Where do ideas come from? I am talking about those popular obsessions, what we called "memes" before meme meant intentionally misspelled words over a picture of a cat, that inspire the madness of crowds. I refer to whatever it was that sparked the Dutch of the 1600s to go nuts for tulips or what led a few consecutive presidential administrations full of Ivy Leaguers who ought to have known better to get so invested in southeast Asia.
Currently, one of these ideas galloping loose about the countryside revolves around the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim trading once and future MVP Mike Trout in order to spark a rebuilding. It's not clear just which Branch Rickey wannabe originally graffiti-ed this idea on the public wall; Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe most recently toyed with the idea. The theory seems to be something like this:
- The Angels are not a very good team.
- The Angels farm system is the Dust Bowl of the minor leagues.
- Mike Trout is such a good player that trading him would bring back enough quality parts to revitalize the Angels.
This is a specious bit of reasoning, but one suspects it comes from a kindly impulse, that of not wanting to see one of the best players in baseball waste his prime years as the only thing worth watching on a dead-end ballclub. The trouble is that the third proposition would only be true if the Angels brought back (a) at least one player as good as Trout plus a bunch of other good ones, or (b) brought back a large number of players and the Angels hit on every one of them. One big problem with this is that there are no players as good as Trout (the odd Bryce Harper aside), and so by definition no such players are going to be available in a trade. Alternatively, the odds against hitting on so many good players in one deal are huge; it almost never happens, and the Angels aren't likely to be the first team to do it.
That the Angels' farm system is in ragged shape. This year they, along with the Marlins, Mariners, and Orioles, were shut out of Baseball America's preseason top- 100 prospects list. Nor can you find a halo amongst the top 100 put together for MLB.com by Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo; ESPN's Keith Law called the Angels' farm, "the worst system I've ever seen." Catcher Taylor Ward, the team's consensus top prospect, is presently hitting .242/.307/.273 in High-A. In conclusion: not good.
At the major-league level there's more than Trout, but not a lot more. Right fielder Kole Calhoun is a solid player. Albert Pujols hit 40 home runs last year, although he's also a 36-year-old designated hitter whose on-base percentage has declined in seven straight seasons, counting this one. Veteran infielder Yunel Escobar is hitting .300 at third. Andrelton Simmons remains one of the best defensive players in baseball when healthy—which he isn't, and won't be for a while. Also, he still can't hit. There is no catcher. There is no second baseman. There is no left fielder. There are no reinforcements coming. These are things the club was aware of going back to last fall, but did not or could not address.
On the rotation side, Hector Santiago is reasonably reliable. Garrett Richards is trying to fend off Tommy John surgery, but even if he does he won't be back for a long time. Jered Weaver and his low-80s fastball are confronting the end in typically idiosyncratic fashion. C.J. Wilson hasn't been on a major-league mound since last July 28 and may or may make it back before the one-year anniversary; both Weaver and Wilson are in their contract years and will free up $40 million when they go. There is also a bullpen. There is always a bullpen. They pitch after the starters are done.
To a great extent because of Trout, the Angels are not on track to be historically, Braves-ily bad. Atlanta is on a pace to go 39-123, which would be a MLB record for losses. The Angels are presently working towards 72-90. If you go 39-123, baseball tradition requires the Braves to commit seppuku; if you go 72-90, you don't get any dessert for a month. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta's star-amid-scrubs isn't talked about the same way as Trout, perhaps because the Braves' farm is as much admired as the Angels' is discussed as a potential Superfund site—it is assumed the cavalry will soon be coming for Freeman. Assuming Mike Scioscia and Arte Moreno can stay out of their own way for a few years and not punt away high draft picks as they did to acquire Pujols, Wilson, and ol' Josh Hamilton, Trout will eventually have the help he deserves. He's only 24 and is signed through 2020. There's time.
If we pretend this discussion were taking place five years ago, we can trade Trout with the benefit of hindsight. In 2011, Baseball America's top 100 had Harper and Trout as the top two on the list. Nos. three and four were Jesus Montero and Domonic Brown. Dustin Ackley and John Lamb are in the top 20, ahead of Chris Sale. This is not to mock BA, but rather to suggest that even the players who seem the most obviously projectable will often disappoint. The Royals had nine players on that list. Let's say the Angels could have dealt Trout for any four of them. They would have had to pick with perfect foresight among Christian Colon, Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer, Eric Hosmer, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Mike Moustakas, Will Myers, and Jake Odorizzi.
