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Three things the Angels must do to finally build a winner for Mike Trout

John Carpino, the Los Angeles Angels‘ president, and Joe Maddon, their decorated manager, sat on adjacent couches on Wednesday morning, a day when 16 other teams would participate in the postseason. Displayed between them was the World Series trophy from 2002, a persistent reminder of the glory that still eludes this franchise in the years since.

The Angels, coming off their fifth consecutive losing season, have begun the search for their third full-time general manager in nine years. Carpino said they are “open to anything” with regards to filling the vacancy of Billy Eppler, whose firing was announced shortly after the regular-season finale. The process, Carpino added, is “not gonna be a rush.”

The new head of baseball operations, whoever that might be, will have one primary obligation: Do right by Mike Trout.

You can make a very reasonable case that the Angels have employed the game’s greatest player for every single one of these past nine seasons, and yet they have not managed to win a single postseason game during that time. They made the playoffs once, in 2014, and were swiftly swept out of the first round. This year, to combat a shortened season and make up for a significant loss of revenue, the postseason field expanded to include more than half the industry, and still the Angels were not good enough.

Another October without Trout, who will be 30 next season. The Angels aren’t merely squandering opportunities — they’re tarnishing the legacy of one of the greatest players in baseball history.

Carpino said the Angels feel that responsibility “every day,” a reality that guides their aggressiveness. Trout is signed for 10 more years, but there’s no telling how much of his prime remains. The Angels need not look any further than Albert Pujols for a reminder of how quickly even the greatest players can decline. They need to figure this out immediately. They owe it to Trout, who put his trust in them by signing what amounted to a lifetime contract. They owe it to themselves. What follows are the three most important steps.

1. Invest outside the roster.

Carpino and Maddon spoke for more than 40 minutes, but this, from Carpino, was by far the most significant statement: “Obviously we’re not doing it the right way. We’re not winning games. So something is not right in our organization, and so we have to look at it.”

The Angels will spend these next few weeks trying to figure out what they need to do differently, hopeful that their exhaustive list of candidates can provide further clarity with their evaluations. The Angels need to hire the right GM, of course, but who’s to say Eppler or Jerry Dipoto, the man who predated him, weren’t the right GMs?

Just as important is that the new GM — or president of baseball operations, a necessary title to lure someone as accomplished as Dave Dombrowski — have the proper resources in place, a concept that extends beyond the payroll. The Angels need a robust scouting department. They need to invest enough in analytics to keep up with the rest of the industry. They need to further emphasize player development. They need to place more value on the little things that produce successful organizations.

That all falls on their owner, Arte Moreno, who has for years been accused of meddling a little too much in player acquisitions.

Carpino defended the approach ardently.

“I don’t think it’s unusual for a GM to discuss moves with the owner, really in any sport,” Carpino said. “Our payroll’s been north of $170 million over the last four or five years. I really believe that as an owner of a business, and you have that type of investment, you want some return on your investment, and the return on investment Arte looks for is wins. That’s all he’s looking for is wins. So for him not to have a say in his investment, or knowledge on it, I don’t know, I think it’s fair that he has discussions and communication with the general manager.”

2. Maximize Shohei Ohtani’s value.

Maddon called Ohtani “the classic example of why the two-month season was really difficult on a lot of guys this year.”

Ohtani needed more time to get reacclimated to pitching but didn’t have it. He was counted on to anchor an underwhelming rotation as a 26-year-old coming off major surgery who also needed to worry about driving in runs in the middle of the lineup. It was a lot. Then he suffered an elbow injury that ruled out pitching and got off to a slow start offensively, and Maddon noticed him speeding up his mechanics in a desperate attempt to catch up.

The Angels are hopeful a normal season, with a normal offseason to prepare for it, will get Ohtani back to the level he displayed through the first two months of his rookie season in 2018. Ohtani took practice reps at first base and in the outfield corners down the stretch, but he has expressed a desire to continue pitching. Carpino said the idea of maintaining him as a two-way player is “worth a discussion.”

Ohtani is capable of throwing triple-digit fastballs and knee-bucking splitters. He can hit a ball 400 feet and run like a deer. If he’s right, he can be a starting pitcher and a designated hitter. Or a part-time outfielder and part-time closer. Or a boring old everyday player who takes 600 plate appearances. Having him — and they will for at least three more years — is a gift. Figuring out how to use him is a quandary.

3. Get pitching. Then more pitching. And then a little more.

The Angels secured Anthony Rendon in December and carried high hopes into the 2020 season. Then they lost 25 of their first 37 games and had no shot. Their best baseball came immediately thereafter. They won 14 of their next 20 and still hadn’t been mathematically eliminated heading into the final weekend.

Maddon got a better feel for his bullpen and believes that final 20-game sample was more indicative of this team’s trajectory. But the season-ending sweep suffered at the hands of the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers showed him something.

“On the field, we can play with them any day of the week,” Maddon said. “But we have to pitch better in order to beat that particular group, which is something that really was highlighted.”

The Angels ranked 25th in ERA this season. From 2016 to 2020, they ranked 20th, a five-year stretch when 28 different starting pitchers made at least five starts for them. Eppler lured Ohtani to Anaheim, was a big reason Trout signed his second extension and did a nice job infusing a depleted farm system with high-ceiling talent. Pitching was his downfall. The next GM needs to significantly improve the starting rotation and boost the bullpen. A lot of that will hinge on whether Moreno is willing to take on additional salaries given the bleak financial landscape facing the industry.

That has yet to be decided.

“I will add that Arte is a very opportunistic businessman as it relates to value and everything else, and it will be interesting who’s out there and the cost of it,” Carpino said. “I see him continuing to invest in this team as long as it results in wins.”

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