As the Aug. 1 trade deadline approached, the Los Angeles Angels didn’t have to look far to find evidence that a team on the fringe of the playoff race could mount a serious, franchise-altering surge.
In 2021, the first season following the pandemic, the Atlanta Braves were active at the July 30 deadline despite being under .500 and five games behind the New York Mets in the NL East. The Braves won their first championship since 1995, and two deadline acquisitions, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler, were selected as the NL Championship Series and World Series MVPs, respectively.
The St. Louis Cardinals didn’t reach the World Series in either of the previous two seasons, but their aggressiveness at the deadline paid off as the Redbirds overcame an eight-game deficit to reach the NL Wild Card Game in 2021 and won the NL Central in 2022, when they reached the Aug. 2 deadline three games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.
And of course, neither the Braves nor Cardinals had Shohei Ohtani, the surefire American League MVP and the greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth on their roster.
So the Angels went for it at this year’s deadline by acquiring five players — pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez from the Chicago White Sox, first baseman C.J. Cron and outfielder Randal Grichuk from the Colorado Rockies, and reliever Dominic Leone from the New York Mets — in exchange for five prospects, all of whom were ranked among the club’s top-30 minor leaguers at MLB.com.
“That’s part of what makes sports fun and interesting is you need teams to be trying to win,” Giolito told The Game Day Baseball in the visitors’ clubhouse during the Angels’ three-game series against the Mets at Citi Field last weekend. “That’s kind of been a topic in baseball over the last few years, right? Not enough teams are trying to win. So I think it’s always appreciated, even if it doesn’t end up working out.”
Yeah, about that…
Even by the Angels’ historically star-crossed standards, their hopes of mounting a deep playoff run with Ohtani and Mike Trout disintegrated in shockingly swift fashion.
Los Angeles, which entered play Aug. 1 three games out of the third and final wild-card spot in the AL, went an AL-worst 8-19 in August and will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season, tied for the longest active streak in baseball with the Detroit Tigers. Trout, the three-time MVP, went back on the injured list last week due to lingering pain in his left hamate bone, which was fractured on July 3.
The collapse is even more jarring given how the Angels surged in the back half of July when they went 11-5 during a stretch highlighted by a historic doubleheader sweep of the Tigers on July 27 in which Ohtani threw a one-hit shutout in the opener before hitting two homers in the nightcap.
“We weren’t that far out of contention. The division was still there, and the greatest player on Earth playing really well,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian said last Saturday. “Still feel this way: Felt like the right thing to do.”
Among the teams that vaulted the Angels were the Seattle Mariners, who dealt closer Paul Sewald and outfielder A.J. Pollock but went an AL-best 21-6 in August to move into a tie for first place in the AL West.
“They did sell,” Minasian said with a chuckle. “Crazy things happen in baseball.”
Crazy things kept happening this week when the Angels generated their own sequel to the trade deadline by placing six impending free agents — Matt Moore and Hunter Renfroe, along with recent arrivals Giolito, Lopez, Leone, and Grichuk — on waivers. Everyone but Grichuk was claimed on Thursday, saving the Angels enough money the rest of the season to drop their payroll beneath $233 million.
Saving a few million bucks continues to sharpen the focus on the offseason and Ohtani’s impending free agency. Not paying the luxury tax means the Angels would receive a compensatory draft pick following the second round if Ohtani exits as a free agent this winter, as opposed to receiving an additional pick following the fourth round if they were paying the tax.
The Angels arrived in New York two days after Ohtani suffered a torn UCL in his right elbow while pitching against the Cincinnati Reds. The injury ended Ohtani’s season on the mound and clouded his immediate future, even if he continues to dominate attention as Los Angeles’ designated hitter.
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More than 112,000 fans visited Citi Field last weekend to see two sub-.500 teams play out the string on the penultimate weekend of summer. The crowd booed when the Mets intentionally walked Ohtani in his ninth-inning at-bats on Friday and Saturday.
“Anytime he gets up in the dugout, the entire section behind the dugout is standing up with their phones out,” Giolito said. “It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Whether anyone will once again see Ohtani perform as a two-way star — and for whom — remains uncertain. A second Tommy John surgery — he also underwent the procedure following the 2018 season — would keep Ohtani off the mound until at least 2025. The operation could also impact the size of his contract as well as the number of teams willing to bid on him.
Would such a scenario help or hurt the Angels? The weekend in New York was filled with inscrutability regarding the possibility of Ohtani — who hasn’t spoken to the press since Aug. 9, his last full start on the mound — returning to Anaheim.
Minasian held two separate press conferences to explain and defend the Angels’ handling of Ohtani, who dealt with cramping and general soreness in his right arm in the weeks before he suffered the UCL tear but didn’t undergo an MRI until getting hurt against the Reds.
“The only time we had imaging was after he felt the injury,” Minasian said in a crowded Angels dugout. “The imaging was offered earlier in the year, and he and his representation turned it down.”
Was this the Angels expressing displeasure with Ohtani and his agents and beginning the process of severing ties in the relationship? Or was it a real-life version of The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” in which the Angels attempted to curry favor with Ohtani in hopes he wouldn’t leave? It’s good! It’s good Ohtani didn’t undergo an MRI!
After a chaotic month, the intrigue has just begun for the Angels — and everyone else.
“Obviously, he’s an incredible player. He’s had an incredible season,” Minasian said as he surveyed the scene at Citi Field last weekend. “Someone that I think everybody deserves to come and watch.”