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The changing face of the LA Angels: How the next five years will be the most crucial stretch in team history

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Mike Trout and the Angels are smiling a lot these days. So are the fans. Good vibes abound. But this is just the calm before the storm.

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

“We’ve got five years. My brain hurts a lot. Five years. That’s all we’ve got.” -David Bowie,Five Years”

The Los Angeles Angels are in a very peculiar spot right now.

Take a moment right now and use your imagination to visualize time itself, or more specifically, the last five years AND the next five years to come, with all of its events and experiences ever unfolding. Now, think of that period of time as resembling a large, chaotic and violent hurricane. The 2017 Halos would currently be in the eye of that 10 year storm, wiping the nervous sweat from their brows and letting out cautiously optimistic sighs.

Because you see, getting the SS Arte Moreno through those rough, sick-making waters (aka the last five years) and into the eye’s eerie respite is no easy journey, especially when you know that getting out of the eye is going to be equally daunting (aka the next five years).

A peculiar spot, indeed, and perhaps far from optimal, sure, but there are definitely worse places an organization could find themselves. That’s really the best you can expect from a team, and a fan base, that spent the previous decade doing nothing but winning (or at least that’s how it seemed at the time), but is now happy if they can merely finish in 3rd place.

In the 2000s, the Angels went to the playoffs six times. Five of those were on the heels of division wins, one was a wild card berth...oh, and they procured a championship in that span, to boot. This means that there is a whole generation of Angels fans that grew up knowing nothing but Rally Monkey-infused success. There was bound to be a hangover, eventually.

That hangover showed up with a vengeance, and has basically stretched across this current decade of Angels baseball. It has involved a complete front office bungling the likes of which the franchise had (thankfully) never encountered before. It has involved horrible end-of-season finishes. It has involved farm system decimation and subsequent industry ridicule. It has involved an albatross-like Albert Pujols signing, the Josh Hamilton controversy, and countless other missteps (per caps, anyone?) that shook the Halos faithful to its core, while giving us an on-field product nowhere near good enough to allow us to look the other way.

The only positive thing that the last five years of Angels baseball has given us is Mike Trout; a gift from the baseball gods, bestowed upon not only Halos fans, but baseball fans in general. With all of the tumult and agitation, knowing that we’ve got Mike Trout diminishes, or straight up erases, all of the woes we’ve experienced since he burst onto the scene.

Of course, Mike Trout being on a team whose MLB relevancy was taking a nosedive, while also being rife with dysfunction and bad baseball decisions, didn’t help matters. In fact, it became a matter unto itself, in the form of all those “Is Mike Trout being wasted?” or “Should the Angels trade Mike Trout?” articles.

For awhile, there was a looming sense of unhappiness and anxiety attached to the Angels, and it not only bogged down some of the players’ own thoughts, but it also began seeping into the everyday fan’s thoughts. If you managed to make it through the past five years without feeling this despondence, especially after last year’s cavalcade of bad luck and/or devastating injuries, then I give you endless props and appreciation.

From where I stood, smiles became few and far between, whether I was looking into the stands, or into the dugout.

Then, things started to change.

The Angels’ gloomy fever began to break in 2015, when the team unamicably parted ways with Josh Hamilton, and then a couple months later, they fired GM Jerry Dipoto. Two ugly stories, both making headlines nationally, added to an already-long list of franchise issues. But with that upheaval and destruction came change; it just took awhile, is all.

The departure of Jerry Dipoto led to the arrival of Billy Eppler; the fallout from the Mike Scioscia/Jerry Dipoto feud led to better communication and understanding between Eppler and Scioscia, as well as Scioscia’s seemingly renewed commitment to applying analytics to his in-game decision making process.

The public free agent miscues and bad deals from Arte Moreno led to a necessary tightening of purse strings, as well as a quieter, more humble Moreno, judging by his public comments so far this year. Once lambasted for having such an exorbitant payroll yet nothing to show for it, Moreno and the Angels now have more and more payroll falling off the books each season, and he’s expressed a readiness to spend on next year’s crazy free agent class as necessary.

Mike Trout, meanwhile, managed to pull off an amazing feat last season: he won an MVP award while being on a sub-par, non-playoff team. As he sat in his living room last November and heard his name announced, he almost burst into tears of joy...and probably relief, too. Since then, Trout has been noticeably happier than normal, being able to go about his offseason and spring training knowing he’s been noticed by MLB at large for his extraordinary talents, lackluster team be damned.

Mike Trout has a smile on his face, Billy Eppler is making nice moves in the offseason as well as scoring pretty well in every approval poll of the fan base, Arte Moreno is being mostly quiet, and when he’s not being quiet, he’s saying the right things. Oh, and Mike Trout is smiling.

As Mike Trout goes, so goes the rest of the Halosphere. Smiles abound. There is a good feeling in the air, with the team, with the fans; there is a sense of relief, and a sense of new beginnings, going into this Angels season. And there are smiles...this stuff is fun again, am I right?!

This sought-after, peaceful and hopeful head space is the where the Angels are at right now...this is the eye of the storm. This is where the SS Arte Moreno managed to get to, on a wing and a prayer, with some people lost along the way, for better or worse. Here we are, storm clouds still close behind, with a chance for the team to catch their breath and recharge before they head back out into the maelstrom that is the next five years.

These next five years, by the way, will perhaps be the most crucial five-year stretch in all of Angels Baseball history. No pressure, guys!

