After a Hard Off-Season, the Angels Get Back to Baseball

TEMPE, Ariz. — Most organizations begin spring with hope and a clean slate. The Los Angeles Angels are different. Annually, it seems, they gather behind the boulder that crashed down on them the previous season and, grunting and straining, regroup and begin attempting to shove it back up the mountain.

This spring’s Angels, though, aren’t another rendition of “Let’s See if We Can Get Mike Trout to the Playoffs.” Instead, this is a bruised and battered organization emerging from a devastating winter.

In February, less than two years after the horrific death of Tyler Skaggs, the team’s former communications director Eric Kay was convicted in a Texas courtroom of distributing a fentanyl-laced opioid to Skaggs that resulted in the pitcher’s death. During the trial, the former Angels Matt Harvey, C.J. Cron, Mike Morin and Cam Bedrosian testified that they obtained painkillers such as oxycodone from Kay.

Kay, who was a friend and colleague to many in the Angels’ front office for more than 20 years — as well as to a handful of this year’s players — is scheduled to be sentenced in June and faces decades in prison.

It is safe to say that each of the 30 Major League Baseball teams could not wait to get to spring training and move past the owner-called lockout that had paralyzed the game for much of the winter. But no team needed the annual rebirth more than the Angels.

“It’s just tough in the sense of, of course you don’t want to see negative publicity heaped upon your group,” said Manager Joe Maddon, who was managing the Chicago Cubs when Skaggs died. “And, furthermore, it was tough to listen to all the people involved, and then of course Skaggs’s demise … all of that was awful.

“Having said that, it’s really up to us now to try to promote the good side of this organization. We’ve had some tragedy, and that’s another one. You want to talk about Nick Adenhart, that’s another one. There are so many things that have happened here.”

In February, Eric Kay, a former communications director for the Angels, was convicted of distributing a fentayl-laced opioid to Tyler Skaggs that resulted in his death.Credit…Amanda Mccoy/Star-Telegram, via Associated Press

Adenhart, a promising 22-year-old pitcher, was killed in a car crash on a Friday night following a game at Angel Stadium in April 2009. Going further back, outfielder Lyman Bostock was shot to death after a game in Chicago in 1978. And the former closer Donnie Moore died by suicide in 1989.

“I was there, I knew Donnie really well,” said Maddon, who in his decades with the organization — broken up by two managerial stints with other clubs — was a minor league coach when Moore died and a minor league catcher when Bostock was killed. “There’s a lot of stuff, and we’d like to eradicate that image and move on.”

The M.L.B. Lockout Comes to an End

  • A New Agreement: After a contentious labor dispute, the league and players’ union struck a deal that would allow a full season to be played starting April 7.
  • Looking Ahead: If the end of the lockout results in a better game, the acrimony will have been worth it, our national baseball columnist writes.
  • A Frayed Relationship: M.L.B.’s commissioner ​​called the deal “an olive branch.” Could it also be the start of better relations between the league and the players?

On the back Field 3 across the parking lot from Tempe Diablo Stadium here the other day, the Angels were attempting to do just that as Noah Syndergaard, who signed a one-year, $21 million deal to move on from the Mets, threw 50 pitches in a minor league game. It was his first start since undergoing Tommy John surgery two years ago to the day.

“I hardly got any sleep last night,” said Syndergaard, whose fastball hovered between 93 and 95 miles per hour, according to a nearby scout’s radar gun, and who threw his first sliders in competition since the surgery. “My nerves were flowing all throughout this morning.”

Syndergaard has found early comfort in his new organization partly because of his longtime relationship with Perry Minasian, the Angels’ general manager. Minasian was a pro scout for Toronto when the Blue Jays drafted Syndergaard in 2010, two years before they traded him to the Mets in the R.A. Dickey deal.

“That was encouraging,” Syndergaard said of his familiarity with Minasian. “Somebody who saw my ability and talent from the get-go. And I knew I’d be able to play with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, two of the most exciting players to ever walk this earth. And that’s about it.”

Of course, Syndergaard also knew one other thing about the Angels. And that was what played out in the Texas courtroom after he signed.

“We caught news of it,” he said. “It was a huge, traumatic and really unfortunate thing that happened. I just want to bring awareness and bring light and lift Tyler’s name up as much as I can.”

Noah Syndergaard, center, has pitched only two innings over the last two seasons, but the Angels placed a large bet on his potential.Credit…Rick Scuteri/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Minasian, entering his second year as general manager, was an assistant general manager with Atlanta when Skaggs died in 2019. The Angels’ top baseball man at the time was the new Mets general manager, Billy Eppler. So Minasian does not know many of the particulars. He is simply thrilled that the second team he has assembled is now outside and on the fields.

“It’s great to be here,” Minasian said. “Seeing some of the faces on the field, the Anthony Rendons, the Mike Trouts, puts a huge smile on my face.”

The Angels have been woefully short of pitching over the past several years, the biggest reason Trout, 30, has only played in three playoff games in 11 seasons — none since the Angels were swept in their American League division series in 2014. Minasian targeted specific personalities as he retooled this year’s staff, prioritizing aggressiveness in addition to talent. That’s why he zeroed in on Syndergaard despite the fact that the big right-hander has thrown only two big-league innings in the past two seasons as he has recovered from elbow surgery.

“He fits that mold of one of the better pitchers in the game when he’s Noah,” Minasian said.

When he’s Noah? But what about Thor? Which is more fearsome?

“Yeah, Thor, Noah, whatever it is,” Minasian said, smiling. “I like seeing him on the mound.”

Minasian and Maddon both said that, much like they did in removing the “Ohtani rules” last year from the American League’s Most Valuable Player, they will not place any restrictions on Syndergaard and will defer to the pitcher on workload.

“You don’t ever want to get in the way of someone’s greatness,” Maddon said, adding, “We tend to be way restrictive. And now the narrative about starting pitching has really declined. We no longer have marquee matchups anymore. That was a big part of why fans were drawn to certain teams and certain games on certain nights. Starting pitchers are the thoroughbreds, and we need to make them that again.”

The Angels also added three free-agent right-handers to their bullpen in Ryan Tepera (who was with the White Sox last year), Aaron Loup (Mets) and Archie Bradley (Phillies). As Minasian said, “The average big-league start is five and a third innings. So your bullpen is an everyday player.”

Shohei Ohtani won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award last season thanks to his two-way brilliance. He has yet to appear in the postseason.Credit…Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

“The last few years, the perception of this team is that it’s an always-stacked lineup, big-time names,” Tepera said. “They’ve always just needed a little bit of pitching in a lot of guys’ eyes to take them to the next step.”

Through it all, Trout, who signed a 12-year, $426.5 million deal in 2019, smiles and appears to remain exceptionally patient. After a calf tear limited him to a career-low 36 games last year, he said he worked on his flexibility over the winter — he will remain in center field even after Maddon floated the idea of moving him to a corner — watched Minasian add pitching, caught a few white-tailed deer with his bow and arrow, and enjoyed life with his son.

From afar, he also watched the unavoidable with sadness.

“It was tough for everybody, the baseball family in general,” Trout told reporters about the Kay trial upon his arrival to camp. He politely declined to elaborate during an interview on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Minasian also made one more valuable acquisition before camp. Because of the lockout, the Angels released Ohtani’s longtime translator, Ippei Mizuhara. It was a technicality: During the lockout, as a front-office employee, Mizuhara was not allowed to speak with Ohtani.

So the Angels let him go — but brought him back when the lockout was over.

“It made sense, it was the most natural way to handle the situation,” Mizuhara said, smiling. “They guaranteed me my spot back. I wasn’t too worried.”

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