Here's a plan for getting Trout back to the playoffs

November 22nd, 2019

For all his greatness, Mike Trout has appeared in the postseason just once in his career, and his lack of opportunities on the October stage is sad for baseball fans.

Trout is a three-time Most Valuable Player who has finished in the top four in each of his eight full seasons and probably deserved more than three wins. Entering his age-28 season, he's already been more valuable than dozens of Hall of Famers, and he's well on his way to being arguably the best player ever. There is almost assuredly nothing more he could have done to help his team win, and for all that, he's played in exactly ... three postseason games, coming back in 2014. He hasn't been part of a winning season since 2015.

The team around him hasn't been good enough, and they're currently not good enough. Trout, as great as he is, won't play at this level forever. So what are they going to do about it? Put another way: How do you get the best player in the game into the games that matter the most?

Trout's out there thinking about it, obviously:

To their credit, they reportedly do plan to do something about it. You don't hire Joe Maddon as your manager if you aren't expecting to contend, and presumably GM Billy Eppler is highly motivated with just a year remaining on his contract. Plus, owner Arte Moreno is clearly on the record in saying "payroll will go up next year." That's good news, and it's welcome news; the Angels have drawn more than three million fans for 17 consecutive seasons, starting right after their 2002 World Series win.

How many wins do they need to add?

The bad news is that they have a great distance to go. The Angels were 72-90 in 2019, and though surely we can assume that the passing of Tyler Skaggs affected the team in ways we can't quantify, there were plenty of indicators that this was a below-average club. They were outscored by 99 runs, which comes out to an expected record of ... 72-90. In terms of Wins Above Replacement, the 2019 Angels played like a 72- or 73-win team. They were what it looked like they were. They were a 72-win team.

The problem is that the Astros won 107 games, putting the Angels 35 games out. No one should go into a season expecting a 107-win team, so let's set our sights a little lower, on the Wild Card -- which, as the Nationals would tell you, is still worth obtaining. In 2019, the A's and Rays won 97 and 96 games, respectively; the year before that, the Yankees and A's were at 100 wins and 97 wins. It's still a big gap from 72 wins.

Let's try to be realistic, and set a goal of 95 wins. It wouldn't have been enough in 2019, but it at least gets you in the conversation, and it's a number the Angels have topped just once in the last decade. An increase of 23 wins is also an absolutely massive number to hit in one winter, though there have been eight examples in the last decade of a 90-loss team making it to October the next year. (As recently as 2018, the Braves went from 90 losses to 90 wins and a division title, and the year before that the Twins won 85 games -- and an AL Wild Card spot -- a season after winning just 59.)

So 23 wins it is, but we also need to stay somewhat within the bounds of reality. Tempting as it might be to suggest jettisoning a nearly 40-year-old Albert Pujols, who has been worth minus-2.6 WAR over the last three years -- fourth lowest in baseball -- that probably isn't going to happen. Tempting as it might also be to say "just sign literally every free agent and run a $400 million payroll in 2020," that also simply isn't going to happen.

Besides, while spending money to add players is unambiguously a good thing, they're going to have to do it a lot more wisely than last winter's disastrous additions of veterans Matt Harvey, Cody Allen, Trevor Cahill, Justin Bour and Jonathan Lucroy -- a group that cost about $34 million and combined to hit .215/.290/.368 (Lucroy, Bour) and post a 6.37 ERA (Harvey, Allen, Cahill).

They had a 2019 payroll of about $160 million, so we can assume a bump over that, though we don't know by how much. Including estimated arbitration raises, but without the declined 2020 option of Kole Calhoun, they currently sit at approximately $148 million, so there's some room here.

They can't do all of this via free agency. Still, we need to find 23 extra wins somewhere. What has to happen for the Angels to find them, to finally get Trout back to the playoffs? A few good moves, and a few best-case scenarios, that's what. A lot of them, actually.

