Was going all-in a historic mistake? Ohtani’s free agency looms for Moreno’s Angels


ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s Aug. 7, the day of his 32nd birthday, and Mike Trout finds himself in a race against time.

He wears a backwards cap and a red Los Angeles Angels tank top and sprints along the basepaths at 2 o’clock on a bright, sweltering Monday afternoon, doing his best to simulate game action on an otherwise empty field. Trout has spent the better part of a month doing everything possible to beat the six-to-eight week timetable that has become a standard bearer for hamate fractures, pushing the limits of his rehab in hopes of returning before an entire season — another one — slips away. Playing in pain is inevitable.

“I know I’m gonna be hurtin’,” he says after a quick break, beads of sweat dripping off his forehead. “But once it’s tolerable, I’m gonna go out there.”

There is a palpable sense of urgency that surrounds the Angels this year, perhaps unlike any other before it. As if time is running out. As if what’s next is too unnerving to confront. As if an ominous tipping point has been reached.

It’s hard not to consider Arte Moreno’s place in all of it. The latter half of his two decade-plus reign as the Angels’ owner has been marked by impulsive decisions that, when coupled with bad drafts and poor acquisitions by his general managers, compromised sustainability and helped squander the prime years of two of baseball’s defining figures, according to more than a dozen people employed by him in various capacities during that stretch. His competitiveness has been admired, but many believe it has also hindered. And his actions over the past 12 months — a period in which he invested in the present more heavily than ever before, all while entertaining the sale of his franchise and the potential trade of its most valuable asset — have only raised the stakes.

In hopes of capitalizing on what could be their final season with Shohei Ohtani, and convincing him to stay in the process, Moreno’s Angels put everything they have into 2023. They vaulted their payroll to new heights, promoted their best prospects aggressively, shed what little they had from a thin farm system in order to augment an ailing roster — and then they watched it unravel too quickly.

The decision not to trade Ohtani before the Aug. 1 deadline has been followed by 13 losses in a stretch of 18 games, including a seven-game losing streak, dropping the Angels’ playoff odds below 1%. Barring a late season resurgence that would go down as one of the greatest in at least half a century, the Angels — now 61-64 and nine games out of the final wild-card spot — are poised for their 13th playoff absence in 14 years, an unfathomable predicament considering the transcendent talents they’ve employed in that stretch.

In the words of one longtime staffer: “It’s been a decade of disaster.”

And the next phase is appreciably murky. The manager is on an expiring contract, the general manager’s status feels unsettled and nobody seems to know how long Moreno will remain in charge. The forthcoming free agency of a transcendent, unprecedented two-way star — one who provided no insight toward his leanings in multiple conversations before and after the trade deadline — hangs over all of it.

As another season nears its conclusion, Moreno and his Angels find themselves in what feels like an exceedingly vulnerable predicament — bring Ohtani back, or fade into irrelevance.

“There’s a lot of questions,” Trout said. “The whole Shohei situation — I don’t think anybody knows what he’s feeling or what he’s thinking. It’s ultimately gonna come down to what he thinks and what he feels, and he’s gonna do what’s right for him and what he feels is right. I see him on a daily basis, obviously. He’s coming in every day. He looks like he’s enjoying it and feels comfortable. But I don’t know. It’s gonna be a tough go this winter. You never know what’s gonna happen. There’s gonna be a lot of teams out there wanting him. Who wouldn’t?

“But you can’t predict what’s gonna happen in the future. You just gotta look at what’s in front of you.”

“NOW IS THE TIME,” read part of Moreno’s statement announcing that he was exploring a sale of the Angels on Aug. 23, 2022. As the process went along, a record price became a near-certainty. Potential buyers were told not to proceed if they weren’t prepared to pay at least $2.5 billion, slightly more than what Steve Cohen bought the New York Mets for in 2020. Five bidders were ready to pay at least that much, including investors from Japan, said sources with knowledge of the situation.

On the morning of Jan. 23, a little more than two weeks before bids were due, they were each told the team was off the market, a shocking twist in a five-month ordeal that saw some of the world’s wealthiest people navigate the daunting logistics of sports ownership.

Moreno, a devoted baseball fan who had presided over the franchise for 20 seasons up to that point, admitted during a spring training media availability that he “started to get cold feet.”

