Friday, December 9, 2011

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

Welcome to the Dipoto Era
A few weeks ago I was looking forward to the coming of the Trout Era, to begin in Anaheim, California, as soon as this coming year or in 2013, when phenom Mike Trout works his way into the Angels lineup as an everyday player. Then the Albert Pujols signing occurred and I thought, almost sadly “This must be the Pujols Era.” But then I decided, no, scratch that: This is the Jerry Dipoto Era.

This article was meant to be an addendum to my seven-part Offseason Primer, but with the flurry of activity at the Winter Meetings, I had to completely re-write my draft and start again.

“Flurry of activity” is an understatement. Let’s look at the last eight days. These are the moves made by new GM Jerry Dipoto:
  • December 1: Traded Tyler Chatwood to Colorado for Chris Iannetta.
  • December 5: Traded Jeff Mathis to Toronto for Brad Mills.
  • December 7: Signed LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year, $3MM contract.
  • December 8: Signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $254MM contract.
  • December 8: Signed C.J. Wilson to 5-year, $77.5MM contract.
Jerry Dipoto has been a very busy boy. All of this occurred just over a month after he was hired to replace Tony Reagins as the team’s GM on October 29. We can only imagine what transpired in the Angels front office during the the month of November, with Dipoto arriving in the conference room starting with the phrase “I Have a vision…”

And oh what a vision it has turned out to be. In eight days the Angels have been transformed from a team teetering on the verge of rebuilding--seemingly hobbled by aging players with too-large contracts, particularly the trio of Vernon Wells (three more years for $63MM), Torii Hunter ( one year at $18MM), and Bobby Abreu ( one year at $9MM)—to re-asserting themselves as the team-to-beat in the AL West, loudly declaring that they will not go out quietly into the night; they mean to be a powerhouse for years to come, right up there with the Yankees, Red Sox, and yes, Rangers, as the dominant teams in the American League.
Arte Moreno’s so-called, and much-maligned, “big splash” comment from over a year ago has turned into something else…a tsunami.

Where’d the Money Come From?
That’s a question I cannot answer, nor will I try to. Arte Moreno claims that he “did it for the fans” and in a couple phone conversations with Pujols, said that he plans on doing whatever it takes to win another World Series. Certainly we can take Moreno’s comment as authentic, but he is a savvy self-made billionaire and wouldn’t have promised $330 million to two players unless he thought that he could make up for it through revenue streams that can’t be quantified by what happens on the field. In the salaries I mentioned above, we can see that after 2012 the Angels have $27MM coming off the books in Hunter and Abreu. That’s only one year, but it does takes the burn off the $40 million a year that Pujols and Wilson will cost.

Rumors are that the Angels’ TV deal is being bumped from $50 million to as much as $150 million; that, also, helps pay the bills. Some have commented that Moreno is taking advantage of what seems to be a neighboring LA Dodgers franchises in the throws of redifinition and re-grouping, and is trying to take a larger chunk out of the Los Angeles market.

But let’s look at the two new big name arrivals, because they’re both going to pay for themselves in different ways.

“Straight Edge Racer”
C.J. Wilson will be paid an average of $15.5 million a year for the next five years, his age 31-35 seasons. That’s a bit less—but very similar to—what A.J. Burnett and John Lackey make, and just a hair short of Jered Weaver’s 5/$85MM extension, which most view to be club-friendly. Both Lackey and Burnett have been disappointments for their clubs; is there reason to fear that Wilson will be the same for the Angels?

First of all, Wilson has only been a starter for the last two years, so he’s logged many fewer innings than Lackey or Burnett. Furthermore, he’s joining a team that plays in a relatively pitcher-friendly park compared to the outright hostile confines at Arlington. Thirdly, he’s going to have a Gold Glove caliber center fielder in Peter Bourjos, after this year another Gold Glove caliber outfielder in left in Mike Trout, and two above average defenders up the middle in Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick.

Finally, Wilson improved overall in his second year as a starter. While it might be a bit much to expect that Wilson, at age 31 next year, will continue to improve, we can hope that he won’t decline right away or, at the least, his decline will be slow and gradual. It should also be noted that Wilson has the 9th highest WAR of all major league starters over the last two years, right after none other than Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. At the least the Angels got a legitimate #2 pitcher which, at $15.5 million a year, is a solid deal.

“The Machine”
And now we come to Prince Albert, aka The Machine. And here is where we start to get worried. Whereas $77.5MM to C.J. Wilson over five years is a relatively small risk, $254 million guaranteed for a player in his age 32 to 41 seasons is a huge risk. Or is it?