The road to 23 more wins

1) Trout stays healthy all year (+1 win)

This is only going to work if almost everything goes right, and Trout has missed time in each of the last three seasons due to injury. In the perfect 2020, he's back to playing 155-plus games again, just like he did each year from 2013-'16. In 2016, Trout's last injury-free season, he was worth 9.7 WAR (per Fangraphs). In 2019, when he played in 134 games, he was at 8.6. That's your one win right there. The more Trout, the better.

2) Get better versions of Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons (+4 wins)

If you look at the 2020 projections, you see that Simmons and Upton are projected to combine for 5 wins. That's basically saying that there's reason to expect a mild rebound -- but not a full one -- out of a duo that was worth 10 wins in 2017, then 8.5 wins in 2018, but a mere 1.5 wins in 2019. That, thanks to injuries that limited them to 103 games (Simmons, ankle) and 63 games (Upton, toe and knee) at performance levels far below their usual.

Upton reportedly is going to have "a normal offseason," and it's worth noting that before his lost 2019, he'd been one of the most consistent and durable players in baseball -- eight straight years of 600-plus plate appearances, seven of which came with 20-plus homers. Still, he's 32, and Simmons is 30, each coming off leg problems. It's reasonable to expect better seasons, but probably not their best seasons -- and we're trying to be sunny-yet-reasonable here.

3) Sign Gerrit Cole (+7 wins)

Well, obviously.

Eppler has said he expects to sign two starting pitchers. He's going to have to, at a minimum; the 2019 Angels rotation had a 5.64 ERA, second highest in baseball, and the current top of the depth chart is led by Andrew Heaney, Jaime Barria and Griffin Canning, who had a 5.27 ERA just among the three of them. The 2019 Angels were the first team since the 1919 Phillies to not have a starter make even 20 starts. Not exactly the kind of century-old milestone you're looking to match.

If you're going to go big, you have to go big. It seems all but impossible that the Angels can do this without signing the Orange County native who might be baseball's best starter, anyway. If they don't get Cole, none of the rest of it might matter.

We'll use Fangraphs salary and production projections for these, and they have Cole at 6.5 WAR in 2020 on a seven-year, $242 million contract or about half, annually, of what the Angels might want to spend in total this winter. Maybe more. It's worth it.

We're still only up to 12 wins, though.

4) Sign Dallas Keuchel (+3 wins)

Though rumors persist that the Angels could possibly sign both Cole and Zack Wheeler, that would seemingly eat up all of their offseason spending room, so that seems unlikely. But we know they're going to sign another starter, and while you might argue for the high-risk, high-upside case of Hyun-Jin Ryu, we're going in exactly the opposite direction. There is almost no upside at this point remaining in Keuchel, but there's 180 reliable league-average-or-slightly-better innings. Remember when we said it was the first time in a century that a team had no starter make 20 starts? Right. That.

In addition, this is a particularly good fit, because Keuchel thrives on ground balls, meaning he absolutely requires a solid infield behind him. No American League infield added more defensive value over expected on grounders than the Angels, and even that was with Simmons missing half the season. Fangraphs projects three years and $45 million. We can afford that. (You might alternatively choose to trade for Matt Boyd or Robbie Ray. You get the idea.)

5) Get peak Shohei Ohtani ... whatever that looks like (+4 wins)

After a season spent entirely as a DH, Ohtani is expected to get back on the mound in 2020, though it's difficult to project exactly how that plays out. Eppler has suggested that Ohtani could "pitch once a week and be the designated hitter three or four days a week," possibly as part of a six-man rotation.

After he got hurt in 2018, we tried to do some back-of-the-envelope math about his future, and at the time we said that "Ohtani, even when healthy, was neither a full-time pitcher nor a full-time hitter in 2018, and might have been on a 6 WAR pace." As a part-timer both at pitcher and hitter in 2020, he's projected for ... 6 WAR. That's a bump of four from 2019's batter-only -- and more good than elite -- offering. It's a lot to expect from a player recovering from elbow and knee surgeries who hasn't yet made it back onto a mound, but we're all about expectations here.

