The Angels won the off-season by committing $317.5 million to two players, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, but their season may hinge on whether they add another $480,000 to the payroll. That's what the team would have to pay rookie Mike Trout to take over as its starting leftfielder. Trout, who along with the Nationals' Bryce Harper is one of the top two prospects in the game, made his big league debut at 19 last season, batting .220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances. That doesn't do him justice; last year Trout dominated the Double A Texas League, hitting .326/.414/.544 and stealing 33 bases. This season the centerfielder is running roughshod over the Triple A Pacific Coast League. Despite being the youngest player there by four months, he was batting .400/.463/.600 through Sunday. He was 6 for 7 as a base stealer, had walked more than once every 10 trips—exceptional for a player of his age—and was playing strong defense.
It's not just that Trout is ready—he's also so much better than the Angels' current leftfielder. Last year Vernon Wells, 33, had the lowest OBP for a starting leftfielder (.248) in more than 100 years. It doesn't appear to have been a fluke; Wells is batting .233/.246/.450 so far in 2012. He is a serviceable leftfielder, but his defense pales in comparison to what Trout would bring.
Of course, on-field numbers aren't the only ones that count. Wells is making $21 million this year and is owed another $42 million through 2014. His contract is what economists call a sunk cost: The Angels are committed to paying it no matter what. They can't let that sunk cost affect their decisions. To play Wells because they're paying him $21 million is to lose twice: money and games. The Angels, who are ninth in the AL in OBP and 11th in slugging, cannot afford to waste any more at bats on the inferior player.
In recent seasons the team has had success letting young players play—see Kendrys Morales in 2009 and Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo in '11. Manager Mike Scioscia, who isn't known for developing young players, nevertheless writes out a lineup card most days with five players who have come through the Angels' system. Until and unless he makes it six, the Angels have no hope of keeping pace with the Rangers in the AL West.