Friday, March 29, 2013

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer -- 

This year, has been very fortunate to have two opportunities to learn from Jerry “JeDi” Dipoto, the General Manager for the Los Angeles Angels. As I wrote in the introduction to the interview conducted in January, listening to Jerry Dipoto is as educational an experience as it is an entertaining one. The man knows baseball. He loves talking baseball. And, whenever one gets the opportunity to hear him talk about baseball, s/he will learn a lot.

One of the questions that I asked during the interview in January was about how he planned to layer the contracts for star players such as Pujols, Hamilton and Weaver and mix in less expensive salaries from emerging stars such as Trout, Trumbo, and Bourjos. I thought I would get a better understanding of how he planned payroll going forward and tried to balance the needs of the present against the needs for the future.

Instead, what I got was an answer about how the Angels were trying to create “age disparity” to “balance the age of the club and the cost of the club to sustain a winning window.” What ensued was a great discussion about maintaining an entire roster of players at their peak years of performance regardless of cost in order to maintain a winning ball club.

Later in the interview, Jerry and I spoke about the future of the Angels, and in particular about the prospects. In describing the prospects, he talked about having waves of talent, and that the next wave was mostly about a year and a half away from emerging on the parent club (although he did note several players who could emerge before then). We talked about the importance of those core players developing together and emerging at a time with strong veterans on the roster to help them transition to the Major Leagues.

This Spring, baseball fans, and particularly Angels fans, have had an interesting vantage point to see why Jerry’s words were so prophetic. Watching the Yankees this Spring has given us a direct look at what happens when a ball club all becomes old at once. Getting old before our eyes  is exactly what has happened to the Yankees, and it has dramatically affected their ability to field a team.

At the start of Spring Training, it seemed very unlikely that the Angels would have been able to trade Vernon Wells. Although it was clear that the Angels were trying to trade him, the amount of money that they would have to absorb would make such a trade impractical.

That seemed to be the storyline even with A-Rod out for a good chunk of the season. But then Granderson got hurt. Then Teixeira. And all of a sudden, the Yankees lost the thump in their lineup. Many of their remaining players were on the wrong side of 30. The Yankees became desperate and their options became limited. Worse yet, because of surpassing the luxury tax level so many times, the continued costs to do so became rather prohibitive.

Suddenly the Angels had a partner to trade Vernon Wells. The Yankees, desperate for power in their lineup were willing to overpay for Wells and the Angels were able to gain some salary relief so as not to go over the luxury cap. Although both sides benefitted from the trade, it’s pretty clear that the Yankees acted out of desperation and overpaid. They could have had better, younger players during the offseason for far less money than what they will end up paying to Vernon Wells.

What happened to the Yankees should be a cautionary tale to all Angels fans. That is what can happen when a ball club does not maintain the “age disparity” that Jerry talked about. As an Angels fan, I never want to see the team get old before my eyes. Once it happens, it creates a death spiral that can set a club back for years.

When a team gets old, it only has a few options on what to do. It can engage in an entire fire sale and rebuild through free agency. But, that is problematic because more and more clubs are signing key players to long-term deals during their younger years and buying out their first few years of free agency. The current trend does not bode well for the large market clubs who are under more pressure to “win now” from their fan base.

For an aging small market team, it can try to rebuild from within. But this method is also problematic because it can take years as prospects to develop, and there’s no guarantee that all the prospects will pan out at the same time (if at all). Plus, it would require fans to endure several years of losing seasons for the small hope that they will all mature together for one or two seasons before they leave as free agents.

Finally, an aging club can get caught in limbo where they have to continually overpay for aging free agents or take on bad contracts from clubs to maintain the appearance of fielding a winning team, but which may be just one or two injuries or substandard seasons away from failure. Worse yet, they  may have to trade off their few key prospects to maintain the “win-now” philosophy, which will only further their death spiral. This is what may happen to the Yankees before they make the truly grand overhaul that they appear to need.

As I reflected on the Vernon Wells trade I was once again amazed at Jerry Dipoto’s wisdom. Not only were his words prophetic, they demonstrated just how savvy a GM he is. I am again amazed at how deep his understanding of the game is and how he has used that to make the Angels a better team.

Even if you were at the 2013 Spring Fanfest and heard Jerry speak, you really should go back and listen to his previous interview with With some hindsight, it’s an even better experience.

Click below to watch our Jerry Dipoto interview with back in January, 2012.

Jerry Dipoto, General Manager for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Interviews with from on Vimeo.
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