Mike Trout should prepare for riches, accolades, and a lot of losing

Jeff Gross

It's possible that Trout is the best player we've seen in this era, but his franchise has done a lousy job of preparing for the future.

I recently heard someone say that the Angels had "recently" won a World Series. Now, I like to delve into baseball history and a couple of weeks ago I was reading up on the first World Series and how the AL and NL merged into basically the two leagues we know of today. So, if you wanted to compare the 1903 Boston Americans to the 2002 Anaheim Angels, then yes, it was recent.

Otherwise, let's just stop referring to the '02 Angels victory over the San Francisco Giants as anything that pertains to baseball today.

It was so long ago that the biggest knock against Barry Bonds at the time was that he couldn't win a championship despite being the best baseball player most of us had ever seen with our own two eyes. (Bonds had 30 plate appearances in that Series, drawing 13 walks and hitting four home runs with two doubles. His OPS was nearly 2.000.)

The closest thing we have to a Bonds equivalent right now just happens to be a member of the Los Angeles Angels. In his first at-bat of 2014, Mike Trout his a two-run homer off of Felix Hernandez. He'd later add another single and there's little reason to think Trout isn't on his way to another MVP-caliber performance. After hitting .414 with six home runs in spring training, the 22-year-old outfielder for the Angels that walked more than anyone in baseball last season could conceivably finish the year with another 10-WAR performance.

That would give Trout three-straight 10-WAR seasons, and if you want to know what 30 WAR looks like: Shane Victorino has been worth 30.2 WAR in his career.

Now, when Bonds came out to start his career, he was definitely coming out hot. Maybe not as hot as Trout, but long before he hit 73 home runs, Bonds was putting up ~30 HR, ~40 SB, ~10 WAR seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and early in his career with the Giants. It wouldn't be outlandish to expect a similar career trajectory from Trout as we saw from Bonds, but hopefully without any big-headed controversies.

However, it's also safe to wonder whether or not he'll also share Bonds' lack of World Series success. Given that the Angels have locked up Trout on a new deal through 2020, and that they are also the owners of possibly the new-worst contract in baseball, what chance does Los Angeles have of returning to the playoffs in any of the next five seasons?

Let's examine.

The bad deal

Even after signing a new contract that keeps Trout in Anaheim for an extra three years, he's still not under lock-and-key for longer than Albert Pujols is. The contract that Pujols signed before the 2012 season that progressively gets larger and larger with each passing year, doesn't expire until after 2021.

We can get further and further into the "future" that I imagined as a child of the eighties and "2021" will still seem only like some graphic displayed on a movie screen over a dystopian society of flying cars and noir landscapes seen only in Blade Runner. And perhaps robotics and stem cells are the only thing that can save Pujols from himself.

Though Pujols "age controversy" seems to only be the thing of baseball fan fiction, we can't deny the fact that he's certainly looking like a player that's getting older faster than he should be. It was back in 2009 at the age of 29 that he seems to have peaked as a hitter.

2009: .327/.443/.658, 47 HR, 115 BB, 64 K, 45 2B

His home runs have decreased in every subsequent season since. So has his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS (naturally), stolen bases, walks, runs, hits, total bases, and finally in 2013, he missed more than 20 games for the first time.

That's not a "fluke" of a sample size, that's four years.

That's college. That's the wait between Olympics and World Cups and seasons of Mad Men.

It culminates in this...

2013: .258/.330/.437, 17 HR, 40 BB, 55 K, 19 2B and playing in just 99 games

His wRC+ of 111 was the same as what Marco Scutaro posted last year.

It would seem like right now, at his best, Pujols is a good hitter. Over the last three seasons combined, he has hit .283/.384/.505 and if he could maintain something like that for five more seasons, he won't be a complete liability in the lineup. However, we must remember that Pujols is a 1B/DH so he's not providing much, if any, defensive value. At least Scutaro can play a couple tough positions. If Pujols doesn't produce close to the amount of runs that he was expected to when he signed his contract two years ago, that's a problem for Los Angeles. There is no "out-clause" simply for a player underperforming.