“It’s like the more he talked up the team and tried to sell others on it,” a source familiar with the process said, “the more he sold himself on his own product.”

The son of Mexican immigrants who returned from the Vietnam War to run a billboard company that turned him into a billionaire, Moreno completed his purchase of the Angels in 2003, following the team’s unlikely championship. He lowered beer prices, signed Bartolo Colon and Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and watched as the Angels won five division titles in a six-year stretch. He was celebrated throughout Orange County. In the 13 years that followed, the Angels failed to win a single playoff game, their only appearance resulting in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in 2014. Twenty-seven teams clinched at least two postseason berths from 2010 to 2022; the Angels were not one of them.

Moreno, who employed five different managers and five different general managers during that stretch, has seemingly shouldered most of that blame. His adoration for stars helped turn the Angels into a franchise that resonated on a more national level. But numerous players, coaches and executives previously employed by the team believe his heavy-handedness in baseball operations and aggressive cost-cutting in other areas helped create an exceedingly small margin of error on a yearly basis, making the Angels overly reliant on superstar performances from a handful of players in a sport that requires depth.

He has been criticized for targeting mega-contracts that quickly became problematic — particularly those of Vernon Wells, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Anthony Rendon, the latter three of which came with the loss of draft picks — and then declining to exceed the luxury tax threshold in an effort to make up for it. He has been criticized for not paying enough attention to the infrastructure that helps organizations develop talent through minor league systems, part of the reason the Angels’ farm system has ranked within the bottom eight in the industry by Baseball America seven out of the last 10 years. And he has been criticized for continually cutting costs in many of the behind-the-scenes aspects that would help maximize expensive rosters, from analytics to training resources to staffing hires — an approach one former pitcher described as “buying a McLaren and taking it to Jiffy Lube.”

Under Moreno’s stewardship, the Angels have often existed in what amounts to baseball purgatory: Definitely not resetting, but probably not doing enough to truly contend.

“He’s very competitive to his detriment at times,” a former Angels executive said. “Has anyone ever been able to convince [him] of a direction to that goal?”

Moreno and the Angels didn’t respond to an initial interview request for this story, or to specific follow-up questions based on these comments and the uncertainty of his ownership plans.

Moreno’s GM hirings, all of them first-timers when they got the job, are also to blame. The Angels drafted 321 players under former GMs Jerry Dipoto and Billy Eppler from 2012 to 2020 and only one — David Fletcher, currently toiling in the minor leagues — has produced at least 10 Baseball-Reference wins above replacement in the major leagues. Their starting pitcher acquisitions, most of them through free agency, were at least as underwhelming; the Angels’ rotation had the lowest FanGraphs WAR in the majors from 2015 to 2020.

Those who defend Moreno will point out that he consistently spends more on players than two-thirds of Major League Baseball’s owners and that he has not stripped the roster bare in an effort to rebuild and cut costs. In recent years, Moreno has also agreed to invest more heavily in analytics. Ohtani, who didn’t emerge as a two-way force until 2021, and Trout, who has played in only 236 of his team’s 449 games since then, haven’t necessarily matched up their primes, either.

But the Angels’ streak of consecutive losing seasons extends to seven. And they’re on pace to set a franchise record with their eighth in a row in 2023, after which there are questions at the highest level.

“The big concern is with Arte and not knowing what they’re doing at the top,” a person close to the team said. “Is this a year-by-year thing? Is it five years? That’s the No. 1 concern right there.”

Moreno turned 77 on Aug. 14. His children are not believed to be interested in inheriting the franchise. There’s no consensus about what’s next. Some close to Moreno believe he might consider selling the team again if the season continues to spiral and Ohtani heads elsewhere this offseason. Others think that he might take on a minority owner whose stake in the franchise increases over time, a proposition a source said he dismissed earlier this year. Or that he’s waiting to finally strike a deal for the ballpark and its surrounding land, agreements the City of Anaheim walked away from twice in the span of a decade. Or that he’ll continue to own the Angels in perpetuity.

“He’s a very, very complicated guy,” a longtime business associate said. “My sense is he’s going to hold onto it for at least a couple more years, but I don’t know that anybody really knows.”

