Ask manager Joe Maddon, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal has, how long he wants to keep managing, and he’ll smile when he says it even if he’s not kidding. “As long as Mick Jagger performs,” the skipper replies. Well, now.
Maddon’s Angels aren’t exactly the Rolling Stones of baseball, even if the team was created three years before the original Stones lineup cut their first record in England. The Angels have had disasters in their midsts, too, but nobody to the best of anyone’s knowledge has been killed during an Angels game. Yet.
There were times over the years when you might have thought the Angels might have wanted to kill a manager or two, if not each other, but no edition of the Angels was ever as willing to fight each other as the 1972-74 Athletics.
For several years, now, two themes have attached to the Angels: 1) They find everything they need except quality pitching. 2) It might be easier to pass the proverbial camel through the proverbial eye of the proverbial needle than to get the Angels back to the postseason before Mike Trout earns the last dollar on his contract. (In 2030, if you’re scoring at home.)
This is a team that’s had the single greatest player of his and many generations (Baseball Reference lists him as the number five center fielder of all time), a guy who plays a solid center field and whose five top comps as a batter through age 29 are, in descending order, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.), Barry Bonds, and Frank Robinson.
And he hasn’t seen even a sliver of a postseason since his Rookie of the Year 2012, through no fault of his own. Trout exercised maybe baseball’s greatest sense of loyalty when he decided to forego his first entry into the free agency market to sign that $330.1 million contract extension just a sliver over two years ago. Questioning the Angels’ loyalty to him—as in, a team their and baseball’s best all-around player could be proud of—was wholly appropriate.
But Rosenthal now gives the Angels two cheers. Not just because the Angels in this abbreviated spring training look healthy and even happy, but because second-year general manager Perry Minasian has impressed the living daylights out of just about everybody in an Angel uniform, from the manager to Trout to all the way down the roster.
“It starts from the front office, the desire to win, the desire to be better every day,” says one of Minasian’s signature signings, former Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, a guy who’s been to the World Series and to two postseasons total. “I see a lot of what I saw in 2015, just the overall grit and badass persona, playing with a chip on our shoulder. It’s been a while since the Angels made the playoffs. This is my first year here. The overall tone is they’re kind of all sick of this s—.”
If anyone has credentials to discuss badass personae, it’s the guy who thought nothing of opening Game Three of the 2015 World Series by dropping Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar—who’d gotten a little too comfortable at the plate in the first two games—right onto his seat with the first pitch, before striking him out emphatically. Perhaps coincidentally, it was the only Series game those Mets won in a set during which their then-porous defense blew three other games they could have won.
That was then, this is now. Syndergaard isn’t the only Angels pitcher saying they’re sick of all that you-know-what. “I see a bunch of guys that are hungry, that know the pressure is on us,” says young starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval. “Everyone says the Angels’ rotation is a question mark every single year. The guys like me, Shohei [Ohtani] and [Jaime] Barría, we’ve heard it for three years now. We’re kind of sick of it.”
Minasian also did what was once thought unthinkable, never mind undoable in the recent Angels past. He overhauled the bullpen, $92.75 worth of overhaul, keeping closer Raisel Iglesias (2.83 fielding-independent pitching rate last year) on a four-year deal, and guaranteeing former Met/Ray/Padre/Phillie/Blue Jay Aaron Loup (2.45 FIP last year) plus former White Sox/Cub/Jay Ryan Tepera (2.56 FIP) two years each.
The Angels also think that a healthy Trout and Anthony Rendon married to Ohtani’s bat in the lineup makes them a little more formidable at the plate. They may not be wrong. Especially playing under the new rule that allows Ohtani, the defending American League Most Valuable Player, to stay in a game as the designated hitter when his starting pitching assignment ends for the day. Just as he did in last year’s All-Star Game.
Trout is even doing something a little more overtly now that he did only by example his first ten seasons: leading. What he began when he made himself the team’s public face in the shock of Tyler Skaggs’s death in 2019 he’s continuing more verbally than he ever has in the past.
He spoke often of what Skaggs meant as a person as well as a pitcher. (This was well enough before we learned sadly enough that Skaggs was badly hooked on painkillers, a hooking that may have gone back to his Tommy John surgery and may have been abetted by his own agent urging him to pitch through pain regardless.)
Maybe the most staggering and surreal recent memory for Angel fans was their first home game after Skaggs’s unexpected death. When Trout opened the evening’s proceedings against the Mariners with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first, launching a combined no-hitter (by Taylor Cole and Felix Pena) and a 13-0 blowout.
“When I first came up, I kind of just went out there and played my game, let my game speak for itself,” Trout admitted to Rosenthal.
I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it. I’ve had a lot of talks with the front office and players. There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.
Trout’s coming-out party as a conscious leader came before this lockout-abbreviated spring training began. When commissioner Rob Manfred announced that first set of canceled games, Trout was distinctly unamused. The guy who did his talking with his bat, his glove, and his personal fan-friendliness fired back.
“I want to play, I love our game, but I know we need to get this [collective bargaining agreement] right,” he tweeted on 2 March. “Instead of bargaining in good faith-MLB locked us out. Instead of negotiating a fair deal-Rob canceled games. Players stand together. For our game, for our fans, and for every player who comes after us.”
Maybe it’s the Angels about to play their first full season since Albert Pujols’s departure last year, but Maddon thinks it’s just a question of Trout having the chance to lead. “He wants to lead,” the manager says. “To me, that means, on a daily basis, when you walk in the building to put everybody else before you. He’s definitely got that in him. He’s very empathetic. He wants to win. He’s willing to share his knowledge. He’s got all the ingredients. He just needed the opportunity.”
And he doesn’t mind pulling others up with him. When Ohtani hogged the headlines last year, after the calf tear put paid to Trout’s season prematurely, Trout enjoyed Shohtime as much as anybody else.
“Shohei’s season was nothing short of electric,” he said when Ohtani won the MVP. “At times, I felt like I was back in Little League. To watch a player throw eight innings, hit a home run, steal a base, and then go play right field was incredible. What impresses me the most about him, though, is the way he carries himself both on and off the field. With so much on his plate daily, he still manages to do it with a smile.”
Imagine that. The Smiling Angels. Whom FanGraphs projects to a seventh-best 82 wins among American League teams. Not so fast, Rosenthal warns:
Projections are largely pointless except as a discussion point, especially in a season when injuries might be more prevalent after a shortened spring training. But the Angels face so many “ifs,” it’s difficult to imagine them being better than the six teams ahead of them — the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, Red Sox, White Sox, and Rays. They also might not be better than the Twins and Mariners, the two teams immediately behind them.
I have more than the usual skin in this game. Somehow, I managed to score tickets for what was first the Angels’ mere home opener but, thanks to the owners’ lockout and Commissioner Nero’s first cancellations, is Opening Day, period, at Angel Stadium. Ohtani is already announced as their starting pitcher. My 28-year-old son and myself will be seated in our standard perch down the right field line.
We’ll look for two things at minimum: 1) Whether there will remain Angel fans willing to hammer the visiting Astros with inflatable trash can bangings and other signs, shouts, and sneers over Astrogate. 2) Whether these Smiling Angels, these Edgy Angels, these Fed Up With All That You-Know-What Angels, show just how fed up they are at the plate and in the field through those edgy new smiles.
Being an Angel fan has been many things in the decades since they were born in the American League’s first expansion. Dull hasn’t been one of them, though being dulled–if not sent to their nineteenth nervous breakdowns—has been something else entirely. And living on that 2002 World Series triumph got tiresome well before they wrapped their silks around a big fish named Trout.