years afterward.
Max mad about PitchCom
Years ago, when Joe Girardi managed the Yankees, he repeatedly lobbied for some sort of modern device to replace the old-fashioned method of a catcher flashing finger signs to the pitcher. If teams were going to keep using newer tech to spy and swipe those signs, such as Apple watches or video replay rooms, then why not develop ways to make that cheating obsolete?
Girardi figured that process would involve putting a headset in a catcher’s helmet, as the NFL does to link the coach and quarterback. Turns out he wasn’t too far off, as MLB introduced PitchCom this year. The device allows the catcher to push a button on a wristband or shinguard that triggers a voice command delivered by a speaker beneath the pitcher’s cap.
Mostly, it’s been a successful experiment, not only to prevent any nefarious sign-stealing activity but to speed up the pace of games. Without the need to constantly be switching up the signs, there are fewer of those tedious mound visits, which translates to fewer breaks in the action.
Some teams, such as the Yankees, have their entire staffs use PitchCom. Given the fact that they’ve been embroiled in a number of sign-stealing affairs, both as a victim and an alleged cheater, that makes sense.
So it was surprising to hear Max Scherzer give a dissenting option late Wednesday night after he tried PitchCom for the first time this season, going to it during his seven-inning domination (zero runs, five hits, six strikeouts) of the Yankees in the Subway Series.
“[Tomas] Nido really wanted me to try it,” Scherzer said. “Here’s what I’ll say about PitchCom. It works. Does it help? Yes.
“But I also think it should be illegal. I don’t think that it should be in the game. Stealing signs is part of the game. For me, I’ve always taken pride in having a complex system of signs and having that advantage over other pitchers.
“So the fact that we’re taking this out of the game and just putting in technology, you can’t steal signs from second, the pitcher can’t have an advantage of having a complex system. It’s part of baseball trying to crack somebody’s signs. Does it have its desired intent to clean up the game a little bit? Yes. But I also feel like it takes away part of the game.”
Scherzer just celebrated his 38th birthday Wednesday, has 15 years in the big leagues and is a Cooperstown lock when his career is over. And while no one in the game knows more about pitching than Scherzer does, it’s understandable that he has more of an old-school perspective on this subject.
But it’s also not practical for baseball in the 21st century to leave the sport so vulnerable to high-tech thievery, especially after numerous scandals, including the one that will forever tarnish the 2017 World Series trophy won by the Astros.
As Scherzer mentioned, his superior pitching IQ gave him an edge over others who fell prey to sign-stealing, but that part of the game is something the commissioner’s office would be happy to have disappear forever.