Monday, October 22, 2007

Angels franchise: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
By Jonathon Northrup - Angelswin Columnist

I'm going to buck the trend and not speculate on who the Angels will or will not sign, and instead (try to) offer a series of posts throughout the offseason that look into the history of the Angels, statistical analysis, and other fun stuff.

So the question: how have the Angels fared as a franchise in their 47-year history? Which decades have been more or less successful? And how will they fare in the future? First, some numbers:

Angels overall record (1961-2007)
3690-3794 .493
162-game average: 80-82

Just a hair below average. Let's do it by decade. The key is as follows:

Win-Loss Record, winning percentage, 162-game average
winning seasons-losing seasons, postseason appearances, World Series championships

685-770, .471, 76-86
3-6, 0, 0

781-831, .484, 78-84
3-7, 1, 0

783-783, .500, 81-81
4-5-1, 2, 0

738-817, .475, 77-85
3-6-1, 0 (1), 0

703-593, .542, 88-74
6-2, 4, 1

The First Few Decades
The first few decades of the Angels franchise showed slow improvement, with the Angels making the postseason three times in eight years from 1979 to 1986. Starting with the free agency boom in the 1970s, the Angels established a pattern of signing aging stars--players past their prime but, it was hoped, with enough left to "win one for the cowboy." The Angels never did, at least not with that philosophy.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the "Autry Approach" had found the franchise with no World Series appearances, a sub-par farm system, and a free agent mentality that had replaced the signings of aging stars such as Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Bobby Grich, and Doug DeCinces, with players at the very tail end of their careers; the rosters of the late 80s and early 90s are littered with big names: Lance Parrish, Gary Gaetti, Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, Tony Armas, etc. Occasionally a free agent signing worked out well--Chili Davis had his best run as an Angel--but for the most part the approach had failed.

The Promise and Disappointment of the 90s
A promising group of young talent emerged in the mid to late 80s, including Wally Joyner, Devon White, Jack Howell, Dick Schofield, Mark McLemore, Chuck Finley, Mark McCaskill, and Jim Abbott, among others. But almost every player--except perhaps only Chuck Finley--seemed to disappoint.

In the early 90s the Angels seemed to shift gears and put more emphasis on home-grown talent. A new crop of young talent emerged, headlined by 1993 Rookie of the Year Tim Salmon, but also including Jim Edmonds, Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson, Gary DiSarcina, and Troy Percival. This team really gelled in 1995, yet experienced a historical collapse--eventually losing to the Mariners in a one-game playoff. It was as if the team had lost its heart--for the rest of the 90s the Angels were somewhat competitive, but without the extra edge to win the division. They hoped that they would find it in Mo Vaughn, signing him to an (at the time time) enormous contract, but Vaughn's performance dropped a few notches and was eventually traded to the Mets.

The New Millennium
The new decade--and millennium--showed promise. The Angels had a new manager in Mike Scioscia, and their home-grown talent were in their prime, with breakthrough seasons from Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, and Garret Anderson in 2000. But they took a step back in 2001--Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad having the worst seasons of their careers, and an overall lackluster pitching staff.

We all know what happened in 2002, so I won't repeat it. The stars aligned for the Angels and they
not only had their best record but they won the World Series. How did this happen? Well it seems that the last decade has shown a trend of WS champions that aren't necessarily the best teams on paper, but are both hot at the right time and have that "extra something"--that chemistry--to win when they absolutely need to.

With a losing record in 2003, many critics claimed that 2002 was a fluke. But in 2004--fueled by the signings of Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, and Kelvim Escobar--the Angels returned to the postseason. And then again the next year, and again in 2007. 2002 had proved not to be a fluke, but the beginning of a new, unprecedented era for the Angels franchise. They had transformed from perennial losers--without a post-season appearance from 1986 to 2002--to a new powerhouse.

Golden Era beginning or ending?
Once the Yankees and Dodgers were the pride of their respective coasts; now it seems that the Red Sox and Angels are taking over those mantles, both having won World Series within the last five years, while the Yankees have not since 2000, and the Dodgers since 1988. The Angels are at an interesting juncture: while they have enough right now to compete for the next few years or more, with three first-round postseason exits in the last four years, owner Arte Moreno may be getting impatient. A question may be answered this offseason: Will the Angels continue Bill Stoneman's conservative approach of focusing on homegrown talent and mainly signing second tier free agents, or will they be more aggressive and go after bigger names, perhaps at the expense of their farm system?

Only time will tell. There are proponents of both approaches: Those that believe that all the Angels need is time for their young players to develop into stars with perhaps only supplemental free agent signings or trades, or those that want a big name now--whether Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Adam Dunn, or even an Andruw Jones.

Regardless, there is nothing to make us believe that the Angels will be less than dominant in their division over the next few years. While it is tempting to think that signing an Alex Rodriguez or trading the farm for Miguel Cabrera will cure the Angels' postseason woes, we should not forget history. Teams that are successful in the long-run are almost invariably those that focus on their farm systems. So often we have seen a dominant homegrown team fade when free agency takes priority.

Take the Joe Torre Yankees. They won four World Series from 1996-2000, but none since--while still winning their division almost every year. What changed? The team of the late 90s had a strong nucleus of homegrown talent; since then they have relied more and more on free agency. They still have a core of homegrown talent, with young players continuing to emerge, but it seems that through the Yankees we see a principle exemplified--a slight shift in focus that has made a huge difference. Every year it seems that the Yankees are invincible, that we will see a fifth Torre World Series victory--but every year they fail in the post-season.

What is missing for the Yankees? As I mentioned, it seems that the team that wins the World Series--at least in recent history--is usually not the best team on paper, but the team that wants it the most, expressed through a combination of peaking at the right time and chemistry as a team. This isn't always the case, as otherwise the 2006 Tigers would have won it all; obviously a wide variety of elements is necessary. The Tigers just looked too young and inexperienced against a St. Louis team that, while being riddled with injuries and having their worst record in years, still was experienced and had a core of strong talent. If the Red Sox and Rockies face each other in the World Series this year, we might see a similar dynamic.

Back to the Angels. Obviously they need a bit more to not only win their division, but win another World Series. Many seem to think that extra element is a big name hitter, or another star pitcher. But a look at history--both of the Angels and other teams--shows otherwise. Star talent means something but it is secondary to team balance and chemistry, not to mention leadership. If I was Tony Reagins I would not change too much from the conservative Stoneman approach, either by spending an inordinate amount of money on a 32-year old superstar, or in trading away the farm for one player. The Angels should look at what worked in 2002 and try to model it: the 2002 Angels were a very balanced team with terrific chemistry. Spending $30 million a year on one player--or trading away the future for another player--does not encourage team balance and chemistry.

So again, regardless of which way the Angels choose to go forward they will contend in the near future. But I think their best chance of truly establishing a dynasty does not come from without but within.
Love to hear what you think!


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