Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
I originally wanted the headline to read “Penetrating the Anahymen,” but it was deemed too profane, thus its relegation to the caption.
While the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies can all technically be classified as “Evil Empire” teams, and clubs like the Cubs and Mets get ridiculed for throwing money at payroll albatrosses such as Alfonso Soriano and Jason Bay, the Angels—after today’s historic free agent heist—now top them all.
I’m not going to go into the details of these agreements (Pujols: 10 years, $254 million, Wilson: 5 years, $77.5 million) or whether these two are worth the hefty investment (no, they aren’t). Really, these signings raise another question: Why has Anaheim emerged over the past decade as the premier location for big-ticket free agents?
Since Arte Moreno purchased the team from the Walt Disney Co. in May of 2003, the Angels have gone from the stingy franchise that won a championship with steroid-fueled one-year wonders and last-hurrah veteran retreads to a team throwing gobs of money at anyone and everyone who will listen. The Angels’ payroll last season ranked fourth in all of the major leagues, behind only the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox. And that number will certainly rise after today’s developments.
The first big splash they made in the Moreno era occurred in 2004, when the Angels inked Vladimir Guerrero to a five-year, $70 million contract. Vlad was coming off an injury-plagued season in which he missed 39 games because of a herniated disc, but he was nevertheless an incredible talent who received MVP votes for six straight seasons despite playing on some awful Expos teams. The Angels were a long-shot to obtain Guerrero’s services, with many prognosticators expecting him to go to one of the perennial marquee free agent destinations (New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.).
Yet that wasn’t the Angels only big move that offseason. Although Guerrero was the far bigger star, the team also agreed to terms with the most highly-coveted starting pitcher on the market, Bartolo Colon, signing the All-Star right-hander to a four-year, $51 million deal. Both investments were wise, with Guerrero winning American League MVP in his first season with the team and Colon winning the American League Cy Young Award the following year. The Angels also won 89 or more games the first four years of the Guerrero/Colon era, making the playoffs three times and advancing to the ALCS once. But after a few years of complacency, the Angels wanted to make a splash following the 2007 season.
The Twins were a team on the rise after making the playoffs four times from 2002-2007. Hometown hero and future MVP Joe Mauer was also on the cusp of entering his prime years. But of course, the small-market Twins faced budgetary constraints, meaning they were expecting All-Star outfielder and universally-hailed nice guy Torii Hunter to bolt for big money in a big market. Hunter ending up spurning Minneapolis for Southern California, agreeing to a five-year, $90 million contract with the Angels. Like the Guerrero signing, the deal was somewhat unexpected, with the Angels remaining a dark horse until the end and a deal being quickly wrapped up in a 24-hour span. (Reports in The Los Angeles Times via ESPN.com circa 2007 indicated that usual suspects such as the Dodgers, Rangers, White Sox, and Braves were also in the mix to procure Hunter’s services.) Financially the deal made sense; roster-wise, it didn’t. Not only was Hunter leaving a contending Minnesota team where he put up All-Star numbers, but he became one of many in a crowded Angels outfield that also featured Guerrero, Garret Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr., Juan Rivera, and Reggie Willits.
Despite being able to lure marquee free agents over the years leading up to the Pujols/Wilson stunner, the biggest testament to the Angels’ appeal comes from examining some of the players they almost signed. The top free agent of 2010 was Carl Crawford, the Rays’ outfielder who was coming off a season in which he finished seventh in American League MVP voting as his team won the American League East. All reports indicated the Angels were his first choice, with Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com even quoting two sources who stated “they expect Crawford will end up in Anaheim.”; two days later, Crawford agreed to terms with the Red Sox.
Conventional wisdom says that the Red Sox were only able to land Crawford by outbidding the Angels, and if money was equal and Crawford had his druthers, he’d be an Angel right now. The Yankees faced a similar issue in their courtship of CC Sabathia, with analysts saying—in the same way the Red Sox had to impose a “surtax” to convince Crawford to sign—that New York had to bid against themselves to prevent Sabathia from heading west, since the closest competition in the CC bidding war was, you guessed it, the Angels.
Rumors have circulated that the Angels were on the brink of landing other big names until deals broke down. Peter Gammons reported last year that Adrian Beltre “begged” the Angels to sign him before the Rangers swooped in and made the better long-term offer. Sometimes these missed opportunities worked out to the Angels advantage, as Phil Rogers of The Chicago Tribune recalled in a column this October that the Angels “believed they were about to sign Alfonso Soriano when [Cubs] then-President John McDonough and Crane Kenney threw an eight-year offer on the table before the 2007 season.” The Angels had a second chance to obtain a bloated contract mega-bust when they acquired Vernon Wells last year.
Either through very real negotiations or just hearsay and speculation, the Angels have been at least tangentially connected to the big fish in nearly every offseason since 2004, with Anaheim being the prohibitive favorite for free agents in the past three years.
By all accounts, if you want to play in California, the best weather is in San Diego, the best ballpark is in San Francisco, and the most history is in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. What’s most baffling is that the Angels are rarely the lone wolf throwing contracts at these stars; there always are other desirable locations in the market—even other California teams such as the Giants and Dodgers have proven themselves to be amenable to handing out excessive contracts to the Barry Zitos and Jason Schmidts of the world—and often there are situations that seem better suited for the player in question. Even with the Pujols deal that’s the case: The same way Torii Hunter entered a crowded Anaheim outfield in 2008, Pujols joins a team that has an injury-plagued but MVP candidate first baseman in Kendry Morales in addition to another breakout rookie first baseman in Mark Trumbo.
My best guess as to why the Angels have such appeal is that they offer free agents the best of both worlds. The Angels are a good, consistently competitive team with a great manager and owner that play in nice weather in a division that’s usually up for grabs. Yet despite the 2002 title, the team’s history isn’t so storied that the club can’t offer free agents the tempting opportunity to be the star that single-handedly re-defines the legacy of the franchise. No player has ever been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as an Angel; even the Angels’ web site lists names such as Nolan Ryan and Rod Carew as members of their own team Hall of Fame—players hardly identified first and foremost as Angels. In other words, Pujols has done all he can in St. Louis. If he rolls off two titles over the course of this ten-year deal, well, how hard is it overtake Tim Salmon as the greatest player in Angels history?
Anaheim comes across as the team and city that free agents want to turn into a premier destination since it still doesn’t have the legacy or history of New York/Chicago/Boston/Philadelphia/San Francisco/Los Angeles/etc. It’s like one of those terrible romantic comedies where a girl starts dating the rugged, uncouth man with the belief that she can transform him into a sophisticated, proper gentleman. Why go for an already-established brand when you yourself can turn a blank slate into an established brand?
So the Angels load up with more big names for another run. As a Yankee fan, it’d be hypocritical for me to begrudge them. All I insist is that they stop with the little guy, underdog, SoCal’s second fiddle, dark horse shit. Anaheim, you’re free to bring in Pujols, Wilson, and whoever else you like. But also be aware that you’re now as much a part of the “Evil Empire” as your rivals out East. I hope you realize there’s no room for Rally Monkeys and Thunderstix on the Death Star.
*I refuse to ever write the phrase “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.”