Angels right-hander/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani played catch Friday — his first time throwing since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. The Angels tweeted video of the 23-year-old doing so, and Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times adds that he made about 60 to 70 light tosses from a max distance of “about” 12 feet (Twitter links). It’s an ever so minor first step in the electrifying young talent’s return to the mound — one that’ll be accompanied by a corresponding decline in his swinging for the time being. Ohtani’s hitting drills will be limited to soft toss for the foreseeable future, as the Halos proceed with extra caution regarding his right elbow. He’s reportedly targeting an early May return to the lineup as a DH.
Bryce Harper just launched his tenure as the Phillies’ biggest star, but he’s already considering how to use his gravitational pull to the team’s advantage. In an interview yesterday with Philadelphia SportsRadio 94WIP, Harper made clear he intends to help the Phils land another big fish in free agency:
“If you don’t think I’m gonna call Mike Trout to come to Philly in 2020, you’re crazy.”
That comment was sufficient to spur the Angels to raise the matter with Major League Baseball, Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times reports. The league has been in touch with both teams and is looking into the matter, per ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan (Twitter link). Unsurprisingly, “significant discipline” is not anticipated.
Tampering is prohibited by operation of MLB Rule 3(k), which prohibits “negotiations or dealings respecting employment, either present or prospective, between any player, coach or manager and any Major or Minor League Club other than the Club with which the player is under contract.”
While Harper’s comments seem innocuous enough on the surface, they are of the same ilk as others that have drawn some rebuke in the past. David Ortiz received a warning letter from the from the commissioner’s office after advocating for Edwin Encarnacion to replace him as the Red Sox’ DH. The Yankees admonished Aaron Judge for telling Manny Machado he’d “look good in pinstripes.”
Those situations didn’t warrant a fine, though that avenue is available to commissioner Rob Manfred. The National Basketball Association has doled out penalties and issued stern words on the subject, a reflection of the fact that the league’s fundamental player market structure — more star-driven with shorter, more heavily regulated contracts — is more susceptible to actual interference.
What action will be taken in Harper’s case, if any, remains to be seen and resides largely in Manfred’s discretion. It’s hard to imagine that Harper’s words are of much real-world import, though perhaps there’s cause to nip things in the bud. For the Halos, the last thing they want to see is a two-year-long public recruiting pitch from Harper and others as they try to figure out a way to keep Trout in town for the rest of his career. And for the league, there’s an interest in preventing even this sort of mild tampering from becoming a more frequent issue.
Structuring a penalty that actually disincentivizes these kinds of public comments would be tricky. Any symbolic punishment of Harper would serve only to further publicize his comments. It might also ingratiate him to his new fans in Philly, who are already themselves pining for Trout. A warning letter may seem toothless, but it’s perhaps the most sensible formal action for Manfred to take in this case.
The Angels will go without third baseman Zack Cozart for at least “a few weeks,” skipper Brad Ausmus tells reporters including J.P. Hoornstra of the Southern California News Group (via Twitter). He has been diagnosed with a grade 1 calf strain.
Given the timing, it’s fair to wonder whether Cozart is at risk of missing the start of the season. It emerged over the weekend that he was dealing with a minor calf problem, though it now seems it’s significant enough to earn a place on the scale. A grade 1 diagnosis is at the mild end of the spectrum, though the Halos will need to take a careful approach to avoid a lengthier absence.
Cozart, 33, is due $12.67MM this year and next. He earned the same in 2018, which turned out to be a forgettable debut season with the Angels. Cozart limped to a .219/.296/.362 batting line in 253 plate appearances before undergoing a significant shoulder procedure.
The focus this spring was on the health of Cozart’s left arm and his ability to regain the form he showed in an outstanding 2017 season. Now, he’ll also need to work through this lower-leg ailment.
At his best, Cozart is an elite defender and quality hitter. His ability to get back on track is a key aspect of the Angels’ hopes for the coming campaign. Earning a postseason spot promises to be a tall order in a top-heavy American League. Tommy La Stella, Taylor Ward, and Kaleb Cowart are among the options to fill in at third if Cozart misses time early.
- Catcher Jonathan Lucroy fit in well among the Athletics’ players and coaches last year, but the A’s didn’t show much interest in re-signing him during the offseason, according to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. While the two sides held talks in free agency, the A’s never approached the $3.5MM offer he accepted from the Angels, Slusser reports. With Lucroy now a member of a division rival, the A’s are down to the unspectacular Josh Phegley and Chris Herrmann as the only catchers on their 40-man roster. The club did add veteran Nick Hundley on a minor league deal, though, and well-regarded prospect Sean Murphy could debut in 2019.
