In terms of playoff odds, Mike Trout gives the Angels a pretty good head start over the rest of the field every season. Where Los Angeles has had trouble over the last few years, however, is surrounding Trout with enough talent to make the postseason. They tried spending big, bringing in Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, and C.J. Wilson and extending Jered Weaver. That netted them exactly one playoff appearance, in 2014, when they were swept in three games. They’ve slowed down spending a bit in recent years, but made a savvy trade to bring Andrelton Simmons aboard, brought in Justin Upton and signed him to an extension, jumped on Ian Kinsler in a trade, signed Zack Cozart, and then lucked out in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes.
Despite what appears to be a collection of good moves, the results are still lacking. Now, news that Cozart will miss the rest of the season diminishes the Angels’ chances even further.
At the moment, there are only seven teams with at least a 5% chance at the playoffs in the American League. In the National League, there are nine teams with a similar chance. A week ago that number was 11 (sorry, Pirates and Rockies), and two weeks ago it was 12 (sorry, Mets). The National League looks very competitive this season, with a bunch of teams in the hunt and no single club possessing more than a 90% playoff probability. The American League, on the other hand, looks like this:
Four of the five playoff spots appear to be locked up, with the Mariners currently looking likely to take the final one. The pennant race is not without intrigue — the Yankees and Red Sox will battle to avoid a one-and-done Wild Card round — but Cleveland looks to be running away with the AL Central, and unless the Mariners have another gear, the Astros are going to take the West. As for the non-Yankees/Red Sox Wild Card, the Mariners have a seven-game edge over the Athletics and a nine-game lead over the Angels. If the Mariners win half the rest of their games, the Angels would need to win 50 to catch them. That’s 62% of their remaining dates, close to a 100-win pace over the course of the rest of the season.
If there’s some sort of silver lining to the Angels’ present position it’s that they don’t have a lot of teams ahead of them. They are close to the A’s, with the Mariners the only other team left to pass. If they play well and the Mariners falter, the playoffs are a possibility. If the Mariners don’t reverse course, however, there’s probably nothing Los Angeles can do to reach the playoffs. That leaves the Angels with three options, and none of them are good. The club needs to choose the best of these: buy, sell, or hold.
With only Garrett Richards, Martin Maldonado, and Kinsler headed to free agency after the season, the Angels aren’t forcing the sort of flight of talent that would compel them to go all-in for 2018. The club would obviously prefer not to waste another prime year of an all-time great, but Trout is also under contract for two more seasons after this one, so going all-in this season at the expense of the next two years would be folly.
The team could make a run at Manny Machado or even Mike Moustakas. They could hope the pitching staff holds together and pick up another outfielder, but at what cost? The Angels are finally on their way to a respectable farm system. Even with the graduation of Ohtani, an injury to Chris Rodriguez, and Kevin Maitan’s failure to develop as hoped, the Angels placed four players in the recent FanGraphs prospect list update. They also took two intriguing high-school players with their first picks, which should add some depth to the system.
We generally think of prospects — particularly those, such as the ones in the Angels’ system, who might not be close to the majors — as help to a club in one of two way: either as part of a potential future core or as trade bait now. There is a third way, though, which is either obvious or nuanced depending on your perspective — namely, as a tradable asset down the road. If the Angels’ intention is to win during Trout’s remaining guaranteed years in Los Angeles, that reduces the utility of the club’s top prospects, who likely won’t be ready to make a significant contribution by 2020. However, some of those prospects might be traded this next winter or the following summer, when they can make an impact on the Angels’ chances of making the postseason. That impact would be far greater then than it would be now. The Angels probably should not buy right now.
The Angels have a few potential free agents who have some value. If Richards proves he’s healthy over the next month, he might be the best pitcher available at the trade deadline. Kinsler probably has some value. They might be able to get some depth for a reliever or two. This scenario probably seems like the most probable, and is almost always the most prudent course to take.
On the other hand…
The Angels are still a solid team with good players. If the Mariners collapse, perhaps the Angels want to make sure they are ready to take advantage. The prospects they receive for Kinsler or a reliever or two aren’t likely to be great. They can give Richards the qualifying offer and either bring him back on a one-year deal or receive a draft pick (or offset a draft pick lost for signing a good free agent). Holding feels non-commital and hesitant, where action feels decisive. In this case, though, maybe Richards comes back and pitches well. Maybe Fringe-Fiver David Fletcher’s Triple-A bat carries over to the bigs.
The cost of doing nothing isn’t great when the team is presumably looking to reload during the offseason. Even if the Angels plan to stay under the competitive-balance tax next season, they are going to have about $50 million to spend in the offseason. If the team does make a run, they can use some of their spending power in August before the waiver deadline. Doing nothing might not feel like the right move, but it is too early to pull the plug on the Angels’ season, even if they aren’t good enough to be worthy of outside additions.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.