Ok, so maybe that’s just my own interpretation on the importance of these next few seasons, but I think there is a good argument to be made. The Billy Eppler era was supposed to start last year, but with all the injury setbacks, we never really got to see the team he had envisioned.

He did, however, get his first MLB draft in the books, and one could say THAT was the beginning of the Eppler Era. Now, this 2017 team is charting unexplored waters in this new Angels dawn, and the next five years will bring untold changes to the face of the franchise...but will we cheer these changes or mercilessly boo them?

What to do with Albert Pujols?

We’re going to have Pujols, and his crazy contract that will see him making $30 million in his final year, up until the year 2022, at which time he’ll be 60-something years old (ok, so maybe he’ll actually be 42, but still). That is kind of staggering to just think about, but how are we going to look back on Pujols’ time with the Angels? Well, the next five years will answer that.

Will he win a championship as an Angel? Will he break the home run record as an Angel? Will he even finish his contract out, considering his recent injury history? There’s a lot of mystery in Pujols’ next five years, and honestly, there’s a chance that he retires at some point, or the Halos are forced to do one of the most painful roster cuts in their org’s history.

We’re going to find out the answers, whether we like it or not, but while I may sound somewhat down the guy, I also acknowledge the fact that we may see some truly legendary and memorable moments from Pujols between now and the end of his deal. Who doesn’t love dingers?! It’s going to be interesting, regardless of what happens.

Rebuilding the farm

For a few years now, the Angels have had one of, if not THE, worst farm systems in MLB, at least according to pretty much every talent scout, evaluator and/or baseball writer. What do you expect to happen when you fire the guy that found Mike Trout (Eddie Bane), mostly ignore international talent, pull the trigger on bad trades, and then go on to make lackluster draft choices? You get what you give.

But in just one draft, Billy Eppler has begun to turn all of that around, and over the next five years, he’s going to be the guy in that war room, making the decisions. That’s great news for the team, because he and his “office of the GM” have exuded nothing but wisdom thus far, especially in the implementation of their rock solid draft schema. In five years, this farm can be one of the best in the game. One draft, one trade at a time.

Another magical October

With all of Eppler’s pieces in place, the main goal then becomes winning. Winning in the regular season, sure, but also winning in the post-season. That’s why these players go to work on the diamond every day, to bring home that hardware, and to see the ticker tape flying through the air during an early-November victory parade. If the Angels don’t win some division titles, at the very least, in the next five years, then they’ll have officially gone back to the team they were BEFORE the 2000s.

Those were the days of the rare playoff appearance, let alone any playoff success. But those tastes of glory we got in the previous decade have made us not only hope for post-season victories, but now we practically demand them. So they’ll need to get back to that dominance in the next five seasons if they want to stave off the losing of fans, otherwise they’ll most likely be circling the drain for years to come, well beyond 2022.

Mike Trout is smiling...but for how long?

One of the reasons they’ll be circling that drain of MLB insignificance, if they can’t manage to get some big time wins and/or pennants and/or World Series trophies over the next five years, is that it will make Mike Trout resent the Angels. That is basically the last thing you ever want to happen. Imagine last year’s horrid Angels team...now imagine that team without Mike Trout. Yep, that’d be nearly unwatchable, and the Big A would completely empty.

Lately, we’ve seen a happy Mike Trout, and you don’t want to ever, ever let go of that. He’s been smiling, he’s been laughing, he’s been enjoying himself on and off the field. He’s getting a decent payday, he’s got all the sponsors a player could ask for, and he’s engaged to be married. Life is a gas for Mike Trout, and this is the time when the Angels can sink their hooks into him for good.

But it’ll take winning, and then winning some more, and then after that, some more winning, to ensure that Trout’s smile remains on his face, and that he remains in an Angels uniform. The previously-mentioned post-season success would not only be detrimental to keeping the Angels relevant and keeping the fan base fully stocked, but it’s also insanely important as a means to keep Mike Trout from heading elsewhere once his contract is up.

2021 is when Trout is a free man. 2021 is the year on everybody’s mind, to varying degrees, and if we can see a few pennants brought home to the Big A, or the ultimate, a World Series victory, then I think Trout will stay put.

If they can’t ever get something going in October, and continue to get trounced in the standings every season by the likes of the Astros or the Rangers, then the Angels are going to lose that lightning that they miraculously caught in a bottle on that fateful draft night in 2009.

I can’t imagine a bigger loss that this team could possibly suffer, and that’s something from which you can almost never come back. Lose the best player on the planet, perhaps of all time, and you might as well pack up the franchise and move it to Alaska, never to be seen or heard from again.

Those matters, as scary and nerve racking as they may be, are going to be watershed moments for the Halos. Then again, as important as they are, they’re also things that have yet to be written in the Angels’ future; we can still focus on the here and now, the rejuvenated feel of this organization that we all love to death and pour not only our soul into, but also our hard-earned money. Don’t let these next five years dictate how you feel right now.

Right now, we can just smile, and get hyped about this sneaky good 2017 Angels team, with the exasperation of the previous five years totally behind us, allowing the entire Halosphere to enjoy ourselves. The Halos may be facing down the most critical juncture we’ve ever seen, but we’ve got to take this one season at a time, or risk losing sight of what’s truly important, at the end of the day: We’ve got Angels baseball ready to go, there is a free-wheeling happiness in the air, and we’re all smiling...even Mike Trout.

Five years. That’s all we’ve got.