First, let’s look at Pujols in context. His current WAR total right now is 87.8, which is good for 34th best of all-time among position players, right between Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer and eventual Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. If Pujols averages around 5 WAR for the next ten years he’ll finish with 135-140 WAR, which would put him in Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, and Stan Musial territory—around 10th all time, and best among all first basemen. As it stands right now, Pujols is probably already the third best true first baseman in major league history, and has a good chance of passing Jimmie Foxx (112.3) and even Lou Gehrig (125.9) in WAR before his career is done.

To put it another way, Pujols is not only one of the best first basemen in baseball history, he could be the best—and he’s one of the ten or twenty best players in baseball history.

It Ain’t Over
Just because the Angels signed four players, including one of history’s greatest players ever and the top free agent starter on the market, doesn’t mean Jerry Dipoto is done. The Angels still have one notable question mark--third base—and now an excess of first basemen in Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales. There are three likely scenarios that I could see unfolding:
  1. The Angels take a risk and assume that Trumbo can learn third base between now and April, and go into the year with Pujols at 1B, Trumbo at 3B, with various platoon combinations (perhaps platooning with Callaspo and/or Izturis, Abreu with Morales at DH)
  2. The Angels package Trumbo in a deal for a “real” third baseman; with Ian Stewart now a Cub, Chase Headley might be the most likely candidate (we could discuss Hanley Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman, but that would just be getting greedy).
  3. The Angels sign Aramis Ramirez.
What will happen? With Jerry Dipoto in charge, who knows? What we can be certain of is that Dipoto, with Arte Moreno’s obvious support, will do whatever he feels is best to improve the team. If a trade for a third baseman happens, however, it might not be until the Angels have a chance to see how Trumbo can handle the position, and that is still a couple months away. So don’t be surprised or disappointed if the Angels don’t trade for a third basemen until deep into the 2012 season (Furthermore, if Luis Jimenez does well in AAA Salt Lake, he’s also a possibility for a mid-season call-up).

How Good Are The Angels?
As far as I can remember, the Angels have never improved so drastically in a single day in recent history. Certainly the offseason between 2003 and 2004 saw radical improvement with the signings of Kelvim Escobar, Jose Guillen, Bartolo Colon, and Vladimir Guerrero, but that was over a span of months.
So let’s take a look at what the team looks like right now:
  • C – Iannetta
  • 1B – Pujols
  • 2B – Kendrick
  • SS – Aybar
  • 3B – Callaspo/Trumbo
  • LF – Wells
  • CF – Bourjos
  • RF – Hunter
  • DH – Morales
  • Bench – Abreu, Conger, Wilson, Izturis, Romine, Moore, Trout
  • Rotation – Weaver, Haren, Wilson, Santana, Williams
  • Bullpen – Walden, Downs, Hawkins, Thompson, Takahashi, Cassevah
The Angels also have a ton of minor league pitching depth that could see major league time in 2012 in Richards, Bell, Kohn, Mills, Berg, Geltz, Meyer, Carpenter, Shoemaker, Reckling, etc.

With the signing of Pujols and the Angels wanting to give Wells another chance, Mike Trout will almost certainly start the year in AAA, ready to take over if anyone falters or is injured. At the least, Trout will be up at some point and then be the full-time left fielder in 2013, with Wells moving over to RF with Torii Hunter either released or platooning with Wells in RF and DH, depending upon how Morales and/or Trumbo do. But that’s a year away.

That’s a pretty good team. The Angels have effectively replaced Mathis with Iannetta, Trumbo with Pujols, Pineiro with Wilson, and Rodney with Hawkins – all moderate to massive upgrades, and by a conservative estimate, at least a 10-game improvement. Given that the team won 86 games last year, a very moderate estimate would put this at a 95+ win team, assuming similar performances across the board.

Now if the Angels add a Chase Headley or Aramis Ramirez, they add another win or two. The point being, in a span of eight days the Angels have gone from being a team likely headed for another second place finish with 85-90 wins, to a team that may be the division favorites and one of the best in baseball. It still has some weak spots, but it is a very good team, even a borderline great one (“great” being a 100-win team).

One protest to my optimism might be that you never know what sort of injuries or regressions we’ll see. Maybe Haren starts aging, maybe Trumbo or Bourjos can’t ge on base, maybe Santana gets injured. But we have to balance all those negative maybes with positive ones: maybe Wells returns at least somewhat to form; maybe Torii Hunter shakes his early season bug and hits like he did in the second half; maybe the young players continue to improve. And so on.