His 10-year, $240 million deal means that he's owed roughly a quarter-of-a-hundred-million-dollars in 2014.

And 2015.

And 2016.

And 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

The Angels have a lot of money and Pujols performing at a fraction of the expected value won't cripple them alone, but having a lot of money is a lot different than having an endless supply of money. At some point, the bottom will fall out.

Especially if...

The other, shorter bad deal

A year after signing the biggest name on the free agent market, LA went out and done done it again. This time signing Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal. In terms of 2014 baseball money, this was actually "cheap" given what we've come to expect. But Hamilton displayed warning signs that kept him from getting the $200 million+ of guys like Pujols, Robinson Cano, and Prince Fielder.

Warning signs that we don't need to rehash again.

The problem though, is that we weren't entirely right about the problem. Hamilton played in 151 games last season, the second-most he's ever played in a full season. The problem was that he was below-average. In terms of WAR, "2.0 WAR" is considered to be an average player. Get a few of those in your lineup and then get a couple elite hitters, the "Josh Hamilton's" if you will, and you're doing pretty good.

Except that Hamilton, over 151 games, was worth 1.9 WAR.

In the first year of a $125 million contract, Hamilton did worse on the field than he had ever done before.

.250/.307/.432 with 21 HR, 47 BB, 158 K, 4 SB

In his final season with the Texas Rangers, Hamilton struck out a worrisome 25.5% of the time, but he made up for that with a .292 ISO that powered him to 43 home runs. Everything in baseball is a bit of a give-and-take, so with power hitters, you take the strikeouts and he gives you the home runs. Except that last year, Hamilton's ISO was .182 and so his value plummeted.

If you thought that Pujols wRC+ of 111 was bad, Hamilton posted a 104. That's tied with Michael Brantley and Norichika Aoki.

That contract "only" lasts through 2017, but there is no such thing as a "good missed opportunity." In 2017, the Angels will be paying just Hamilton and Pujols a combined $58 million. That's higher than the entire current payrolls of the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins.

And we're talking about 2017, which at that point, the two might be nothing more than dustballs swirling around in an air vent.

So now we know that Los Angeles has the best player in baseball and then two guys once thought to hold that title, only to find themselves with troubling possibilities ahead. Does the lineup have anything else?

And the rest...

The position player with the third-highest WAR on the team last year was Mark Trumbo, and he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago because of Pujols existence. Trumbo has a home run and six RBI in three games so far this year. (That's more of a fun fact than an indication that Trumbo is going to forever haunt LA, though one really has to wonder if Pujols will have more value than him from this day forth.)

The position player that was second in WAR was Howie Kendrick. It only brings up another interesting payroll proposition after next season, with Kendrick's deal set to expire unless they sign him to an extension. The problem is that no significant money comes off the books; in fact, Trout is getting a $10 million raise for 2016 and catcher Chris Iannetta (fourth in WAR in 2013, with 2.1) also becomes a free agent.

If the Angels happen to lose 80+ games in each of the next two years, will they be able to justify raising the payroll from $145 million to say, $160 or $170 million? (Didn't stop the Dodgers, I guess.) That's without factoring what other big contracts they sign in the next two years.

There really isn't much positive news coming out of the LA lineup. After Trout, Pujols, Hamilton, Kendrick, and Iannetta, there's Erick Aybar (1.6 WAR in 2013), David Freese (0.2 WAR), Raul Ibanez (0.0), and Kole Calhoun (1.1 WAR in 58 games.)

The team has shucked younger, cheaper players like Trumbo and Peter Bourjos in favor of expensive stars from 2011.

Well, having Trout should mean that the Angels are always good for at least a couple of runs a night, but at least their rotation is unknown and/or shallow after the top two?

