It’s funny, when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in July 2010, he was roundly criticized for leaving the team that spent a first-round draft pick on him to join a pair of Hall of Fame-caliber players in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
More than a decade later, Mike Trout — who has twice signed long-term deals to remain with the Los Angeles Angels, rather than searching for greener pastures — is living out MLB’s version of if James had stayed in Cleveland. And to say he will be harshly criticized if he doesn’t force his way to a ready-made World Series contender, now that Shohei Ohtani has departed Anaheim, would be putting it lightly.
At the time a 25-year-old James elected to leave Cleveland for Miami, he reportedly had a fear of being in his early thirties with his body breaking down and zero championships on his resume if he stayed with the Cavaliers.
Trout, now 32, is an 11-time All-Star, nine-time Silver Slugger Award winner and three-time AL MVP. While James is unquestionably one of the five greatest players in NBA history, Trout’s individual accomplishments may very well rival LeBron’s by the time his career is over.
But James left the Cavaliers after years of the team coming up short in the postseason and proceeded to win four conference titles and two championships in four seasons with the Heat. Trout has remained loyal to the Angels into his early thirties, and for all his individual greatness, he hasn’t played in a postseason game since the 2014 season, when the Angels were swept by the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS.
The Cavaliers under James were always in the playoffs, and made an NBA Finals appearance in 2006-07, ultimately getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs. James and the Cavaliers regularly competed for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
But every year, it became clear in the postseason that a supporting cast that featured the likes of Anderson Varejão, Mo Williams, Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson wasn’t anything close to a championship-caliber group, it was just being propped up by a legendary star in James. In James’ first season with the Heat, the Cavaliers went 19-63, a year after LeBron had led them to a 61-21 record.
One all-time great — or even two, in the case of the Angels — doesn’t guarantee team success in baseball the same way it does in the NBA, where there are only five players on the court for each team. But as the all-time great tweet goes, every time Trout and Ohtani seemed to deliver historic production, an underwhelming supporting cast around them never ceased to waste it.
Additionally, James had the fear of his body beginning to break down in his early thirties, while he had spent his prime years on a team with no real chance to help him get over the hump and win a championship, or perhaps even multiple titles. Trout has posted a .962 OPS over the last three seasons, so he’s remained a superstar when healthy. But it would be impossible to ignore some cracks in the armor, as Trout has played just 237 of a possible 486 games over the past three years.
In many ways, Trout is living out the worst fears that James had when he became a free agent in his mid-twenties. And what’s more, while James was criticized by many at the time for his perceived lack of loyalty to the Cavaliers, Trout isn’t treated as a hero for sticking things out with the team that drafted him.
In fact, it’s become popular in recent years to suggest that Trout is not a winner, or to say that he’s content to finish with a losing record every season because he gets to live in California and has made more than $230 million in his career to this point.
It’s a strange juxtaposition. Did people never actually care about LeBron being loyal to the Cavaliers, or did his insanely successful stint with the Heat, and subsequent delivery of championships to Cleveland and the Los Angeles Lakers, change how people think about player movement?
Maybe the Angels have been so dysfunctional that after failing to win a single postseason game in 13 seasons with Trout and squandering Ohtani, there’s finally an acceptance that Trout just needs to abandon the Halos before wasting any more time. Maybe if LeBron had wasted a few more peak years with the Cavaliers before leaving in free agency the first time, he would have gotten the same benefit of the doubt.
Whatever the case is, presumably only a small number of baseball observers would criticize Trout now if he forced his way out of Anaheim. He probably doesn’t have the time to win four championships like James has, and again, one MLB superstar doesn’t have the same impact on his team’s championship odds as he would in the NBA.
Nevertheless, even if he took criticism in the short term, LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for Miami ended up enhancing his legacy. Trout’s decision to be so loyal to the Angels, right or wrong, has hurt his. He would be best served not to continue to double down on his loyalty to the Angels. And even if general manager Perry Minasian says the Angels won’t be trading him this offseason, if Trout lobbies to be moved to a contending team, he’ll probably get his way.