Where There’s Light, There’s Always Shadow (or is there?)
What is not to like? A few things come to mind. First, the Wells Problem hasn’t gone away. He’s still signed for three more years at a total of $63 million. However, one thing that this offseason has proven is that Arte Moreno is not a stickler with money; don’t be surprised if, whether in 2012 or 2013, he’s had enough and dumps Wells, tens of millions and all.

The other moderate concern is Albert Pujols’ age, whether as written or “allegedly.” He’ll be 32 and has shown slight decline in recent years, with a big drop-off last year. There is also the nagging worry that he’s actually two or three years older; a 10-year contract for a 32-year old player is already risky, even if that player is one of the greatest of all time(and assumes some loss in value in the latter half of the contract), but a 10-year contract for a 34 or 35-year old is madness, and could look very, very bad for the majority of the contract.

First of all, as one sportswriter noted, one would think that at some point over the last decade the Cardinals would invest the few thousand dollars to hire a private investigator to verify Pujols’ age before offering the 9-10 year contract that they did. Secondly, while Pujols had his worst season ever last year, this was largely due to a very slow first couple months that was possibly due to contract squabbles with the Cardinals. I would be very surprised if Pujols did not hit .300+/.400+/.570+ with 40 or so HR next year, and for at least a couple years after. Furthermore, most truly great players decline slowly and when you’re as good as Pujols is, you have farther to fall from. Even assuming gradual decline from here on out, Pujols will still likely be hitting around .290 with an .850+ OPS and 30 HR in the second half of his contract.

One other note of concern about Pujols, is that he’s been playing and maintaining a ligament tear in his elbow since 2003. At one point it was thought that he’d need Tommy John surgery, but he opted not to. He has had relatively minor surgeries to remove bone spurs and a nerve transposition, but has missed relatively little time—Pujols has never played less than 143 games in 11 seasons, so let us hope that his fortitude continues.
As for C.J. Wilson, there are two concerns. One is that he’s only been a starter for two years. But as Mike Scioscia pointed out, this also means he’s had less wear-and-tear on his arm. Among all major league starters, Wilson has the 9th highest WAR over the last two years, right behind Weaver and Haren, giving the Angels three of the top ten starters in baseball over that span of time. What’s not to like about that?
The other concern is his “inverted-w” delivery, which is the same delivery that Stephen Strasburg and Mark Prior had. But again, given that Wilson has logged relatively few innings overall, we shouldn’t be too concerned.

A New Era
In 2002, the Angels ended 41 years of disappointment, heartache, and generally mediocre ways with their first World Series appearance and victory. After a decline the next year which led us to believe that it was a one-time occurrence, new owner Arte Moreno retooled the team with a series of signings which led to postseason appearances in five of the next six seasons, but no World Series appearances. This short era of previously unseen success (the Angels had only gone to the postseason three times in their first 41 years) ended with the departures of Chone Figgins and John Lackey via free agency, and the decline and then subsequent departure of Vladimir Guerrero a year later.

Over the last two years, the Angels have won 80 and 86 games, finishing in 3rd and 2nd place. With much of the 2004-09 team either departed or aging, and a new crop of young players coming up—coupled with the disastrous Vernon Wells trade—the team looked like it was within a period of at least a few more years of rebuilding for the coming Trout Era. What made matters worse was that the Texas Rangers finally had their missing starting pitching and had a deep and productive farm system that set them up for years of dominance. I for one thought that it would be at least 2014 until the Angels could once again vie with the Rangers, and maybe not even then.

In eight days, Jerry Dipoto and Arte Moreno changed that. The Angels will go into 2012 much like they went into 2004: with a team that can win ball games and has a strong chance at not only making the postseason, but winning in the postseason. As with 2004—and unlike 2008 and 2009—the Angels will have company in the division. In 2004, they won the division by a game over the Oakland Athletics, where as in 2008 they won by 21 games and 2009 by 10 games.

Let us be honest with ourselves: The Rangers aren’t going away and, at this point, it is too early to tell who will be favored to win the division next year. But at the least we can say that the Angels will be very good and highly competitive, which is something that we couldn’t say two weeks ago. And, perhaps best of all from a purely baseball standpoint, the AL West will be an exciting and highly competitive division for years to come, with an emerging rivalry between the Angels and Rangers that will lead to years of sorrow, heartache, and joy for fans of both teams.

When the 2010 Angels finished the year with an 80-82 record, and the 2011 team also failed to make the postseason, it seemed that the Golden Age of Angels baseball was over and that alll we could do was watch and wait and hope for the next wave of greatness which seemed years away. We need wait no longer; the Golden Age never ended, it just had a lull in the middle as the team transition from one phase to the next. Welcome, fellow fans, to the Jerry Dipoto Era.
Love to hear what you think!

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