Much has been made about how the Washington Nationals, after half a decade of being in the incredibly enviable position of employing Juan Soto, now find themselves facing a far-less-enviable conundrum: to trade or not to trade Juan Soto.
Granted, signing him to an extension that makes the franchise-defining talent a career one-team player would be the best outcome for the Nationals and their fans. And they should still endeavor to do so. But after a reported $440 million,15-year extension was rejected by Soto earlier this season — an offer that fell somewhere between “fair money” and “far too low,” and a rejection that likely signaled an intention to test free agency — it would be irresponsible for the Nats’ front office to not entertain offers.
But it pales in comparison to the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani dilemma: Double down on a formula that hasn’t worked thus far, or trade a unicorn talent before he becomes a free agent after 2023.
Soto is a 23-year-old most often compared to Ted Williams who, in his fifth season, has accrued a batting title, two All-Star appearances, a World Series ring, two Silver Slugger awards and a Home Run Derby crown. And somehow is still under team control for another 2 1/2 years.
Ohtani is a two-way sensation most often compared superlatively to Babe Ruth who, in his fifth season since coming over from the Nippon Professional Baseball league, has accrued a Rookie of the Year award, two All-Star appearances, a Silver Slugger award, an MVP, and a whole new fan base reportedly worth $10 million in extra revenue for the team. He does not have a World Series ring because the Angels have not played a single postseason game during his MLB career. He is under team control for another year and a half.
Both play for teams that will miss the postseason this year.
People have been trying to understand the almost existential disappointment radiating out of the Baseball Bad Place in Anaheim for years now. How can a team headlined by the so-incontrovertibly-good-it’s-gotten-boring Mike Trout lose so many games? The addition of Ohtani since 2018 — on a discount deal that’s the steal of the century — has pushed that perpetual, predictable futility to meme level. The Angels’ apparent good fortune, and even a willingness to lavish rich contracts on Trout and more recently Anthony Rendon, has fallen apart in the details.
(It would have been too on the nose to say the Angels you thought might be good are actually bad.)
But of course, that particular brand of losing can’t, actually, go on forever. And if you had forgotten about the harsh realities of aging, especially for athletes, news of a chronic back condition afflicting Trout emerged this week to remind you.
The Nationals are a bad baseball team this year because they are at the nadir of a cycle that peaked with a championship. They would like to sign Soto to an extension so he can also be the centerpiece of their next contending team. That would be money well spent. In lieu of that, they’ll look to recoup so much talent that it all but secures another window of contention in the near future.
The Angels’ window should’ve been now. Or last year. Or at any point since Trout established himself as the most productive player in the majors. They failed to build around him despite the financial flexibility afforded by his first discount of a deal, and they’ve failed to build around him after guaranteeing he spend his whole career in Anaheim in exchange for the richest contract in MLB history. Albert Pujols’ albatross of a contract made that only more difficult. The Rendon signing seems headed that way as well.
Ohtani has quite literally been more than the Angels could have ever hoped for. He’s rendering the unprecedented, well, precedented by having yet another season of stat-breaking, two-way sensation. And the Angels are wasting it.
Trading Ohtani, like Soto, is impossible from the pure “then-what’s-even-the-point?” perspective. Why have a baseball team if not to field someone so impactful and exciting? If you have a player so singularly special, you have to hang onto them, right?
That’s part of the conundrum. Angels owner Arte Moreno’s affinity for “bright shiny objects” has hurt the team before, and continues to do so with his unwillingness to invest in the less-glamorous aspects of a successful organization. But it’s a point in favor of Ohtani remaining an Angel beyond this season. To trade him before then would be to publicly punt on 2024 — which the Angels are generally loath to do, and which all self-respecting fans should root against. (Until it’s proven successful, a “rebuild” is just a bad team with good marketing.)
We can, and should, remember that Moreno’s money is not our problem. He can do two or more expensive things to benefit the baseball team he bought. Trout’s contract — even Rendon’s — should not preclude the Angels from attempting to extend Ohtani, at any price. The reality, however, is that they’ve been unable to sufficiently complement their stars while balancing the big contracts they do have, and adding the cost of keeping Ohtani — who is currently making about $5 million to provide almost incalculable value — won’t make that any easier.
Beyond that, as is the case with Soto and his suspected commitment to testing the market, there’s reason to believe Ohtani simply doesn’t want to stay in Anaheim any longer than he has to. He has professed a damning desire to play for a contender, and proven his willingness to prioritize glory over maximizing his money.
All of which amounts to Ohtani likely playing somewhere else by 2024, if not before.
Perhaps, then, you could argue that Angels general manager Perry Minasian has an obligation to try to trade him for the kind of haul that could remake one of the worst farm systems in the sport. Whether that’s before the deadline Tuesday or in the offseason when there’s more time to work out what two-way production is worth. You could argue that the Angels have to get something out of having won the Ohtani sweepstakes, and if it’s not going to be a championship or even an October series, it might as well be other, less-interesting, players.
But then you’d have to wonder: Is there any return that makes them more likely to win than having had both Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in their prime? Anything that’s better than just rolling the dice again next year and hope for different results?
And that’s the real rub. Recent history does not inspire confidence in the efficacy of anything the Angels might do to try to turn generational talent into organizational results. The rot is in the roster construction, the neglected player development system, the stuff behind the scenes. Because the Angels don’t have a Shohei Ohtani problem, they have an Arte Moreno problem.