February 21, 2024

Why keeping Shohei Ohtani — despite risks and long playoff odds — was the right move for the Angels

The Los Angeles Angels recently changed the arc of the forthcoming trade deadline – not only for themselves but also any number of other teams – by deciding not to trade two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and instead pivot to “buyer” status. 

That Ohtani is a pending free agent and committed to going through that process abetted the weeks and, really, months of speculation that the Angels would seek to deal him. In the end, the Angels landed on the proper decision, which is to resist calls to trade the best and most popular baseball player in the world. Either approach to the Ohtani situation is easily justifiable, but keeping him in the fold for the remainder of the 2023 season was the correct, if difficult choice made by team owner Arte Moreno and general manager Perry Minasian. 

While not entirely surprising, the Angels’ decision is indeed a risky one, and let’s acknowledge those risks before praising it. First, by not trading Ohtani, the best the Angels can do when it comes to redress for losing him to the market is a compensatory draft pick via the qualifying offer system. You can do much better than that in trade. Indeed, had the Angels put Ohtani on the market and followed through, there’s cause to believe that they would’ve gotten maybe three players ranging in tenure from prospects to pre-arbitration major leaguers and ranging in future potential from top-of-the-scale to “at least interesting.” Now such a haul is impossible. 

As well, it must be stated that the Angels’ odds of making the postseason are not encouraging at first blush. At this writing, the SportsLine Projection System gives the Angels just a 5.7% chance of making the playoffs. The Angels by keeping Ohtani are leaning into those somewhat long odds. 

And, again, they’re right to do so. A general principle of team management, one which is not enough with us these days, is that clubs should go for it whenever plausible. MLB‘s postseason hums with chaos and randomness that the six-month regular season typically subdues, and unexpected outcomes in October (and, sadly, November) are the norm. As we’ve seen time and again, the best teams don’t usually win it all, just as wild-card-grade teams often seem to survive longer than they should. The point is to get into the playoff field and then see to what extent fortune favors you. In this way, baseball stands out among other major team sports, which typically see more predictable playoff outcomes. 

There’s also the Angels’ recent history to consider, which amounts to a backdrop of stunning failure. Infamously, the Angels despite having Trout’s legendary peak for many years and Ohtani’s singular brilliance in recent ones haven’t made the playoffs since 2014 and haven’t even managed a winning season since 2015. As squandered cores go, this example dwells in the pantheon. The Angels should be full-bore committed to ending that puzzling drought, and you don’t achieve that by trading away a superstar who is, in one roster spot, the best hitter in baseball and your rotation ace. The Angels so badly need to flip this particular script that keeping Ohtani that even 5.7% amounts to odds you need to test.  

Speaking of those odds, Minasian improved them by adding sorely needed rotation help in the person of Lucas Giolito, in addition to bullpen depth with Reynaldo López. Minasian also might not be done fortifying the roster before Tuesday. As well, the Halos figure to get healthier down the stretch and get some key contributors back, including, most notably, Trout. One should take the over on those postseason odds. 

On another level, the Angels by trading Ohtani might have been offloading one of the most compelling individual stretch drives ever glimpsed. We’re accustomed to Ohtani’s regular appointments with history, thanks to his unexampled excellence as a two-way player, but this season it’s the home runs that are the story. Right now, Ohtani leads the majors in homers (and triples, and slugging, and total bases, and OPS, and OPS+ …) by a wide margin with 39. This puts him on pace for 61 homers. That, you’ll note, is tantalizingly close to Aaron Judge’s American League record of 62 home runs, which he set just last year. Even if the Angels drift from contention in the weeks to come, they’ll click turnstiles and draw eyeballs to television broadcasts as Ohtani closes in on 50 and maybe even 60 homers, all while continuing to make critical starts on the mound. Allowing such a singular phenomenon to take place on, say, the Yankees’ watch would be deeply damaging to an Angels franchise that’s already taken its share of body blows in recent years. 

Then there’s Ohtani’s future to consider. He’s said multiple times that he will prioritize a team’s capacity to win when it comes time to choose his next employer. The Angels have thus far not shown that. However, making a playoff run after keeping Ohtani, adding deadline additions to the roster, and getting core players healthy could show the free-agent-to-be that the organization is indeed capable of giving him what he wants on this front. That, in turn, would make it more likely that the Angels would be able to re-sign him after he hits the market. While that still may not be the most likely result of Ohtani’s free agency, he’s such a talent and a draw that even slight improvements in the team’s positioning matter quite a bit.

Above all, there’s honor in going for it in baseball, even when attaining the goal is unlikely. Beyond that, though, the Angels are correct in their approach to Ohtani because of Ohtani himself – what he means, what is, and what the future may hold. If so inclined, you can blame the Angels for many of their recent decisions, but not this one.

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