Saturday, May 18, 2013

By Jonathan Northrop, Columnist - 

A Brief History of Franchise Ineptitude

I’ve never really liked the way the Angels were run. I started following the team around 1980, although I was just a kid and only vaguely followed them, not getting serious about the team until 1987, the year after their ill-fated 1986 campaign. The Angels had been to the playoffs three times in the previous eight years, and finished 1st or 2nd in the division in six of the last nine years (1978-86), so for most of my early years they had been a contender. 

After the accursed 1986 season, the franchise entered another dark age that rivaled their first decade and a half; as with 1961-1978, from 1987 to 2001, a span of 15 years, they didn’t make a playoff appearance. There were a couple of close calls, most notably the infamous Great Collapse of 1995, which for me was the low-point in Angels history. While 1986 was disappointing, it was the culmination of the Buzzie Bavasi and Mike Port crafted mercenary teams. The big stars were imports from other organization like Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces, Reggie Jackson, and Rod Carew, and thus didn’t quite have the “these are my guys” feel that is symptomatic of a homegrown team. 

It wasn’t until the late 80s that the Angels began to focus more on player development. The first wave, including players like Wally Joyner, Devon White, and Jack Howell, didn’t bear fruit, perhaps partially because the Angels still relied upon bringing in aging free agents past their prime. The rosters of the late 80s and early 90s are veritable "Who’s Who" of 80s All-Star teams, yet of course all well past All-Star performance. When Tim Salmon arrived in 1993 and won Rookie of the Year, a new and more hopeful era began.  In 1995 the team was a mixture of a talented young outfield of Salmon, Jim Edmonds, and Garret Anderson, stalwart shortstop Gary DiSarcina hitting well, franchise cornerstone Chuck Finley leading the rotation, and a mixture of imports including sparkplug Tony Philips and first baseman JT Snow. On August 16 the team was 64-38 with a 10.5 game lead. What happened next was one of the worst collapses in baseball history and rather inexplicable. The Angels went 9-28 over their next 37 games, falling 3 games behind the Seattle Mariners. They then proceeded to win five games in a row to force a one game tiebreaker with the Mariners. What followed was probably the most painful game I’ve ever watched. A fading Mark Langston faced Cy Young Award winning Randy Johnson. Through six and a half innings the Mariners had a narrow 1-0 lead and then the bottom of the 7th happened. Langston loaded the bases which Luis Sojo cleared on a double, and then scored on a wild throw from Langston. The Mariners followed up with 4 more runs in the 8th and the game was lost 9-1.

The 1996 team struggled, finishing 70-91 and in last place, but then the team perked up in 1997 and ‘98, finishing 2nd place both years. But the homegrown talent of the 90s never manifested in a playoff run, not until a new wave of talent came in and 2002 happened. I write “happened” because just as the collapse of 1995 was unexplainable, so was the success of 2002. Like the 1995 team, the 2002 squad was a mixture of homegrown talent – including Salmon and Anderson, but also Jarrod Washburn, John Lackey, Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, and Francisco Rodriguez – and imports like Adam Kennedy, David Eckstein, Brad Fullmer and Scott Spiezio. The team wasn’t bursting with talent, but it was well-balanced and had a heart of gold. 

Predictably, the 2003 team – comprised of most of the same players – disappointed. The fire was lost and what remained was the talent, which wasn’t overwhelming. But the offseason saw new team owner Arte Moreno wanting to make a “big splash,” and the Angels surprised by signing superstar Vladimir Guerrero, as well as pitchers Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar, and trading for problematic but talented outfielder Jose Guillen. If 2002 was the Golden Year of Angels baseball, 2004-09 was an echoing Golden Age. The Angels made the playoffs in every year but 2006, and even then they contended but finished 2nd.

A new level of expectation was established for Angels fans. After 41 years (1961-2001) with only three playoff appearances, the Angels went eight years with six appearances including a World Series championship. If the Angels weren’t quite yet a first tier franchise like the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, and Cardinals, they were in the next group down. Life was good for Angels fans.

By the end of 2009 the franchise and fans were getting a bit world-weary. It was the third year in a row, and fifth of six years, of losing in the first or second round of the playoffs. The team was very good, but something was always missing. A shake-up was believed to be needed, so core players of the 2004-09 were let go of – most notably aging Vlad Guerrero and lineup sparkplug Chone Figgins. The Angels brought in former Yankees star Hideki Matsui and hoped to rely upon the homegrown core of Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick, Kendrys Morales, and Brandon Wood, as well as the veteran leadership of Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu.

