With Shohei Ohtani’s Free Agency Looming, Angels Feel Sense of Urgency

Image credit: Shohei Ohtani (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Angels know the clock is ticking. They know full well the magnitude of what’s at stake in 2023.

Shohei Ohtani is set to be a free agent at the end of this season. The two-way superstar has made no secret of the fact that his goal is to win wherever he goes next.

The Angels have one final chance to prove he can do that in Anaheim. With that, a sense of urgency is permeating the entire Angels organization.

“With the talent level that we have here, I think we’re doing our fans, our teammates and everybody around … an injustice if we don’t come out here every day with a sense of urgency,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said. “I just think any good team has that.”

The Angels are 328-380 in the five complete seasons since Ohtani signed out of Japan before the 2018 season. They’ve posted a losing record all five seasons with Ohtani and have not finished higher than third place in the American League West. They have not come closer than six games out of a playoff spot, and that was in the shortened 2020 season.

The Angels’ struggles stretch well before Ohtani arrived in Anaheim. They have had seven consecutive losing seasons, the longest active streak in MLB. They have not made the playoffs in the last eight seasons, the longest active postseason drought in MLB.

The Angels’ inability to record a winning season with Ohtani and Mike Trout, two of the greatest players in baseball history, on their roster has become the organization’s defining characteristic over the last half-decade. It’s a scarlet letter the Angels have repeatedly tried and failed to shed.

So far, they’ve had mixed results trying to do so this year. The Angels are 12-12 after beating the Athletics, 5-3, on Tuesday night. On the positive side, their revamped offense is averaging five runs per game and ranks eighth in the majors in runs scored. On the negative side, their bullpen—a perennial problem spot—already has seven blown saves, most in the majors.

The Angels’ urgency was laid bare when they recalled shortstop Zach Neto from Double-A Rocket City just over two weeks into the season. Under normal circumstances, David Fletcher, a multi-year starter in the midst of a five-year, $30 million contract, would have been given time to shake off his slow start. Instead, the Angels demoted Fletcher after eight games and promoted Neto, a 2022 first-round pick who had played just 44 minor league games and was in college at this time last year.

“I was a little surprised,” Neto said. “I didn’t think it was gonna be the second week into the season. But you know, I’m ready.”

The next test will be what the Angels do with their pitching staff. Nevin said the Angels don’t yet plan to demote lefthander Jose Suarez, who has a 10.26 ERA in four starts, but acknowledged Suarez is operating on a start-to-start basis. Righthander Chase Silseth, the Angels No. 3 prospect, posted a 0.90 ERA in four starts at Triple-A Salt Lake and will join the team Wednesday to replace injured reliever Austin Warren. Silseth will begin in the bullpen but is primed to move into the rotation if Suarez falters again.

Veteran relievers Ryan Tepera (11.25 ERA), Aaron Loup (5.68 ERA) and Jimmy Herget (6.23 ERA), meanwhile, have struggled early while a deep pitching staff at Rocket City—led by Top 30 Prospects and projected future relievers Coleman Crow and Mason Erla—leads the Southern League with a .209 opponent average.

The organization’s sense of urgency is not limited to player movement. The current Angels in the clubhouse feel it acutely.

They, more than anyone else, have had the fullest appreciation of how rare and unique a talent Ohtani is—and what a missed opportunity it would represent to have never had a winning season or reached the playoffs with him.

“Obviously you know he has ambitions to win,” Angels left fielder Taylor Ward said. “We all do. We want to win and we want to get to the playoffs and prove that he belongs here and we want to keep guys and bring more guys in. We just want to be a winning culture.”

The Angels’ situation is straightforward. They need to win and win now. If they’re out of playoff contention by the trade deadline, Ohtani will likely be traded. If they hang around the fringes of contention but fail to make the playoffs, Ohtani will almost definitely leave in free agency.

The Angels’ only chance to keep Ohtani beyond this season is to prove they can win. Win in the regular season, win in the playoffs and go on a deep run.

Even if they do, the multitude of teams likely to offer Ohtani a record-setting contract will make it difficult to re-sign him. But at the very least, the Angels will have given themselves a chance and avoided the ignominy of failing to make the playoffs while Ohtani was on their roster.

The legacy of the franchise’s current era, and what they did or didn’t do with Ohtani on the roster, hangs in the balance this season. At all levels of the Angels organization, the sense of urgency is ever-present.

“We have a talented team and if we don’t take every day with a sense of urgency, we’re doing ourselves and fans and everybody, the game really, an injustice,” Nevin said. “We come out here with that attitude.”

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