- Lucroy’s new team is dealing with some mild injury concerns, Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com writes. The Angels scratched southpaw Andrew Heaney (elbow inflammation) and Zack Cozart (left calf tightness) from Sunday’s game because of their issues. This is the second straight spring with elbow inflammation for Heaney, who started last season on the injured list because of it. However, the 27-year-old doesn’t think the inflammation is as serious this time, and it wasn’t much of a detriment in 2018 – after all, Heaney did go on to throw a team-high 180 innings during the regular season. Similarly, Cozart’s injury seems minor, though it’s not what the team wants to see as he begins the second season of a three-year, $38MM contract. Cozart fell flat over 253 plate appearances last year before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in late June.
With Mike Trout down to his penultimate season of team control, the Angels have recently considered offering the center fielder a record-breaking contract – a $350MM extension over 10 years – though it’s unclear if they’ve actually proposed it, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports (subscription required). Per Rosenthal, the accord would run from 2021-30, Trout’s age-29 to 38 seasons, meaning the future Hall of Famer would finish out the remaining two years and $66.5MM on his current contract before the extension would take effect.
A $350MM guarantee would be the highest in the history of baseball, quickly unseating the $330MM pact Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper received this week. It would also set a new high-water mark for average annual value at $35MM, defeating Diamondbacks right-hander Zack Greinke’s $34.4MM per year. Still, as Rosenthal rightly observes, neither number appears adequate for Trout – a seven-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP who, at age 27, is already one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Since his first full season in 2012, Trout has posted a ridiculous 64.0 fWAR, just over 27 wins more than second-place man Josh Donaldson, while easily leading the majors in wRC+ (174, 17 percent better than runner-up Joey Votto) and slashing .310/.420/.579 with 235 home runs and 185 stolen bases across 4,538 plate appearances.
Just as Trout has lapped his competition on the diamond, he’s on track to do the same on his forthcoming deal – whether he signs an extension in the next two years or reaches free agency after 2020. Harper, the Padres’ Manny Machado (10 years, $300MM) and the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado (eight years, $260MM) have each signed enormous contracts in recent weeks, but as superb as they’ve been, their careers pale in comparison to Trout’s.
Since he first graced the majors in 2011, Trout has produced nearly $500MM in on-field value, according to FanGraphs. Trout has a case to aim for that figure (or $400MM-plus at minimum) on his next contract, but it doesn’t seem he’s in any rush to determine his long-term future just yet, having already achieved financial security when he landed a $144.5MM extension back in March 2014. When asked Friday if he’d be open to discussing a second extension with the Angels this spring, Trout didn’t slam the door shut, but he did suggest he’s more worried about readying himself for the regular season.
If Trout holds off on an extension, the Angels’ performance as a team this season could impact whether he’ll be open to discussions next winter. Trout “desperately” wants to win and has done everything in his power to carry the Angels to glory, but they’ve been startlingly inept despite his presence. Through the first seven full campaigns of Trout’s career, the Angels have earned just one playoff berth and haven’t even won a single postseason game. They’re now mired in a four-year playoff drought and haven’t finished above .500 since 2015.
- Shohei Ohtani has moved from hitting off a tee to hitting soft toss, as the Angels slugger continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The Halos are targeting a May return for Ohtani, though manager Brad Ausmus told MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger and other media that the unique nature of Ohtani’s two-way status makes him “patient zero,” and thus “he doesn’t really have a set schedule. He is making the schedule for future Shohei Ohtanis.” Ohtani obviously won’t pitch this season, and he’ll be limited to DH-only duty once he does return to the team’s lineup.
3:15PM: Trout provided some clarification in a follow-up comment to Torres (Twitter link), saying that his original statement “didn’t mean” he would be holding off extension talks until next offseason.
11:17AM: On the heels of Bryce Harper’s deal with the Phillies, Angels superstar Mike Trout was asked today about his own contract situation. Though he’s still two years away from the open market, there has been no shortage of speculation about the possibility of the Halos pursuing another extension with the game’s greatest current player.
Trout’s comments may not have closed the door to talks, but they were anything but a positive sign for those who’d like to see a deal come together. When asked by Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times (Twitter link) whether he’d like to work on a new contract, Trout responded:
“With spring training you want to get ready for the season. You don’t wanna worry about anything else.”
There are several ways to take that sort of comment, to be sure. It’s oblique enough that it arguably shouldn’t be taken to signify much of anything. Then again, Trout has to this point been fastidiously non-committal regarding his future (or even the possibility of near-term talks). And the stakes are high, as this offseason provided a potential window for the Halos to secure the franchise’s greatest-ever player for the long run.
There’s no necessary rush for the Angels, who can explore talks next fall. Trout enjoys no-trade protection and there’s zero indication that the Angels have any interest in dealing him regardless. With Trout already slated to receive $33.25MM in each of the next two seasons and plenty already in the bank, he’s unlikely to grant much of a discount.
