Stop us if you've heard this one before, but Mike Trout is very good and the Los Angeles Angels are, well, not.
As can happen with even the best of jokes, this one's starting to get old.
To be clear, the joke's not on the aforementioned superstar center fielder. Though Trout was cool enough for a while there for his OPS to dip under—gasp!—the .900 mark as recently as August 25, he's since gone on a Trout-ian hot streak with 15 hits, 12 walks and five home runs since August 28.
The 29-year-old was so hot at one point that he made just one out in the span of 15 plate appearances:
Altogether, Trout has played in 39 games and put up a .293/.392/.653 slash line with an MLB-high-tying 15 home runs. He's on track for a fourth straight season of at least a 180 OPS+. Between 2017 and 2019, only one other player reached that mark so much as once.
This, of course, is but one of many feathers in a cap that could easily be mistaken for a head-bound peacock at this point.
Trout was an annual All-Star between 2012 and 2019, plus the American League MVP three times. He exited last season with more wins above replacement through the age of 27 than any player in history. Even amid this year's 60-game season, he's only slipped to fourth place among the age-28 crowd.
To the Angels' credit, they've done right by Trout on the financial front. Between his initial $144.5 million extension from 2014 and his more recent $426.5 million deal from 2019, he and future generations of Trouts (from Beckham all the way down) will never be hurting for money.
But at this point, whether the Trouts will ever have even one World Series ring as a family heirloom is very much uncertain.
At 17-27, the Angels are a distant fourth in the American League West race and only on the periphery of the wild-card race. According to FanGraphs, their odds of making the postseason are in the 3-4 percent range.
This, of course, is a variation on a theme. The Angels have made the postseason just once in the Trout era—in 2014 when he claimed his first MVP and they won 98 games, only to be swept in the first round. His tenure has otherwise been devoid of October baseball, and this season is on track to be the fifth straight without even a winning record.
It wasn't supposed to be this way in 2020.
Following a 90-loss season in 2019, the Angels actually put some effort into getting better on the offseason market. Notably, their big moves were signing superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year, $245 million contract and adding Dylan Bundy (via trade) and Julio Teheran (via free agency) to their starting rotation.
Especially after Major League Baseball expanded this year's playoff field, the Angels had a path to the postseason. If Trout did his thing and got enough help from the club's new additions and incumbents such as Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and especially Shohei Ohtani, surely October would be in the cards.
Some of the Angels' best-laid plans have actually panned out. The Trout-Rendon tandem, for example, has lived up to expectations. The two would have combined for a 1.044 OPS as teammates in 2019. This year, they're at 1.007.
Bundy, meanwhile, has been a revelation with a 2.49 ERA through eight starts. He's finally the No. 1 starter that was foretold when he was coming up with the Baltimore Orioles in the early 2010s.
Only the Angels and the Washington Nationals have had as many as six hitters put up zero or fewer WAR despite getting more than 80 plate appearances. And despite Bundy's best efforts, Angels hurlers are tracking toward a second straight campaign with an ERA north of 5.00.
Going forward, the Angels' future isn't entirely devoid of hope. They have one super-underrated star (David Fletcher) and a premium prospect with sky-high upside (Jo Adell). Further, only Teheran and Simmons are set for free agency this winter.
The club's current reality, however, makes it clear that Trout is going to need a lot more help if he's ever going to get into the playoffs again, much less win a World Series. And that's where there are many concerns, starting with what's going on with Ohtani.
He did the seemingly impossible by living up to the hype as a Ruth-ian two-way star upon arriving from Japan in 2018. But that season also saw him undergo Tommy John surgery, and his pitching arm quickly failed him again when he tried to return to the mound this year. He's also a hot-and-cold hitter whose .654 OPS this season underscores a general trend toward cold.
After 2020, the Angels will still owe Albert Pujols $30 million for 2021 and Justin Upton $51 million through 2022. Even if the Angels view their shift from bad in 2019 to worse in 2020 as a reason to cut them loose, they'll still have to pay them.
Even though Adell is still technically a prospect, he and fellow top-tier talent Brandon Marsh only do so much to redeem the club's farm system. We have it ranked at No. 23 in MLB, though a downward bump will be in order once Adell loses his rookie eligibility.
The task of fixing what ails the Angels almost certainly won't fall to Billy Eppler much longer. The Angels had good intentions when they hired him as general manager in October 2015. But he's a lame duck right now, and what he hath wrought in five years doesn't offer team owner Arte Moreno much of an excuse to keep him around.
Assuming the Angels do make a change, Eppler's successor will have the advantage of taking over a roster headlined by Trout and Rendon. There will otherwise be much work to get done, and the state of the club's finances and farm system will require creative solutions.
What's more, these solutions will need to come in a timely manner. Rendon is already on the wrong side of 30. Trout will be there on August 7, 2021. As great as he is, that event may well mark the beginning of the end for his prime.
Oh, sure. Trout will be a Hall of Famer regardless of whether he eventually plays in and wins a World Series. In fact, he could retire right now and still make the grade as a Cooperstown-worthy star.
And yet, two other things can also be true of Trout: He deserves the chance to win the big one, and it's a darn shame that whether he gets it isn't really up to him.