2023 MLB trade deadline: The Angels shouldn't trade Shohei Ohtani because some regular seasons are that special

Sometimes it really is about the journey and not the destination

I think, perhaps, humans are biologically hardwired to resist recognizing that life is — pardon the cliché — about the journey and not the destination. We fill our time by striving, convinced that what we want is to reach the plateau, when in practice, we’d be better off enjoying the climb. It’s why having goals makes us happier, but achieving them often leaves people feeling empty.

The illusion of a controllable destination is important to the ruse — which is, that we’re headed somewhere other than the inevitable. To accept that the time spent in pursuit — of anything — is the whole point would be to confront our mortality.

So, anyway, I don’t think the Angels should trade Shohei Ohtani.

In short, because watching him play baseball games — ones that take a team closer to a championship or otherwise — is the Shohei Ohtani Experience.

World Series titles are just a conceit for caring. That’s the case for all players and all teams and all seasons. The commissioner’s trophy is a goalpost to give meaning to everything leading up to it because watching that stuff is so much fun. In that way, sports are nifty, small-stakes microcosms of the human experience. But with Ohtani, you don’t even have to buy into my self-indulgently existential interpretation for this argument to hold water.

The case for trading him at the deadline is based on the Los Angeles Angels’ efforts to build a playoff-bound team. If that is the goal — and even if you’re the kind of fan who can appreciate the scenic route, that is the goal of every front office — then an honest assessment of this year’s club would lead you to believe that the focus needs to be on the future. Even after sweeping the New York Yankees this week, the Angels’ chances of making the playoffs sit at 13%. Mike Trout is hurt. The Angels sit fourth in a division that includes the reigning World Series champions and a whole other team with the fourth-best record in baseball.

And at the end of the season, Ohtani — who leads his team in home runs, RBI, stolen bases, triples, OPS, innings pitched, strikeouts and pitcher wins (if you care about that) — will enter the most intriguing and expensive free agency in sports history. The Angels are unlikely to make the postseason this year and unlikely to have Ohtani in any future years. But if they trade him now, the players they get in return might make future playoff runs more possible.

The case against really does boil down to a more intellectualized version of: How can you trade Shohei Ohtani???

Trading him presupposes that the clear-eyed thing to do is set aside the sentimental hesitance to deal away the second coming of Babe Ruth in favor of prioritizing cold, hard winning. The Tampa Bay Rays have stayed relevant — and made four postseasons, going as far as the World Series, since the Angels last played a playoff game — by following a philosophy that says it is better to trade a player a year too soon than a year too late (or — the horror — not at all and watch him walk away, with nothing but a compensatory draft pick to show for it). Sometimes in sports, as smart fans and dispassionate experts know, you have to make difficult decisions to come out on top.

But, as he so often is, Ohtani might be an exception to the general rule that everything a baseball team does should be in service of a championship. It’s not just that ~the journey is more important than the destination~; it’s that some regular seasons mean more than being the last team standing. They crown a World Series champion every year, but how often does the greatest player the game has ever seen author one of the most singularly dominant seasons in baseball history?

Even if the Angels are totally out of the running, Ohtani’s last couple of months in Anaheim could never be a tree falling silently in an empty forest. And if they trade him, the Angels wouldn’t be simply relocating his productivity elsewhere while playing out the string on a lost summer. They’d be depriving their fans of the final chapter in one of the coolest stories in sports.

The many Ohtani stats — especially the cross-section of stats that showcase how every two-way feat pushes him further into a realm of his own — are almost numbing in their fervor and frequency at this point. But you need know only that the man who leads all qualified pitchers in batting average against is on pace to hit nearly 60 home runs to understand that the end of this regular season could be something really special. Even Aaron Judge, the American League single-season home run record-holder for all of almost a year, admitted recently that it would be “exciting for the game” if Ohtani bested his 62 homers.

For all that Angels fans have been disappointed in recent years, they have the chance to cheer for that as another middling season winds down.

Recently, in considering what Angels owner Arte Moreno will do at the deadline, Bob Nightengale reported that trading Ohtani “would cost them about $15 million in merchandising, licensing and gate receipts.” He doesn’t explain how he arrived at that number, but even as an estimate, it makes it impossible to deny that there is real value in two months of Ohtani. The colloquial wisdom says that impending free agents who languish on also-rans leave with their teams having gotten “nothing” for them. The dollar value attached to Ohtani’s presence proves that’s a fallacy.

More than that, the incredible gift of Shohei Ohtani is that his greatness is ongoing. How often do we see history in the making early enough to appreciate it in full? Every season that Ohtani balances pitching and hitting at a level elite, even within the tiny stratosphere of Major League Baseball, is a chance to do so.

Despite years of opportunity, the Angels have failed to deliver Trout and Ohtani in October. But by not trading Ohtani, they can give their fan base a regular season for the ages.

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