Still, the clock is ticking on Trout’s tenure with the club. If indeed talks aren’t to be held in earnest this spring, that leaves the 2019-20 offseason as perhaps the only remaining realistic extension window. Trout is said to be focused on playing for a winning team; the Halos have missed the postseason in each of the past four seasons and have an at-best-uncertain outlook for the coming campaign. Today’s comments probably don’t represent a major change in the situation, but they do serve to highlight what’s at stake in the near future for the Angels organization.
Padres GM A.J. Preller has a lot riding on his hand-picked roster, particularly with the team now having made a huge commitment to Manny Machado, and he laid out his belief in the club not long after announcing the Machado deal. As Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports, the top San Diego baseball decisionmaker turned in a fiery locker-room speech that seems to have made quite an impression on the players. It was a rare address for Preller, who sent the message that this group was compiled with winning intentions. There’s no shortage of interesting storylines to watch in San Diego — Machado’s impact, remaining roster needs, camp battles, prospect timelines — some of which may well carry into the regular season.
More from out west …
- It’d be a convenient narrative to see the Dodgers’ late-breaking pursuit of Bryce Harper as something of a response to their division rivals to the south, but there’s really no reason to believe that’s much of a factor. Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times examines what might actually be driving the Los Angeles powerhouse, suggesting that the foray into the superstar’s market may just be an attempt to see if Harper “is open to striking a deal on their terms — and their terms only.” Hernandez argues that the Dodgers should be willing “to create exceptions to their analytically dictated rules” in situations like these, but casts ample doubt as to whether the organization will in fact do so.
- Elsewhere in the greater Los Angeles region, the city of Long Beach, California appears to be making a play to woo the Angels, according to a report from Jason Ruiz of the Long Beach Post. Details are scant at the moment, but it seems the pitch involves a waterfront ballpark lot. Long Beach mayor Robert Garcia acknowledged having “approached the Angels” to open a dialogue on a possible move. Long Beach has a history with the Halos, including some serious dalliances in the past. For the time being, the club is still under contract to remain in Anaheim through at least 2020. Long-term talks to stay in Angels Stadium are ongoing, with some recent warming of relations but plenty of uncertainty overall.
- While a spring outing won’t be mistaken for the real thing, it was nevertheless fascinating to observe how MLB newcomer Yusei Kikuchi fared in his first game appearance in Mariners duds. As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reports, the initial showing was fairly impressive. Kikuchi managed to induce a ghastly swinging strikeout from none other than Joey Votto, who afterward praised the “potential” (and relative rarity) of Kikuchi’s “very good” and “very surprising” curve. Seattle manager Scott Servais felt his new workhorse “was outstanding for the first time out there.” The M’s committed at least four years and $56MM to Kikuchi, a significant outlay for a club that spent the winter focusing on the near-future (2020 and beyond) rather than the immediate future (the coming season). His ability to translate his success in Japan’s top league to the majors will factor heavily into the Seattle organization’s ability to rebound quickly into full competitiveness.
The Angels have claimed RHP/IF/OF Kaleb Cowart from the Tigers, per a team release. The 26-year-old Cowart has spent his entire playing career with Los Angeles, but was claimed by both the Mariners and the Tigers earlier this offseason. Right-hander J.C. Ramirez has been placed on the 60-day DL to make room for Cowart on the 40-man roster.
The former first-rounder has worked all over the diamond in his four big-league stints with Los Angeles, appearing at 3B, 2B, SS, 1B, and LF in 2018 alone. Now, like Seattle and Detroit before it, the club has plans to try him as a two-way player.
Though Cowart’s yet to make a single mound appearance to this point in his professional career, he appeared to have a bright future there as an amateur. Per Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report in 2010, Cowart worked in the 91-93 range with his fastball, which had “good sinking life” and was graded as a consensus plus pitch by most scouts at the time. He also featured a hard slider, which he reportedly paired with an average splitter.
At the plate, Cowart has never quite figured it out. In 380 lifetime plate appearances, the Georgia native has slashed a hideous .147/.241/.293 (47 wRC+), and recent returns haven’t been much better. 2018 was Cowart’s worst in a major-league box, and the switch-hitter also struggled to a .287/.333/.457 (just a 105 wRC+ in the high-elevation parks of the PCL) line for AAA-Salt Lake.
Cowart is out of options, so he’ll need to crack the Angels’ 25-man out of Spring or again be sent through the waiver process. A faceless pen, stocked mostly with bargain pickups and journeyman types, should help his cause.
- Angels righty Nick Tropeano is still two and a half weeks from throwing a full bullpen session and is roughly five to seven weeks from being ready to pitch in a game setting, writes Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. Tropeano experienced a December setback in his rehab from shoulder issues that dogged him throughout the 2018 season, which has him behind schedule this spring. Tonight’s update provides a clearer timetable than was previously available. Tropeano tells Bollinger that he’s been doing increased video work with new pitching coach Doug White (formerly the Astros’ bullpen coach) to make adjustments to his delivery that’ll hopefully lessen the stress he places on his shoulder.