2010 was the team’s worst year since 2003 and the team finished 80-82. The homegrown talent wasn’t quite as talented as hoped, with Wood in particular being a massive disappointment. Owner Arte Moreno and General Manager had big plans for the offseason, looking to be in on both Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre. They balked at the asking price of both and in what could only be described as a panic move of desperation, traded Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera to the Blue Jays for Vernon Wells and almost all of his $89 million contract. Wells was coming off a pretty good year, hitting 31 HR with an .847 OPS, but he had established a good-year, bad-year pattern and despite his superstar money had only really had a couple of superstar caliber seasons, in 2003 and 2006. He was considered untradeable due to his hugely overpriced contract until the Angels came along.

This trade sent the franchise reeling. Wells was a monumental disappointment in 2011, hitting .218/.248/.412, with one of the lowest on-base percentages in baseball history. The Angels perked up a bit overall, finishing 86-76 but still 10 games behind the Rangers and missing the wildcard by 5 games. Arte Moreno wasn’t satisfied, and neither were the relatively newly jaded Angels fans that were used to the success of 2002-09. 

Tony Reagins was demoted and relatively young Jerry Dipoto brought in. Moreno and Dipoto got to work and pulled off the two biggest free agent acquisitions of the 2011 Winter Meetings, signing mega-star Albert Pujols and Texas ace CJ Wilson. Things were looking bright until, well, the season started. Pujols got off to a terrible start and the team was at 15-21 on May 14th. The next day notorious hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was fired. Whether that catalyzed the Angels or if they finally just figured things out—and of course a 20-year old by the name of Mike Trout had finally arrived—the Angels began to play well and went 42-26 through the end of July, pulling back into contention. But the Angels faded in August and despite a strong September were still watching the playoffs from their couches, finishing 5 games behind the Athletics and 4 behind the Wildcard teams.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

This brings us almost to the present. For the last few years before 2012 the problem had been the hitting, not the pitching (well, at least not the starting pitching). In 2012 the hitting finally started firing on all cylinders, but the pitching fell apart, even with the late-season trade for Zack Greinke. Going into the offseason the plan was, or should have been, to re-vitalize the pitching staff. But the Angels balked at the asking price of Zack Greinke, who ended up going across town to the tune of 6 years and $147 million. The Angels also traded erratic starter Ervin Santana for Brandon Sisk in an obvious salary dump, and didn’t pick up declining starter Dan Haren’s option. So the Angels were left with a rotation of staff ace Jered Weaver, disappointing but solid CJ Wilson, and…Jerome Williams? Garret Richards? Brad Mills?

But never fear, Jerry Dipoto was in command. In non-chronological order he traded Kendrys Morales – who didn’t really have a position and was obviously not the same player he was in 2009 – for Jason Vargas. He also traded Jordan Walden for Tommy Hanson and, in his most head-scratching move of the offseason, signed Joe Blanton for two years and $15 million. 

The real surprise was when the Angels, instead of going hard after Greinke consolation prize Anibal Sanchez or some other above average starter, signed Josh Hamilton for 5 years and $125 million. No one else was willing to give him more than 4 years, and for some reason the Rangers seemed quite willing to let him go – perhaps because of his injury-prone history and his erratic performance of 2012 - but Arte wanted a big name and a big bat and Arte holds the purse-strings. 

So the Angels gambled. They gambled that A) The cobbled together rotation would be solid enough to let a B) supposed high-powered offense led by aging superstars Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols.

So far, not good. As of the time of writing, the morning of May 18th, the Angels sit at 15-27, 12 games below .500 and 12 games behind the Texas Rangers. 12 games! And we’re only a quarter of the way into the season.

There is no way around the fact that 2013 has been a disaster. Dipoto’s gambles have not paid off. While Wilson, Vargas and Hanson have held their own and basically been league average starters (although Wilson is being paid to be better than that), Joe Blanton has been a disaster (to the tune of an 0-7 record and 6.46 ERA through 8 starts). Jered Weaver has missed most of the season to injury and when he pitched, all of two starts, he was throwing soft 85-mph fastballs. 

