Why didn't Zack Greinke return to the Los Angeles Angels?
Naturally, money played a large role in the decision. Greinke received a six-year, $147 million contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers' path to the postseason through the NL West also appears easier than what the Halos face in the AL West.
But Greinke told the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna that the opportunity to play with Mike Trout for the next six years was the Angels' biggest selling point and that he said as much to general manager Jerry Dipoto.
What's interesting, as DiGiovanna noted, is that Greinke did not mention Albert Pujols.
Remember Pujols? Three-time National League MVP, as well as a three-time runner-up? Six seasons with at least 40 home runs? Eight years with an OPS of 1.000 or above?
At this time last year, Pujols was in a similar position as Greinke was this week. He was the one pulling his new team's jersey over a shirt and tie, announcing a record-setting contract. Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million deal that rocked MLB and seemingly established the Angels as the sport's West Coast superpower.
One year later, has Pujols almost become an afterthought for the Angels?
His first year in Anaheim was certainly viewed as a disappointment. The season began with a terrible April, during which Pujols hit .217 with a .570 OPS, no home runs and four RBI. Pujols turned himself around in May, providing the sort of production baseball was accustomed to seeing from him. But digging out of that April hole was a long climb.
Eventually, the first baseman had what would be perceived as a very good season for almost any other player. Pujols finished with a .285 average, .859 OPS, 50 doubles, 30 home runs and 105 RBI.
But is that the sort of performance expected from a player with an annual average salary of $24 million, the third-highest among MLB position players?
Couple that with a third-place finish in the AL West, not just behind the Texas Rangers but also the Oakland Athletics and their $55 million payroll—nearly $100 million less than the Angels, according to USA Today—and it was an extremely disappointing 2012 season in Anaheim.
The letdown has continued into the offseason, with the Angels losing Greinke to the Dodgers.
According to Greinke's agent, the Halos were out of the running in early November, long before MLB's winter meetings were held in Nashville. DiGiovanna reported that the Angels wouldn't—and more importantly, couldn't—go over $20 million per season in a contract offer.
What happened to the Angels and owner Arte Moreno being big spenders that would win the offseason? Is this the same team that gave a $240 million contract to Pujols and another $77.5 million to pitcher C.J. Wilson a year ago?
The Angels agreed to a 20-year TV contract with Fox Sports worth $3 billion that funded the contracts to Wilson and Pujols. But that didn't result in the sort of unlimited payroll and disregard for a budget that we're currently seeing with the Dodgers. Moreno had to draw the line somewhere, and the Angels appear to be running into that limit now.
Perhaps Moreno is hesitant to spend more because those big contracts resulted in a third-place finish. Maybe he wants to see more from his team next season before deciding whether or not to invest more money in the on-field product.
But is it also possible that Pujols' contract handcuffed the Angels to the point where the team is no longer a factor in competing for future top free-agent talent?
That might be an unfair assessment, as Dipoto has been able to make additions to the Angels' roster. He signed Ryan Madson to a one-year, $3.5 million contract and Sean Burnett to a two-year, $8 million deal. Additionally, Joe Blanton was inked to a two-year, $15 million package.
Dipoto also acquired starter Tommy Hanson from the Atlanta Braves, who is eligible for arbitration next season. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get a $4 million salary in 2013, and he'll likely see an increase from that during his next two arbitration seasons.
So perhaps the approach has changed from signing expensive free agents and then having to patch other holes on the roster.
Instead, the money is being spread around a bit more to build a more complete team. The Angels will arguably be a better team from having invested in four players versus sinking all of their available resources into Greinke.
Blaming Pujols' contract for a more thrifty approach isn't entirely fair, either. The deal that is truly handcuffing the Angels' payroll is the remaining $42 million that has to be paid to Vernon Wells over the next two years.
Wells' figure cost the Angels an opportunity to re-sign outfielder Torii Hunter, who had an extremely productive year in which he batted .313 with an .817 OPS, 16 home runs and 92 RBI. Compare that to Wells, who played in only 77 games while struggling with a thumb injury. He hit .230 with a .682 OPS, 11 home runs and 29 RBI.
Which player and his lack of production are really weighing the Angels down more? Wells might not even be a starter for the Angels next year, unless the decision is made to play him because he's being paid so much money. He's certainly not one of the team's best outfielders.
After just one year, it's too early to judge the full effect of Pujols' contract on the Angels. No, the early returns don't look promising. But what if Pujols comes back next year with the .325 average, 1.000 OPS, 40 homers and 125 RBI that he's typically produced over his career?
What if Dipoto's moves with the starting rotation pay off? A top three of Jered Weaver, Greinke and Wilson surely would have been more impressive. But a rotation of Weaver, Wilson, Hanson, Blanton and perhaps Garrett Richards or Jerome Williams should be a competitive one.
Dipoto could also make an addition at the trade deadline, as he did with Greinke this year. That might be another reason to leave wiggle room in the payroll.
The bullpen will almost certainly be better next season with the additions of Madson and Burnett. With Ernesto Frieri, the Angels will have a strong trio to close out games, with Scott Downs and Kevin Jepsen adding depth.
If we're talking about another bad year for Pujols and Dipoto is looking for bargain free agents and trades to piece together his roster next winter, then perhaps we can truly label that monster $240 million contract a failure for the Angels.
Until then, the Angels have a full year of Trout, Pujols' second year in the American League and a strong pitching staff to look forward to next season. While the immediate benefits haven't been apparent for the Halos, an eventual payoff could be in the making.
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