No Major League Baseball games are played in the winter, but there’s a reason many fans follow the latest news as fervently in the offseason. It’s the same reason that the faithful agonize over every free agent signing (or lack thereof) in December, critique every trade made in January, and scrutinize the smallest roster decision in February. Our collective love of the game always provides that, given enough time removed from the pain of each season’s previous nadir (and for 29 teams each season, the campaign ends in failure), we will always search for the next positive moment. The next optimistic future. “Winning the offseason” can be a source of pride, but if the moves a team makes don’t lead to happiness, seeing the players wear the colors at Spring Training can be the next avenue to stir up those fuzzy feelings deep down.
Angels fans before spring training:— Jessica DeLine (@abaseballchick) March 11, 2021
This team never does enough. Our pitching stinks.
During Spring training: We could win the Series!
June: I hate it here.
Jessica has the gist of it here, and has seemed a bit like
Palm Springs Groundhog Day the past few seasons, with underwhelming acquisitions that never came close to our “If I Were Billy Eppler/Perry Minasian” pieces, save Anthony Rendon. On the pitching side, it seems we have to do mental gymnastics each year to convince ourselves that newly acquired pitcher Matt Odrisamer Brooks Ricky Harvey Despaigne Pounders Nolasco is the newest and shiniest solution to what has been a revolving door of a problem. And every year, we learn that Trevor Cody Deck Julio Cahill Allen McGuire Teheran isn’t the answer, frustration seeps in, and as playoff hopes fade, the cycle starts anew.
Yet, while “June: I hate it here.” seems to accurately reflect my mind-state every, well, June, I would like to take a little time to articulate my thoughts on the state of the Angels over the past few years. Despite having the services of the game’s best player, LAA hasn’t been a favorite to win the division in some time now. As alluded to above, the pitching has not been a dominant force since before Jered Weaver left the team, and each season, the bullpen seems to be stitched together with whomever we seem to find in the bargain bin.
It’s a frustrating situation, to be sure.
Here we are, once again in 2021, relying on a number of things to go right yet again to lead to team success. Dylan Bundy needs to continue his torrid Cy Young pace and prove his 2020 season was not a fluke. Andrew Heaney needs to put together just one consistent season. Alex Cobb needs to undergo the same sort of Baltimore-to-Anaheim transformation that Bundy underwent last year. Someone needs to step up and hit at the positions where there are no entrenched starters, be it Juan Lagares, José Rojas, Jared Walsh, Brandon Marsh, or another player. The bullpen needs to see some positive variation for once.
We know all of that. We know what GM Perry Minasian has or hasn’t done, the players we wanted that haven’t been signed, the trades we concocted that didn’t go through. We know all that because it’s the same sort of activity that has happened basically since the Angels last made the postseason. There have been a series of shrewd moves, but there has never been a streamlined offseason where it seemed the organization and the fans were on the same page of the direction of the team.
Here’s what we also know. Mike Trout has adjusted his swing after two “off-seasons” for him. (It’s very plausible to look at Trout’s 2019 and 2020 and conclude that he got sucked into trying to hit the ball out of the park every single AB, but that’s an exploration for a different date.) Anthony Rendon somehow remains one of the most quietly consistent superstars in the game. Shohei Ohtani is throwing heat and mashing the ball. The Angels might have replaced Andrelton Simmons with the one guy at short in José Iglesias who would not demonstrate a noticeable drop-off in defense at the position. David Fletcher exists. These are all known qualities. In the worst-case 2021 season outcome, Trout, Rendon, Ohtani, Iglesias, and Fletcher provide a reason for watching this team, not even counting the actual value they bring to the table.
And that is the reason that this team is always so exciting and so frustrating. This team has the superstars. It’s not one of the other rebuilding teams in the league because it actually has big names that produce and isn’t looking for the next cornerstones of its next playoff team. At the same time, it isn’t one of those consistent juggernauts whose fans get apocalyptic with every loss (yes, we’re frustrated, but perhaps deep down, we know that the losses are representative of the true quality of the team?). The random variation pieces that we need to get to turn the Angels into a postseason contender is so small relative to other teams in the league. Odds are that it probably should have happened by now, for at least one season since 2014. Yet each March, the chasm seems far, and it is unknown whether the margin will be breached this year.
Following the Anaheim Ducks the past few seasons has been a different type of pain. With no shot of making the playoffs 35% of the way into the season, it begins to be a form of hate-watching to follow the team you supposedly love. I may be more-or-less indifferent to the Angels winning or losing in late September “in the name of the tank”, but it is just so hard to go half the season feeling like that. And it’s helped me realize that even though the Angels are in the despondent state in which they’ve been for the recent past, I have derived so much joy from this team in the past few years. When you’re constantly sitting three-to-five games out of a wild card spot for a chunk of the season, if you don’t look at the numbers, you feel right in the thick of things. Every game matters. It might even be more exciting than being a Dodgers fan and watching the team cruise to a division title with little competition each year. Almost.
Because that’s the oldest trick in the book of storytelling, isn’t it? Heroes need to face conflict. If you write the story long enough, eventually the hero has to make the playoffs, somehow, someway.
Fangraphs has listed the Angels as having a 37.3% chance of making the playoffs. More likely than not, 2021 will be another lost campaign. But regardless what happens, with the job the Angels organization has done, whether through luck, money, or some other factor, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Shohei Ohtani, and David Fletcher exist. The Angels won’t be twelve games out on June 1, 2021. And I truly, truly think that’s beautiful.
Photo credit: Erik Drost, via Wikimedia Commons