MORENO HAS BUILT a reputation among rival executives for being impulsive, the opportunities for major deals with the Angels at times fleeting because of it. And so as this year’s trade deadline approached, GMs throughout the sport were preparing as if they needed to act on any potential trade for Ohtani quickly — under the impression, two people in talks with the Angels said, that relatively small events could alter the dynamic in one direction or the other.

With a little more than two weeks remaining until the trade deadline, the Angels were reeling. They lost nine of 10 to fall below .500 heading into the All-Star break, a stretch that saw Trout and Rendon suffer serious injuries. Then they proceeded to lose two of three to the Houston Astros to begin the second half, at which point the trade rumors involving Ohtani had reached a fever pitch.

The popular sentiment throughout the industry had been that Moreno would not trade Ohtani, citing his reluctance to do so last summer, at a time the Angels would have received possibly the biggest return package in history. But after the All-Star break came and went, some of those familiar with the Angels’ thinking had begun to believe Moreno — and, by extension, his latest GM, Perry Minasian — would be open to a trade if the losses continued to pile up and the right package presented itself.

Teams checked in to gauge interest and throw names around early in the second half and were told to wait.

Instead, Michael Stefanic, an undrafted player who originally signed for nothing, might have changed the course of baseball history.

When Stefanic was summoned as a pinch hitter in the 10th inning of a tied game on the night of July 17, with two outs and the winning run on second base, he was a 27-year-old who had accumulated just 80 plate appearances in the major leagues. He grew up in Boise, Idaho, as an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox, and his ensuing walk-off single against his hated New York Yankees marked a turning point.

On the heels of Stefanic’s heroics, the Angels swept the Yankees and won six times in a stretch of seven games leading up to July 26, putting them only four games back of a playoff spot (though their odds of getting there were just 16.7%).

Within the Angels, a source familiar with the process said, there had been talks of letting the final full week before the trade deadline play out, through stops in Detroit and Toronto, before reaching a final decision. Doing so, at least, would have provided the front office with an opportunity to maximize its time and gauge how the Angels perform against a team they were chasing in the wild-card standings. But Moreno clearly didn’t need to see much else.

Ohtani was officially pulled off the trade market in the middle of that stretch. Some of those high up in the front office were not aware of the development until it circulated in the media, sources said, a sign of the lack of synergy that has come to define this franchise over the last decade-plus. The decision was widely believed to have been driven by Moreno, though ownership involvement is commonplace with players of that magnitude.

Pundits scolded the Angels for their shortsightedness, but the decision to keep Ohtani and add to the current roster — within hours, the Angels acquired two high-end pitchers, starter Lucas Giolito and reliever Reynaldo Lopez, from the Chicago White Sox — was widely celebrated within the clubhouse. Especially, it seems, by Ohtani. The next day, after twirling a shutout against the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of a doubleheader and homering twice in Game 2, Ohtani noted through his interpreter that it was “the first time in my six years that we’ve been buyers” before the trade deadline.

But he remained coy about how that might impact his free agency.

“In season, I don’t really think about the long-term stuff,” Ohtani told reporters in Detroit. “Just focus on this season and every game that’s in front of me. Obviously, I’ve been with the Angels my whole career. I love the fans. I love the team. No complaints. I just want to finish the season strong for the fans and everyone that is cheering for me.”

“I feel like it was more peace of mind for Shohei,” Angels closer Carlos Estevez said in Spanish. “He didn’t know what was going to happen. Although he might seem like a robot, he’s a baseball player just like the rest of us.”

Three days later, during a flight from Toronto to Atlanta, the team’s charter was buzzing about another potential deal, later learned to be the acquisition of C.J. Cron and Randal Grichuk from the Colorado Rockies. Ohtani in particular seemed animated, according to one staffer on board.

To that person, it served as a rare glimmer of hope for the Angels’ future — a sign that maybe showing Ohtani they’ll do whatever it takes will go a long way toward swaying him to stay.

“He’s a competitor,” Angels starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval said. “He wants to win, just like everybody else in here. The fact that we’re buyers at the deadline and having the front office’s support — because they could’ve easily cashed it in and got us some prospects for the future. But the way that they did it, we’re f—ing pumped about it. Yeah, that goes a long way.”