But the real goats of the season have been, first and foremost, Josh Hamilton and, secondly, Albert Pujols. Hamilton owns a .606 OPS and his performance at the plate can be best exemplified by his 9 walks to 48 strikeouts. Pujols, while starting better than last year, has been mediocre, hitting .242 with a .741 OPS. Together the two combine for an fWAR of -0.4, mainly due to Hamilton’s -0.4 (yet let us remind ourselves that Pujols 0.0 fWAR means he’s been of replacement value this year – that’s Paul McAnulty territory; it’s going to be a long nine years, folks).

The rest of the lineup has been solid, if unspectacular. For most of the year Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo played well, but Trumbo has struggled of late and Bourjos, surprise surprise, is injured. Mike Trout started slow but is playing very well, fWAR at 2.3, currently 6th in the majors. The bullpen has been, well, OK I guess – if blowing their usual saves.

To rub salt in wounds, former Angels are having good seasons across the league. Vernon Wells has seemingly discovered the flower of life, hitting .287/.345/.513 with 10 HR. Torii Hunter is also playing well, although seems to be fading and has only hit one HR. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that Ervin Santana is having his best season since his career in 2008, with a 2.79 ERA through 7 starts. Even Dan Haren, despite a 4.76 ERA, has pitched decently of late.

Where to Go From Here?

This brings us to the question. Or rather, there are many questions but I think we can simmer them down to two:

1) What’s wrong with this franchise? 
2) What can and should be done about it?

Fans have looked to blame everyone and everything: Mike Butcher, Mike Scioscia, Jerry Dipoto, Arte Moreno, the players, the city, the team, the Indian burial ground, probably Barack Obama. Rather than trying to find someone to blame, it would behoove the powers-that-be to focus on how to make this team right – what to do. And unfortunately there is no easy answer.

Arte Moreno has been quite liberal with throwing his money around. While money can buy you a good team, it isn’t inherently causative that the more you spend, the more games you win. You have to spend that money well and the Angels, for the most part, have not done that. What is even more important is developing a strong farm system and savvy moves that optimize performance for cost.

Jerry Dipoto has made some savvy moves, but also some dunder-headed ones. In some ways he seems like he wants to be a moneyball-type GM, but is burdened by having too much money to spend, and the Steinbrenner-esque shadow of Arte Moreno looming over him.

What is wrong with this franchise is, I believe, what is also wrong with this country: a focus on the short-term and a lack of sustainability. Things not working out? Spend more! Buy buy buy!

The Angels need to look at their farm system as a garden, the prospects as flowers in the garden, and the major league team as a bouquet made from that garden. The bulk of that bouquet should be from the garden; that is the most cost-effective way to produce a bouquet and, furthermore, flowers fresh from one’s own backyard will be more beautiful and healthy than those imported from miles away. Now occasionally, when you want to bring in something exotic or to accent the bouquet, go ahead. But that should always be secondary and supplemental.

The Angels need to focus on the garden – on the farm system. It is terrible right now. Even the so-called “top prospects” like Kaleb Cowart, CJ Cron, Nick Maronde and Taylor Lindsey have struggled this year (although all are doing better, except for Cowart).

What can be done? This is the problem. At this point less is more. Let the team ride it out. Maybe make some minor adjustments, but by no means strip the minor league system further, or trade away someone like Peter Bourjos to bring in a rental to solidify the staff. Stop with the foolishness – enough damage has already been done. The Angels need to stop taking the psychiatric approach: prescribe one medication, then another to counter-act the side-effects of the first, then a third to counter-act the side-effects of the second, etc. It spirals out of control and you’re left with…well, a 15-27 record despite the 7th highest payroll in the majors.

Hey, at least the Angels aren’t the Dodgers, who have been almost equally inept but with a payroll almost $100 million higher.

From 2010 to the present the Angels have missed out on the playoffs. 2013 looks little different. We can hope, though, that Arte Moreno learns his lesson and stops throwing money around on bad gambles. We can hope that Jerry Dipoto has the long-range plan in mind so that the Angels can, once again, return to contention during Mike Trout’s prime years. Given that Trout’s only 21 that might sound fatalistic, but remember that the Angels have put a lot of eggs in just a small basket – they have $95 million invested in four players – Pujols, Hamilton, Weaver, and Wilson – in 2016, all four of whom have been disappointments this year. Hopefully the Angels stop trying to fix mistakes with further mistakes and take a more sustainable approach towards long-term success.

We can hope.

Love to hear what you think!

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