6) Jo Adell is basically the next Juan Soto (+3 wins)

This is an extremely unfair expectation to put on any young player, and yet here we are. With Calhoun gone, Brian Goodwin is keeping right field warm for Adell, baseball's No. 5 overall prospect. Slowed by injury last year, Adell made it to Triple-A in August, and he's likely to be next to Trout in Anaheim early in 2020. As baseball forecaster Dan Szymborski wrote recently, "while it doesn’t look like Adell will be able to push Trout out of center field, his bat still plays in a corner," while putting a 2.7 WAR projection for 2020.

It's a lofty expectation for a player who only turns 21 in April. Then again, Soto had a 4-WAR season at 19 and a 5-WAR season at 20.

7) Trade for Willson Contreras (+2 wins)

Like we said, this isn't all coming through free agency, and Yasmani Grandal has joined the White Sox, anyway. Meanwhile, the Angels don't have a catcher -- at least, not a starting one. Kevan Smith will be 32 in June, and he's never played 90 games in a season; it was only a year ago that the White Sox, of all teams, let him go on waivers. Max Stassi has never played 90 games in a season either, and he hit all of .136/.211/.167 in 2019 before undergoing hip surgery.

Either would make for a fine backup, but they aren't starters, and there's few good free-agent options other than Grandal. Instead, let's consider reuniting Maddon with Contreras, who has been the source of many rumors out of Chicago, especially with Victor Caratini showing promise behind him and Miguel Amaya coming.

He's projected to make $4.5 million in arbitration in 2020, which means any team could afford him, especially since he's arguably the best-hitting catcher in baseball, crushing 24 homers last year with a .272/.355/.533 line. (He's a noticeably poor pitch framer, but we'll take what we can get right now.)

As far as what it would take for the Cubs? Pick your poison. It's absolutely not going to be Adell, but the Angels are deep in outfield prospects, if that's what Chicago wants, though they'd likely want something for the 2020 roster as well.

8) Limit Pujols' playing time (+1 win)

It's been clear for some time that he's been playing every day because of his contract, not because of production. Though 23 homers and 93 RBIs last year certainly look nice on the surface, he was still a below-average hitter (94 OPS+), as he's been for each of the last three years (88 OPS+), and it's been years since he's been a plus at first base. As he nears his 40th birthday in January, you could argue for a full-time DH role, but on this team, with Ohtani (and possibly Upton) needing DH time, there's not room.

While there is a good argument that the Angels would be better off releasing Pujols with just two years left on his deal, we understand why that might not happen for any number of reasons. That said, Maddon should look to significantly limit Pujols' playing time, which should be easier with active rosters expanding to 26 players.

9) The Astros come back to earth

You've seen what's going on down in Houston, right? For all of their on-field success, you know what direction things are headed when you say "the Astros controversy" and a reasonable reply is "Which one?" Even if none of that was true, it's still hard to expect any team to win 107 games again, and the Astros took 14 of 19 meetings against the Angels in 2019. And remember, in our scenario, we are taking Cole from the Astros and putting him on the Angels, which increases the impact of the acquisition for Los Angeles.

The Astros are still unquestionably more talented, but even if they're more good than great, it's a boon for the Angels -- and the rest of the AL West.

While we're not specifically adjusting for the last item, that gets us to an extra 25 wins, within, roughly, a realistic budget estimate. (We added about $54 million, though regrettably we were unable to help the bullpen, nor have we helped the team's overall depth.)

This is, of course, almost entirely unreasonable. The best-case scenario almost never happens. Trout hasn't actually stayed fully healthy in the last three seasons, and it's far more likely that one of Simmons and Upton is hurt or unproductive than it is that both stay healthy. The idea that Ohtani and Adell could have the breakouts we'd all love to see, at the same time, is somewhat low. And wrapped up in some of this is the hope that players with recent injury histories like Heaney and Canning are capable and available.

That's the point, though. Even with the best player on earth, the Angels just lost 90 games in a division with baseball's best team. It's not supposed to be easy. Mike Trout isn't supposed to keep missing the playoffs, either. Whatever the Angels can do to prevent that from happening in 2020, they absolutely have to.