Despite having the best baseball player on the planet in Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have been predominately mediocre throughout his career. There was one 98-win season and a division title in 2014, but they were swept in the American League Division Series by the Kansas City Royals and have been non-factors since.
Trout had the opportunity to test the free agent waters after the 2020 season, but instead chose to sign a record-breaking contract extension worth $426.5 million. He committed to the Angels. Following another poor season in 2019, owner Arte Moreno fired manager Brad Ausmus after one season and jumped at the opportunity to bring Joe Maddon back to where he spent most of his baseball career before starting his managerial journey with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Hopes were high that when they hired a “star” manager, they were set to take major steps toward becoming a contender again. The goal was to shun the long, slow rebuild and take a dramatic jump from 72-90 to what it would realistically require for a shot at a playoff spot: around 90 wins.
In addition to hiring Maddon, the Angels signed free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon to a 7-year, $245 million contract. Although the hiring of the manager is only a portion of turning a 90-loss club into a contender, the Rendon signing was a major step in giving Trout reinforcements. Still, the Angels largely swung and missed in trying for a dramatic boost in free agency and via trade.
They pursued Gerrit Cole, but he signed with the New York Yankees. They kicked the tires on Corey Kluber, but he was traded to the Texas Rangers for a package that was widely panned. They had a trade in place for Ross Stripling and Joc Pederson that was contingent on the original Mookie Betts and David Price trade being completed between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers. When that deal came apart and needed to be reengineered, the Dodgers-Angels trade fell by the wayside.
Instead, they acquired two pitchers whose stock had dropped by signing Julio Teheran and trading for Dylan Bundy. To help their pitching staff, they signed catcher Jason Castro. Castro is well-regarded for his framing behind the plate and has some pop. To oversee the pitching staff, well-respected pitching coach Mickey Callaway was hired after two years managing the New York Mets.
These are positive maneuvers. However, the expectations when they hired Maddon were higher. That he only signed a three-year contract added to the urgency. Rather than get the likes of Cole no matter the cost, they set limits and missed out on opportunities. There is some logic in deciding to rely on their admittedly excellent defense, signing a catcher with a reputation for maximizing pitchers, and acquiring starters who could only be categorized as reclamation projects to join what was already in place with Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning and a cast of youngsters. Canning is having an MRI for an elbow issue. Shohei Ohtani will be watched carefully in his first year back on the mound after Tommy John surgery and that he is so vital a part of the batting order when he’s not pitching.
Do they have upside? Sure. Is it a team that is a contender in a tough American League West? It would take a series of best-case scenarios to come to pass. This is the problem with hiring Maddon, signing Rendon and basically whiffing on every other attempt to make significant acquisitions.
The perception that Maddon is a manager who will maximize the talent on his roster is a shaky premise at best given his last two seasons with the Chicago Cubs and that he was essentially fired. The Cubs organization has been making passive aggressive comments blaming him for their woes. While a part of that is the ever-present Theo Epstein “I GM’d great, these guys didn’t perform” attitude, a part of that is Maddon himself and his style. Him being new with the Angels will benefit him and the team. But is that enough?
Led by Trout and Rendon, they can bash. They catch the ball defensively. Even with Albert Pujols’ onerous contract still on the books, he is no longer relied upon as an offensive linchpin – he’s more of a “slugger emeritus” whose presence is neither a boon nor a hindrance. He won’t play every day. They are certainly better than they were in 2019. That aside, the AL West houses the still dangerous AL champion Houston Astros; the 97-win Oakland Athletics; and a potentially solid team in the Rangers. The only team in the division that could be considered a non-factor is the Seattle Mariners.
It seems that the Angels are putting an unreasonable amount of stock in Maddon’s reputation. The Angels were not a team with a good but mismanaged roster like the Philadelphia Phillies were. The Phillies hired another “name” manager in Joe Girardi, but their 2019 roster clearly underachieved based on its talent level. Many of their problems stemmed from former manager Gabe Kapler’s new age managerial style clashing with his veteran players. They were better than they showed in 2018 and 2019. Had they brought back the identical roster for 2020, the Phillies would be projected to win 90 games based solely on having a manager who knows what he’s doing and who the players trust.
What about the Angels?
They’ve got the “manager the players trust” part right, but that trust does not overcome the need for talent. Give Maddon that exact same team as Ausmus had in 2019 and the results would likely have been the same. In 2020, the Angels are better, but being better than 72-90 isn’t all that difficult. If their young arms rise to the occasion and the veteran arms experience a renaissance, there’s no problem. But that’s asking a lot. Maybe too much.