I remember reading something (or maybe hearing some analyst) last winter talking about Mike Trout. Of course there was a great deal of praise to be given, considering he has yet to finish lower than 2nd in MVP voting in any full season of his career. But, then something was said that I thought was absolutely insane – should the Angels trade him? My initial reaction was, “You don’t trade arguably the best player of this generation while he’s in his prime!” It was an absurd suggestion. Unheard of. Unthinkable. But, then . . .
The same Angels team that finished just 1 game out of the playoffs last season, has turned in one of the more disappointing first halves this year. At the time of my writing, they are 14 games below .500 (36-50), 16.5 games behind division-leading Texas, and 11 games behind in the Wild Card standings. They possess the 3rd worst record in the American League – in spite of having the 6th highest Opening Day payroll in all of baseball. If this could all be explained away by injuries to key players, then there would be no need for this article. You would expect a bounce-back year in 2017, if not sooner. But, that simply isn’t the case. Yes, they’ve had a reasonably high number of pitchers with injuries. But, it isn’t like they were lighting it up before going on the DL.
So, the injury bug isn’t to blame for this team’s lackluster performance. They simply don’t have much talent surrounding Trout. The greatest evidence to that point is the fact that Trout is the only All-Star representing the Angels on Tuesday. How does that happen? You have one of the best players in the game (at 24 years old). You’re operating in the 2nd largest TV market in the country (giving you a significant revenue advantage over most of the teams in the game). And, yet you have only been able to put it all together once in this player’s 5-year career – a brief playoff appearance in 2014, when you were swept in the ALDS. I feel bad for Mike Trout. I feel bad for a guy who goes out there and plays as hard as he does, and who performs at such an incredibly high level – and has nothing but individual awards to show for it.
And, do you know what makes it even worse? It isn’t getting better any time soon. The Angels have the consensus WORST farm system in baseball. If you look at any ranking of current minor league systems, you’ll see the Angels at the bottom every time. I read one analyst who said that not only were the Angels the worst farm system right now, but they might be the worst system in baseball history. The absolute best prospect they have right now is a catcher currently playing in A-ball, who isn’t even ranked in the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. One analyst went so far as to say that he didn’t think the Angels’ best prospect would even crack the top 10 of any other team! So, not only is there little-to-no help coming up from the minors any time soon, but they have no trade chips to offer teams willing to trade high-quality players.
So, maybe the Angels could just spend more money to get better, right? Not this offseason. Strasburg signed a new contract with the Nationals, so the one legit ace that was going to be on the market is no longer available. And, if you’re looking for significant offensive help, there’s only one real option this year: Yoenis Cespedes (assuming he opts out of his Mets contract). And, considering how thin the free agent market is, someone is going to significantly overpay for his services. Not that the Angels are unfamiliar with doing that very thing (Pujols, Wilson, Hamilton, etc.), but one bat is not turning this team around. And, once you get past Cespedes, this free agent class really looks more like a list of quality pieces that will help a team on the cusp of the playoffs. And, the Angels need a lot more impact than that.
What’s the answer? What should they do? In case you didn’t see it coming:
The Angels should trade Mike Trout.
The longer they hold on to him, the longer it is going to take for this team to become relevant again. Trout is the kind of franchise player that would help the Angels restock their farm system. His talent level is so high, that I wouldn’t be shocked to see a team willing to offer 4-6 A-list prospects, and perhaps a couple B-listers, too. That kind of return on a trade could potentially make the Angels competitive as early as 2018. Because they’re already going to have a top-5 pick in the 2017 draft, which would likely add to their haul for Trout.
The tricky part of a trade like this is deciding who has the talent in their farm system to offer what the Angels need, and who would be willing to take on Trout’s salary (which isn’t going down anytime soon – $20 mil. in 2017, and $34 mil. in ’18-’20). Considering how much the Angels should be looking for ways to win sooner rather than later, I would think they should be willing to pay a portion of Trout’s salary, if the right prospects are coming back in return. After all, when have the Angels shied away from spending money?
So, after looking through several farm systems, considering what the team has on its payroll in the next few years, I believe there’s one team that stands out as a potential trade partner:
The Atlanta Braves.
Think about that for a minute. The Braves are opening a new stadium next season. Isn’t a trade like this something that can get fans excited again? Especially a trade for a guy that would immediately become the face of your franchise for the next 4 years (at least). The Braves also have one of the deepest farm systems in the game right now. They are consistently ranked in the top 2-3. And, it’s a system that is absolutely loaded with pitching talent – something for which the Angels have a desperate need (starting rotation with an ERA well over 4.00, closer with an ERA approaching 5.00, etc.).
The Braves are in the #9 television market in the U.S. – right behind Boston, and just ahead of Houston. What this means is that they don’t have to be stingy with their payroll. They may not want to climb into the $175 million echelon (where the Angels actually are), but a payroll in the $140-150 million range sits comfortably in the middle of the league, right around where other competitive teams sit (Royals, Blue Jays, Orioles, etc.). And, to offset some of the cost, initially, the Braves could send Nick Markakis to the Angels, which eliminates $11 million over each of the next two seasons. If the Angels are willing to cover some of Trout’s salary, in exchange for the right prospects, even better.
A move like this, for the Braves, would give a much needed spark to a fan base that has grown weary of seeing their favorite stars traded away. It’s also reasonable for a team like Atlanta to take on a contract the size of Trout’s, because the vast majority of their core players are young, and will be making league minimums for the next 3-5 years. Not to mention the young players that are coming up to the majors in the next year or so – like Dansby Swanson, Rio Ruiz, etc. Just think of it, Braves fans . . . an outfield of Ender Inciarte, Mallex Smith, and Mike Trout. That could be one of the best defensive outfields in the game.
Of course, the Angels wouldn’t let go of Trout for nothing. On the Braves’ side, I would say the only player in their system that should be “untouchable” is Swanson. He’s a top-of-the-order talent that you just don’t trade away (ahem – are you listening, Arizona?). Outside of that, though, the Braves should be willing to offer almost anything the Angels want. They have another top-tier shortstop (Albies) in the system that could be blocked by Swanson, unless he switches to 2B. They have a 3B prospect (Riley) that has great potential, but will take a year or two longer to develop than the previously mentioned Ruiz. Either or both of these guys could be on the table. Depending on what position players the Angels might expect in return, seven of the Braves’ top 10 prospects are pitchers. I would see no problem in sending a couple of those on in a trade for Trout. Especially since the Braves just drafted a top-tier prospect with the #2 pick in this year’s draft, and look to be set up with a top-5 pick in next year’s draft as well.
So, why not send Nick Markakis, Austin Riley (3B), Kolby Allard (LHP), Tyrell Jenkins (RHP), and Braxton Davidson (OF)? The Braves farm system is one of just a handful that could absorb a blow like that. And, it would make the Braves relevant their first year in their new stadium. Particularly if they went after a quality free agent piece like a Neil Walker, for example. Consider a lineup with Swanson, Trout, Freeman, Walker, Inciarte, and Smith. Plus, the Angels would immediately begin building toward the 2018 season, instead of languishing through another 3-4 years (or more) before they finally start seeing results from having high draft picks.
It’s time. It simply is time for the Angels to pull the trigger, and do what’s right. Not only what’s right for Mike Trout (who deserves better than what he has around him in LA), but also what’s right for the fans who have little desire to watch Mike Trout and a bunch of also-rans lose for the next 4 years.