From 2012 through 2015, Mike Trout was the best player in baseball.
There are those that would argue that Bryce Harper might've now caught up with or even surpassed him for that title. Or that upstarts like Manny Machado might be getting close. Whatever the case, Trout certainly warrants a place on the Mount Rushmore of active ballplayers, a toolbelt terror who helps his team in too many ways to count.
Yet despite another terrific season for their best player, the Angels are in dire shape. Even after winning two straight against the sad-sack Twins, they've still lost seven of their past 10 games. They own the third-worst record in the American League. At 29-37, they're on pace for their worst season since 1999, the final year before Mike Scioscia, and a season that ended with a young go-getter named Joe Maddon managing the final 29 games. And there's not a damn thing that any one player can do ... even if that player is the best in the game.
The problems start with the rotation. C.J. Wilson started the season on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, hasn't pitched a game all year, and doesn't look likely to return any time soon. Andrew Heaney made one start, hit the DL with a flexor strained and a damaged ulnar collateral ligament, hasn't pitched since, and doesn't look likely to return any time soon. Nick Tropeano hit the DL June 3 with shoulder discomfort. He might return soon, but he isn't particularly good, having given up 58 hits, 28 walks, and eight homers in 55 1/3 innings before going on the shelf. The biggest blow came in May. Garrett Richards left his May 1 start with what the Angels believed was simple cramping and dehydration. Five days later, they found the real culprit: a torn UCL. Like Heaney, Richards chose to forego Tommy John surgery and try other methods to heal, opting for a platelet-rich plasma injection.
Any team losing four of its starting pitchers would likely be in a tough spot. But the Angels' alternatives are particularly bad. Hector Santiago owns a 5.30 ERA. Jhoulys Chacin was a Hail Mary pickup from the Braves who doesn't miss enough bats to succeed. And while Matt Shoemaker has pitched impressively of late, he's more than negated by Jered Weaver. How bad has it gotten for the Angels' erstwhile ace? This bad:
Jered Weaver average fastball velocity: 82.7 MPH— Daren Willman (@darenw) June 15, 2016
Noah Syndergaard average curveball velocity: 82.4 MPH
The Angels' great hope, at this point, lies with Tim Lincecum. In 17 innings at Triple-A Salt Lake City, Lincecum posted a 2.65 ERA, showing excellent command. But that solid cameo obscured Lincecum's long-running downtrend, one that has seen his strikeout and walk rates deteriorate for the past several years, and his fastball velocity tumble from 93 mph in 2011 to below 89 last year. If things break right, Lincecum becomes a useful stopgap -- but it's highly unlikely he can save what's been the third-worst rotation in the American League, by both park-adjusted ERA, and fielding independent pitching.
Neither the starting pitching problem, nor the team's other issues, qualify as temporary. For one thing, the Angels owe so much money to so many fading stars that they're hamstrung until they can escape that financial burden. The four biggest salaries on this year's roster belong to Josh Hamilton (who got chased out of town by owner Arte Moreno), Wilson (who might not pitch all year), Weaver (who owns the second-worst ERA in the AL), and Albert Pujols (who's on pace for career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average, yet is by far the best player of the four at this stage).
Wilson will make $20.5 million in his final year before free agency and might not throw a single pitch. Weaver will make $20.2 million in his walk year and is pitching so poorly that he might get bumped to the bullpen even when the alternatives aren't pretty. That's nothing compared to what the Angels owe the other two: The Angels agreed to pay Hamilton $63 million over three years when they chucked him to the curb last spring, while Pujols is owed a jaw-dropping $140 million over the next five years ... not counting the rest of this season's $25 million salary. The only other player owed anywhere near that much is Trout, who's owed $122 million from 2017 and 2010, but also counts as the only reasonably-paid player signed to a long-term deal.
It gets worse. The Angels have nothing resembling a major league-caliber starting catcher or major league-caliber starting left fielder, on the major league roster or close to it. They're employing a replacement-level second baseman. They're paying big money to a shortstop who's an all-world fielder but can't hit a lick, and they gave up a front-line pitching prospect to get him.
That was something the Angels could ill afford. This isn't just a team with a thin farm system. It's one that was rated by multiple sources as the worst farm system in the league. In discussing the Angels' dearth of talent before the start of the season, ESPN.com prospect expert Keith Law didn't mince words: "I've been doing these rankings for eight years now, Law wrote, "and this is by far the worst system I've ever seen."
Losing can be temporary, if those in charge are willing to change. The problem is, it's not clear when or if that will happen. While Billy Eppler came with a top-notch reputation when the Halos hired him last offseason as the team's new general, the Angels still have deeper problems: An owner who meddles far too much in personnel decisions (the Hamilton fiasco and the massive Pujols albatross being just the tip of the iceberg), and a manager who so thoroughly has the owner's ear, the two can depose Eppler's skilled predecessor, and hold too much sway over future decisions.
Add it all up and you have a team that won 98 games two years ago ... and might be in worse shape than any other organization now. With Trout locked up for the rest of the decade on this woefully talent-starved team, he might end as the best player in the game, but also the loneliest.