There’s a certain numbing consistency to many of the eight seasons Mike Trout and Albert Pujols have spent with the Los Angeles Angels. Trout, baseball’s bullet train, amazes and inspires and stretches the limits of greatness more often than he’s merely ordinary.
Pujols, every so often, provides a flash of the brilliance that makes him perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation, methodically climbing an array of all-time lists.
“I feel like every time Pujols does anything,” starter Trevor Cahill says, “he’s going to pass somebody.”
So Trout dominates, Pujols accumulates, the Angels miss the playoffs and it’s same as it ever was for its once-in-a-lifetime superstars?
Well, maybe not.
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Certainly, this year’s edition remains rich with future Hall of Famers, poor on pitching and, on paper, far behind the Houston Astros. Yet as the Angels put a 9-16 start further behind them with 11 wins in 16 games, a combination of uncovered gems and returning stalwarts has forged a feeling ranging somewhere between intrigue and hope.
“We have nothing but belief in ourselves,” says lefty starter Tyler Skaggs.
Trout, now 27 and in possession of sport’s most lucrative contract, is just the start of that belief. The $426 million man’s production has remained so absurdly steady – his .464 on-base percentage just a tick above 2018's mark of .460 – that it serves as a mere baseline for the Angels’ hopes.
No, they’d need production elsewhere to invigorate a team that won between 74 and 85 games since 2014, the lone playoff appearance since the Trout-Pujols alliance began in 2012.
Who knew it would come from a forgettable trade, and a waiver-wire grab?
When All-Star outfielder Justin Upton suffered a severe toe injury in the club’s final spring exhibition, sidelining him up to three months, the timing seemed terrible.
It proved fortuitous.
The Angels’ sudden need for a left fielder coincided with Brian Goodwin’s name hitting the waiver wire. Goodwin, 28, had never been a major league regular, failing to carve out a role on outfield-heavy Washington Nationals contenders. They practically gave him away to Kansas City last July, and then the Royals placed him on waivers at the end of camp.
Angels players celebrate a win. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports)
In Anaheim, Goodwin has been a godsend: His .836 OPS has for the moment mitigated Upton’s absence. Though it’s still just a 38-game sample, Goodwin is grateful he’s received a greater on-ramp to succeed – or fail – than he did after the Nationals made him the 34th overall pick in 2011. Boxed in by Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and others, Goodwin never received more than 251 at-bats in parts of three seasons there.
“In D.C., it was like, if I don’t do it right now,” says Goodwin, snapping his fingers, “well, it was a lot more pressure to do it right away. It’s tough to play this game under pressure. This game is so mental, man. It definitely didn’t make it easy.
“Coming in, going to your locker, passing the lineup card and knowing you’re in the lineup, you’re just comfortable. I hope Justin Upton comes back healthy and soon – I love him, he’s a great dude. But for the time being, you kind of know what to expect.”
While far from a wide-eyed rookie, Goodwin is nonetheless grateful punching the clock alongside Trout and Pujols, who recently became just the third player since 1920 with 2,000 career RBI.
“The focus that they put in is just on a different level – time, attention to detail,” says Goodwin. “They have a plan that they start working on hours and days in advance. It gives you an opportunity to apply that to what you want to do, to be able to show up every single day for a long season and figure out a way to play when the lights go on.”
While Angels general manager Billy Eppler has been hit-and-miss in his two off-seasons of work, his shrewdest move barely caused a ripple. A November trade with the Chicago Cubs for infielder Tommy La Stella seemed minor, but now looms large: He leads the team with 10 home runs, including a go-ahead shot in their series-opening win at Minnesota on Monday night. His .947 OPS means the team is not dependent on infielder Zack Cozart, who has been injured and unproductive (.197, .576 OPS) in two seasons of a three-year, $38 million deal.
La Stella, 30, went to four postseasons with the Cubs, but, similar to Goodwin, never received more than 169 plate appearances in a season; in fact, his 10 home runs in 36 games exceed the nine he hit in four seasons with the Cubs.
He’s not yet ready to declare a better version of himself, but appreciates the opportunity.
“I try not to think too far ahead, necessarily,” he says. “It’s been nice to get out there and get consistent at-bats, and kind of remember how I used to go about approaching four or five at-bats in a game.”
Collectively, the squad is a tough out. The Angels have struck out the fewest times of any team in the major leagues, with super utilityman David Fletcher, La Stella, Andrelton Simmons and catcher Jonathan Lucroy ranking near the top of the league in strikeout rate.
Their offense ranks sixth or eighth in the AL in runs, average and OPS – not bad considering Upton’s absence and Shohei Ohtani’s return just last week.
Oh, yeah, Ohtani.
He’s just half of himself this year, his right arm barred from pitching as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. He hit his first homer of the season on Monday and his .925 OPS in 367 plate appearances as a rookie is a sufficient sample to assume big things soon.
The Angels know they haven’t yet faced the Astros – who swept a pair of games from them in Mexico to start this 11-game road trip – with their varsity squad.
“It’s a fact – they haven’t seen our best,” says Lucroy. “I like to think of it like free agent signings coming up, guys coming off the injured list. If we can hang around close – I know the Astros are playing well, but they do have two wild-cards for the playoffs. Being at full strength for us is going to be a huge advantage.
“A lot of guys are optimistic. We’ve been playing really well. I’ve been doing this long enough to know anything can happen, as long as you don’t let that distance get too big.”
Right now, that deficit is 6 ½ games in the AL West. The wild card will be just that, with two stout entries from the AL East among the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox, and one of the Indians and Twins in the Central.
All that’s a bit premature. For now, Trout leads AL position players in Wins Above Replacement and a seventh top-four MVP finish, at least, seems likely.
Pujols will soon pass Dave Winfield and Alex Rodriguez on the all-time hits list, and at 641 home runs, will creep closer to Willie Mays’ 660, fifth all-time.
Should rookie pitcher Griffin Canning stick in the rotation, and relievers J.C. Ramirez and Keynan Middleton return healthy and viable this summer, the pieces will further come together.
This odd mix of legends and leftovers has its head above water, not lacking in determination or for opportunity.
“This group – the excitement they have to get better, the will to win, is just different,” says Goodwin. “You have these superstars and you’d never know they had all these individual accolades, because when it’s all said and done if we don’t win, it’s not important to them.
“They’re in the spotlight. But they’d rather be in it for a different reason.”
Lacques reported from Baltimore
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