"Hey," you might say, "it could happen. I'm smart enough to have come up with Hosmer, Moustakas, Myers, and Odorizzi instead of Colon, Duffy, Dwyer, and Lamb"—or more likely, some wishy-washy combination of the high-side and low-side lists. But replace Trout with even the best possible combination of those nine, then add it to what the Angels currently have, and it's by no means clear you'd have a great ballclub. You might also say, "Hey, the Royals turned Myers and Odorizzi into James Shields and Wade Davis! I'd do that too!" Which, sorry, bzzzt, disallowed. Justifying a trade by saying its redemption is contingent on later moves is cheating, and also kind of crazy, because you can't know that you're going to cash in. You can only know what you're getting in the initial deal.
In any case, teams don't put nine of their top prospects on the table in a deal. We know because there have been Troutish trades before. The A's first traded Rickey Henderson after his age-25 season, and he brought five players from the Yankees. The players turned into three relievers of small value, a utility outfielder, and Jose Rijo—who didn't blossom for four years, by which point he was with another team. A few years later, the Yankees traded Rickey back. He didn't fetch anything like equal value then either.
In 1993, the Padres burned down their roster, dealing off several top players, with Gary Sheffield, then 24, among them. Sheffield already had his Mr. Sunshine reputation, but he was also coming off a .330/.385/.580 season in which he led the National League in batting average. Still, he netted only three pitchers: Andres Berumen, Jose Martinez, and Trevor Hoffman. The first two had about two minutes in the majors, although Martinez was a highly-rated prospect. As for Hoffman, yes, he saved 601 games and may someday end up in the Hall of Fame, but ask yourself if you would trade Mike Trout for any closer in baseball—or, hell, for apex Mariano Rivera, straight up. Then, depending on your answer, ask yourself if you need to see a psychiatrist.
We can look for more recent examples, like Miguel Cabrera and Jason Heyward, who were both traded young and for less than a destiny-changing return. We could go back in time to when the Phillies traded Dick Allen to the Cardinals in the 1960s, or to the 1970s deal that sent a 25-year-old Bert Blyleven from the Twins to the Rangers. The lessons will be the same, but we could do this. One of my favorites, a cautionary tale from the 1980s, was the trade that sent the very talented (though decidedly sub-Trout) 24-year-old outfielder Von Hayes from the Indians to the Phillies for five players. From the Indians' point of view, the trade was a bust because the only player of lasting value they received was Julio Franco; Phillies fans never felt Hayes was worth five guys, even though four of them weren't particularly valuable. It didn't really work for anyone, and this is less exceptional than you might expect.
There are rare exceptions. When those same Royals traded 27-year-old Zack Greinke to the Brewers in December, 2010, they received Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi. That's very close to the picking four out of four litmus test proposed above. Maybe the Royals were exceptionally perspicacious; perhaps the Brewers, poorly run, overly sweetened the pot. However, only Cain is anything like a star, an identical deal still wouldn't be enough to rescue the Angels, and the Royals were taking much less of a risk—as good as Greinke is, his career WAR in seven seasons with the Royals was 26.2 (Baseball-Reference version). Trout, who is not yet through six seasons, sits at 40.1.
If you can handle the acronyms, Trout's WAR is significant, because only Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle had the same level of accomplishment before turning 25. There is no telling if Trout will maintain the way they did, but the Angels can no more reasonably assume a great falloff from Trout than the Reds could have when they traded Frank Robinson in 1965 because their owner considered him "an old 30." And no, the Reds didn't get anything like fair value either. You can't.
Trading Trout now would be worse than that historically bad Robinson deal. It's tantamount to the Orioles dealing Cal Ripken in 1985 or the Mariners trading Ken Griffey Jr in 1994. Maybe each would have brought a pile of prospects, and maybe one or two of them even good. None of them would have restored the resultant damage to the team's identity, or patched the hole in the lineup. The Angels have gotten a great many things wrong on their way to here, but Trout is one of the few things they've gotten right. That's a consolation, but it's also just about all they have in terms of a foundation for the next good Angels team. They might as well start there.