THE REST OF THE INDUSTRY might scoff at them, but Moreno and the Angels appear to believe they have a legitimate chance at keeping Ohtani. They believe he’s comfortable in Orange County, that he recognizes the autonomy he has been granted and that he appreciates how Minasian fostered his two-way prowess by shedding prior restrictions and believing in his talent, even when injuries and struggles made others skeptical. At some point in the near future, Moreno is expected to offer Ohtani and his CAA agent, Nez Balelo, a massive contract extension in hopes that they will eschew lucrative offers from a variety of suitors this winter, including the crosstown-rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

Every team wants Ohtani.

The Angels, more so than anyone else, seemingly need him.

Their farm system is once again devoid of high-impact talent and their major league roster possesses some glaring pitfalls, most notably Rendon, who has played in less than 35% of the Angels’ games over the last three years and is owed $114 million over the next three years. Trout, recently plagued by calf, back and hand injuries, hasn’t played a full season since 2016 and is signed through 2030. There’s a thought that adding an Ohtani contract, expected to be worth at least $500 million, would only make it harder for the Angels to win moving forward.

But what, exactly, are they without him?

“I understand the sentiment of, ‘Sell everything, rebuild,’ all those types of things,” Minasian said. “I understand that. But when you have a special player, who I don’t know if we’ll ever see again, having a special season, when you have a team around him performing, keeping their head above water with a chance to win every night — I feel like the team deserved a chance to win. And I think there’s real value in that, especially for our younger players.”

The Angels increased their payroll to nearly $215 million on Opening Day, nearly a 15% increase from the previous franchise record. Zach Neto, their 2022 first-round pick, was called up as the everyday shortstop in April after just 44 minor league games. Nolan Schanuel, their 2023 first-round pick, was called up to fill in at first base in August after 21 minor league games. Ben Joyce and Sam Bachman, pitching prospects taken within the last two drafts, were brought up to help in the bullpen. When injuries began to take a toll on their infield in late June, Mike Moustakas and Eduardo Escobar were acquired via trade. In late July, Grichuk and Cron were brought in to replace Taylor Ward, who had been struck in the face by a fastball, and provide Ohtani with some much-needed protection in the lineup.

For those additions, the Angels shed seven prospects from a system that began the season ranked 26th in the majors by ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, including their two best ones, Ky Bush and Edgar Quero. There’s good news and bad news to that: Scouts don’t believe the Angels gave up anybody who has much of a chance to become an impact player, but that’s because they don’t have those players in their system to begin with. Trading Ohtani could have infused the Angels with some much-needed young talent. Instead they face the possibility of getting only a compensatory draft pick for the most unique player in baseball history.

At some point, they — or, perhaps, just Moreno — realized it was even worse to never let it play out.

“Other stars have left, other teams have gotten draft picks — they don’t fold the franchise,” Minasian said. “You can recover from that. That being said, we wanted to give ourselves the best chance to have a successful season and play meaningful games in September and hopefully get to October.”

And so every loss feels like a gut punch, every win a temporary reprieve from despondency. It has been six years since the Angels were even relevant for the stretch run of a regular season, which is why simply keeping pace is so important. By that point, their schedule will soften, Trout will be back and the thought was that perhaps the Angels might have an outside shot.

But the odds feel continually more daunting. Over the last 50 years, only three teams — the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, 2011 Tampa Bay Rays and the 1974 Baltimore Orioles — have overcome at least an eight-game deficit with no more than 37 games remaining to make the playoffs, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. The Angels would have to do so while jumping three teams.

The last nine months or so have seen Moreno reverse course on old habits that previously set the franchise back, specifically spreading his money out on quality depth pieces in free agency, rather than splurging on one star, and then agreeing to exceed the luxury tax threshold in order to make additions at midseason. In that time, a stable of young players have developed into formidable big leaguers, namely Neto, Logan O’Hoppe, Mickey Moniak and Reid Detmers, a circumstance Minasian points to as a reason to be optimistic about the future.

But Ohtani’s free agency beckons.

“I’m trying not to look ahead like that,” Trout said, “but it’s gonna become a reality, obviously, in the offseason when that last game is played and he becomes a free agent. I haven’t really thought about what it’s gonna be like without him because I hope he comes back.”