Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are the two best players in baseball.
We've reached the point where this is a nearly indisputable fact. The pair, who combined for roughly 18.5 WAR in 2015 per Fangraphs, are franchise-altering talents that will likely come to define our current generation.
Trout vs. Harper has been a fervent debate since the two dominated top prospect lists roughly four years ago (hey Matt Moore!). Trout seemed to have pulled ahead for a while, but Harper's historic 2015 campaign eclipsed Trout's astronomical production levels in many respects, indulging us with another generation-defining talent to complement Trout.
And while Trout and Harper maintain their soaring trajectories, the Angels and Nationals benefit from the inherent advantage of having a player capable of putting up double-digit WAR seasons. However, where the two differ, is in their execution of surrounding their star with enough talent to create sustainable contention. After all, unlike other sports, one player isn't enough to carry a team to the postseason, let alone a championship.
Unfortunately for Trout, the Angels are a woefully top-heavy team that finds itself on the opposite side of the win curve as the Nationals. Recently, ESPN's David Schoenfield examined the Angels' inefficient utility of its scarcest asset. According to Schoenfield, the Angels are wasting what may be Trout's prime years.
Trout is signed through 2020. Despite having the best player in baseball on their team the past four seasons, the Angels have made the playoffs just once and haven't won a single playoff game. They've averaged 87.5 wins in those four years; Trout has averaged 9.3 WAR per season. Without Trout, they probably would have been under .500 the past four seasons.
The Angels' long-term outlook isn't exactly rosy. They're clearly burdened with expensive contracts, suffering from the Josh Hamilton debacle, which will cost them for two more years, as well as hefty commitments to Trout, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Albert Pujols. This aging and expensive core (excluding Trout) has undeniably hamstrung the Angels financially, and with Arte Moreno's unwillingness to exceed the luxury tax threshold, the Angels have largely been left out of the bidding for premium free agents. Instead, they have been content with marginal acquisitions, willingly set to employ a lineup this year that includes the likes of Carlos Perez, Johnny Giavotella, C.J. Cron, Craig Gentry, and Daniel Nava.
The Angels do benefit from Weaver's and Wilson's contracts coming off the books after this season (a combined $41 million), however, that coincides with Trout's salary increasing drastically. He'll earn $16 million this season, $20 million next, and $34 million in each of the three following years.
In 2014, the Angels did manage to mount a 98-win season that led to Trout's lone playoff appearance, but that was a veteran-heavy squad that has experienced massive regression. Of the club's primary starting lineup, only Trout, Pujols, Cron, and Kole Calhoun remain. The team was also bolstered by career seasons from Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker, as well as a league-average performance from Weaver. That club was really a culmination of many things going right, but in hindsight, it wasn't built to be a sustainable winner.
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Los Angeles is currently relying on a core consisting of Trout, Pujols, Calhoun, and the recently acquired Andrelton Simmons, along with Richards and Andrew Heaney on the pitching side. This isn't exactly a stellar core, however. Calhoun is a nice complementary player, but should hardly be among the headliners of a contending lineup. Simmons is a wizard with the glove, but a dunce at the plate. Pujols is rapidly aging, dealing with injuries while he essentially turns into a one-dimensional slugger. And there seemingly isn't any help on the way, with an atrocious farm system that is bereft of impact talent. It also doesn't help that the Angels must compete in a division with clubs such as the Astros and Rangers, who appear to have tenable windows of contention open.
The Angels essentially have a five-year window to build something that will convince Trout to remain in Anaheim beyond the 2020 season. That doesn't exactly give them much time to build a strong farm system, especially when it's difficult to justify a rebuild in their current state. Instead, they seem to be threading the line of mediocrity.
The Nationals are in quite the opposite boat. Even though their 2015 season was a disappointment by many standards, they are a team that has surrounded Harper with a bevy of high-quality talent in building a contender.
Unlike the Angels, the Nationals aren't ridden with albatross contracts. Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer are the only players on the roster currently making more than $15 million annually, and Werth has just two more years left while Scherzer is among the best pitchers in baseball. Plus, while the Ryan Zimmerman contract isn't looking too great, Jonathan Papelbon's deal comes off the books after this season, and the only impact player the Nationals have reaching free agency before Harper does after the 2018 season is Stephen Strasburg next offseason.
The Nationals have also managed to build a young, cost-controlled nucleus through the draft and savvy trades, allowing them to produce several players capable of being a part of the team's core going forward. Anthony Rendon has already submitted elite production at the major league level, while Joe Ross and the upper-minors contain numerous future impact players such as Lucas Giolito and Trea Turner.
As has been well-documented, Harper is three years away from what will almost certainly be the most expensive bidding war in sports history. But the Nationals may be well set-up to keep him, especially with the current state of their organization. Harper being a Boras client has often been brought up to suggest free agency as a near inevitability, however, Boras' strong relationship with Nationals owner Ted Lerner (Boras represents 10 current Nationals) may actually be a benefit in this particular case.
It is worth noting that the Nationals are reaping the rewards of a dreadful run in the aughts that turned in six top-ten picks in a five-year span (2007-2011), as well as back-to-back first overall selections in 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, the Angels haven't held a top ten pick since 2000, and have picked in the first round in only two of the past four drafts. Of course, much of that is to blame on the Angels surrendering selections to sign free agents, while the club has generally whiffed on high picks they did keep. They also haven't been afraid of dealing away prospects for veterans, and some promising names such as Kaleb Cowart have taken significant hits to their development.
Ultimately, the Nationals and Angels represent two great test cases in building around generational talents. It's difficult to ignore the follies that the Angels have committed over the last half-decade. Failed big-money endeavors in free agency and a poor pipeline of young talent have created a situation in which the Angels can't afford to hit the reset button and waste Trout's otherworldly production. This has essentially generated a positive feedback cycle in which the Angels are forced to spend money and assets on bringing in supplementary talent, which only feeds their bloated payroll and poor farm system.
In other words, a kick to the system is needed. Maybe the Angels could look to rebuild on the fly without going all-in. That would likely mean exploring trade possibilities for the likes of Calhoun, Hector Santiago, and Huston Street. Still, it's not as if those players carry significant trade value, so any sort of rebuild that doesn't involve trading Trout isn't likely to bring in the impact talent necessary to turn around the Angels' fortunes.
With new GM Billy Eppler installed, the Angels seem to be angling to get younger. Substituting Erick Aybar for the much younger Simmons is one example, though that did cost them their lone blue-chip prospect. So, while there is long-term promise in some of the moves the Angels have made recently, the short-term is still very much an uncertainty.
Most of the transactions made this winter looked more like patchwork, which seemingly indicates a half-hearted commitment to contending. They seem set on staying the course, and hoping for some breakthroughs in player development. And it is possible that the organization views 2016 as a transition season, allowing them to assess their long-term prospects, while still being incentivized to contend for a wild-cart spot.
But for now, the Nationals are where the Angels want to be.