Pitch, pitch, pitch, all you ever do is pitch

If Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson remain healthy all year (Weaver missed ~2 months last year with a broken elbow) then the top two in the rotation should be alright. Weaver may not be what he was from 2009-2011, but he and Wilson are a good 1-2, whichever order you want to put them in.

But after that, the Angels have to pray just to make it today.

Garrett Richards is 26 in May, and his major league numbers through 230 innings are underwhelming:

4.42 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 4.04 xFIP, 6.14 K/9, 3.33 BB/9

Santiago is 26, and his major league numbers through 224.2 innings:

3.41 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 4.55 xFIP, 8.73 K/9, 4.53 BB/9

The wild card of the rotation is Skaggs, once traded away from the organization in the Dan Haren deal, he returns now after 13 not-great starts for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He's only 22, he has the most potential of them all, but the benefit and risk of players this young is that you have no idea what you're really going to get. Some of the best prospects have come up and dominated right away (Skaggs has already not done that, but it's early) and others have come up and been atrocious.

Skaggs has already proven that he's not Jose Fernandez, but he could still be someone that does very good in his first full season. He could also the mayor of Garbagetown.

The players listed as depth in the rotation offer little hope if anything happens to one of the top five, and something almost always does. I can hardly find a scenario in which the LA rotation is great; I can only see it as being "good" or a complete disaster.

Wilson and Weaver are both set to make $16MM in 2014, $18MM in 2015, and $20MM in 2016 before hitting free agency. Will the Angels retain both or either of them? Will they even want to?

Is there help on the way?

Nope for the future

The ironic thing is that the only thing keeping the Angels from being one of the very worst teams in baseball is Trout, a player that they acquired in the draft and raised on their own. And yet, they keep giving up first round picks and prospects for older, more expensive, on-the-downside talent.

It's left the cupboard pretty bare.

Baseball America lists their top pitching prospect as R.J. Alvarez, a relief pitcher that was just at A+ last year. (And walked 5 batters per nine innings.)

Next is Mark Sappington, a pitcher headed to AA, that's pegged as a mid-rotation starter or a high-end reliever. It has to be a little disconcerting when your top starting pitcher prospect might not be a starting pitcher. Next is Hunter Green, a pitcher so young that he's only 18. (Yes, I was going for a limerick.)

If the Angels want to add a young pitcher to their rotation this season (besides the three that they already did) it won't likely come from their own system. And that again, will cost them something dear.

Position prospects Taylor Lindsey, C.J. Cron, and Kaleb Cowart are all held back by other issues. It would seem like Cron is blocked at the major league level, as is Lindsey if he remained at second base. At least for two more years. Though the Angels might love to replace Freese with a great hitting prospect at third base, Cowart is only 21 and he hit just .221/.279/.301 at AA last season.

So he's not likely to replace Freese this year, if ever.

LA's major league team at least has Mike Trout, which is something that their minor league system can't say anymore. They can't even really say that they've got a "Dallas McPherson" or a "Brandon Wood."

So then...

And yet somehow, the Angels ceiling this year is still 100 wins and a World Series trophy. They have one player that almost certainly will be an MVP candidate, and two players that could feasibly bounce back despite what the warning signs have shown. It wasn't long ago that Pujols and Hamilton were also out-of-this-world hitters.

If the rotation remains healthy and gets a boost from one or two of their young starters, they won't be that bad in that are either.

The downside, of course, is that the Angels could also conceivably lose 90 games and be looking down the barrel of a whole lot more money owed to Pujols and Hamilton. It's more probable that they'll finish the season regretting at least one of those contracts moreso than they even do right now. The Trout deal was almost certainly a great one, but it's the first great contract that they've handed out in quite awhile.

It might be the last significant contract that they'll sign for quite some time, at least until they can get rid of one of the bad ones, or win despite them.

On Monday, Trout homered in his first plate appearance, and he did it against arguably the best pitcher in the game. And the Angels lost to the Mariners 10-3.

Might wanna get used to this, Mike.

(Writers note: Since originally writing this on Monday, Trout's Angels fell again to the Mariners, this time 8-3.)

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