The 2023 World Baseball Classic came down to a pair of Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday: Shohei Ohtani vs. Mike Trout, with two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game and the championship on the line. If it happened in a movie, it would be kind of cheesy, but it happened in real life and it was incredible.
"Obviously didn't come out the way I wanted it to," Trout told MLB.com following his game-ending strikeout. "I think as a baseball (fan), everybody wanted to see it. He won round one."
"I've seen Japan winning and I just wanted to be part of it," said Ohtani, who was also named the tournament MVP. "I really appreciate that I was able to have the great experience. As I say, the next generation, the kids who are playing baseball, I was hoping that those people would like to play baseball. That would make me happy."
The WBC is over and Japan is the champion for the third time, and now Ohtani and Trout will rejoin forces and try to get the Angels back to the postseason. The Halos have not been to the postseason since 2014 -- they have baseball's longest postseason drought -- and they haven't won a postseason game since 2009. This sums things up nicely:
March 21, 2023
"It's definitely left a sour taste in my mouth the last few years, not being out there all the time and not winning and getting into the playoffs," Trout told MLB.com earlier this spring. "I'm in my 30s now, so it's time. With the way (GM Perry Minasian) and the front office constructed this team this offseason, getting a lot better, it's definitely a sign in the right direction. We're a good team."
The Angels have had a losing record every year with Ohtani and they are the only team in baseball to go under on their over/under win total each of the last five seasons. Their over/under is 81.5 this year. Needless to say, the Angels must buck that trend not only to get to the postseason, but to convince Ohtani to stick around after he reaches free agency at the close of the 2023 season.
"I'm going to do whatever I can to keep Shohei here, for sure," Trout told MLB.com last month. "We're going to go out there and try to win. I haven't really talked to Shohei about his future, but it seems like he's having a good time here. But it's been six years together and we haven't been in the playoffs, so if there's any year we need to get the playoffs, it's this year."
Minasian & Co. had a sensible, not flashy, offseason, passing on big names (owner Arte Moreno wanted Trea Turner) and instead adding depth. Tyler Anderson upgrades the rotation and Brandon Drury, Hunter Renfroe, and Gio Urshela were added to lengthen the lineup. Top prospect Logan O'Hoppe will see time behind the plate as well. Just consider who these four are replacing:
|2022 player||2022 WAR||2023 player||2023 ZiPS projection|
UTIL Matt Duffy
UTIL Brandon Drury
OF Hunter Renfroe
IF Andrew Velasquez
IF Gio Urshela
C Logan O'Hoppe
Duffy, Marsh, Stassi, and Velasquez combined for almost 1,300 plate appearances last year (1,294 to be exact). The Angels may not have brought in any big names this offseason, but the players they did recruit are solid big leaguers. Going from that last year to those players this year amounts to meaningful upgrades at several positions.
Are the Angels good enough to reach the postseason with their current roster? There are six postseason spots per league now, and the American League is a bit more wide open than the top heavy National League, though the Angels haven't earned the benefit of the doubt. They've failed to make the postseason with peak Trout and Ohtani the last five years. It's been a masterclass in squandering elite talent.
Tuesday night's WBC championship game should not be the last meaningful game of Ohtani's season. Either he'll help the Angels return to the postseason, or the front office will have to make the difficult decision to trade him at the deadline. Ohtani has made it clear he wants to win. Staying with the Halos after another postseason-less season is so very unlikely.
For the Angels, the worst case scenario is keeping Ohtani at the deadline, failing to secure a postseason spot, then watching him walk away in free agency. In that case the Angels still haven't snapped their postseason drought and they've lost the game's most talented player without receiving the prospect windfall Ohtani would fetch in a trade.
That said, I think the Angels would have to roll the dice and keep Ohtani at the deadline. If they completely bomb in the first half and are far out of the postseason race in July, then yeah, trading Ohtani would be the way to go. But if the Angels are remotely close to a postseason spot, then keep him and try to win, and push like crazy to extend him. If they're close to a postseason spot, they have to at least try.
It is a lot harder to have in-his-prime Ohtani on your roster than it is to build up a farm system. The longer you can keep Ohtani, the better. As soon as he's traded, that's it. The door is closed. Keeping him while hopefully contending for a postseason spot at least gives the Angels an additional few weeks to sell him on staying. It's a risk, but a talent like Ohtani is worth it.
"I believe this is the best moment in my life," Ohtani told MLB.com after closing out Japan's WBC title. The WBC gave Ohtani a taste of what he's missed the last few years. Now it's on the Angels to give him another serving this summer, and to convince him there is more to come in the future. They're a better team than last season, at least on paper. Being better than last season and being good enough to return to the postseason and convince Ohtani to stay are two very different things though.