I always knew that Arte Moreno would do something this offseason, I just didn't know when he would strike or how conventional the move would be.
The Angels' owner struck in the quiet of the January offseason, making his trademark splash in the trade pool Friday by jettisoning out-of-position Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera for Gold Glove center fielder Vernon Wells.
While not a move that anyone had on the Angel radar, the move certainly carries significant impact for the team's immediate and long-term future. Initial reactions to the trade are mixed, so let's dive in and break down the effect that it has on the Angels.
Napoli and Rivera contributed to the Angels at times, but might be better utilized elsewhere.
Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli clearly are talented major league players, but as time passed, it became clear that their roles on the Angels were not prominent or well-defined.
Napoli, who led the Angels with a career high 26 home runs, was stuck in what seemed to be a permanent time share with the defensive-minded Jeff Mathis, and frustration built over the lack of commitment to one backstop by Mike Scioscia. Napoli was the more attractive trade asset, and many thought it was only a matter of time before he was exchanged for something the Angels need more than a catcher.
Major league-ready catching is scarce, so it was a luxury for the Angels to have two quality catchers to choose from. With the arrival of prize prospect Hank Conger imminent, it became clear that the days of Mathis or the arbitration-eligible Napoli were numbered.
Rivera was also stuck in limbo, sharing whatever outfield space slipped past Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Reggie Willits, Peter Bourjos, and Hideki Matsui. His prolonged slumps and frustrating underachievement put him out of favor with management, who thought him capable of hitting in the 3-4-5 spots in the lineup.
One good year in 2009 earned him more playing time in 2010 until his paltry bat put him out of the lineup more than he was in it. He logged only 416 at-bats last season, and his .252 average and 15 home runs essentially guaranteed he would be out of town as soon as the Angels found a taker. Enjoy signing the $5.25 million in paychecks he's owed next year, Toronto.
Chone Figgins was the face of the Angels' small-ball, hit-and-run, take the extra base philosophy.
Mike Scioscia's offensive philosophy in 2010 marked a clear deviation from the calling card of his most successful teams: small ball.
In 2010, the Angels hit just .248 as a team and had an on-base percentage of .311, both in the bottom third of baseball. Compare that to the year before when they led the league with a .285 average and ranked third in on-base percentage with a.350 average. The biggest difference? The loss of leadoff hitter Chone Figgins.
The speedy third baseman embodied the team's offensive identity, which apparently left with him. Scioscia's offenses have always been known for putting pressure on opponents by threatening to steal bases, make productive outs, hit-and-run, and go first-to-third on base hits. Scioscia has always prided his team on those things, but last season he clearly went away from it in favor of the intoxicating longball.
The Angels clearly had several players produce career-worst years all at the same time in 2010, an unfortunate coincidence. But the way they were coached did not help the situation, either. Angel hitters used to break out of slumps quickly because of the high volume of chances to make productive outs and turn things around psychologically. Mired in a 2-25 slump, the idea of bunting a teammate over or hitting a sac fly for an RBI is a welcome circumstance, one that has the potential to break you out of your funk.
But when you've got clunky power-only hitters like Abreu, Kendry Morales, Rivera and Matsui overrunning the lineup, everything becomes centered on extra-base hits or homers, which came sparsely in 2010. This killed the Angels, sending the entire lineup into a cold spells for weeks a time.
With Wells, the disturbing trend only continues. He's stolen only 90 bases in an 11-year career and never more than 17 in a season. Conversely, he's hit over 20 home runs in all but two of his last nine seasons and broken a .300 average only three times. For a guy who doesn't regularly walk, this is a waving red flag as an addition to a decreasingly versatile lineup.
Heading into 2011, Wells will be the second highest paid player in baseball at a whopping $23 million. Don't get me wrong, he can hit and play a mean center field, but hardly anyone in baseball's elite class is worth that annual salary, much less an above-average outfielder.
Moreno has been very concerned this offseason with keeping the payroll down to avoid raising ticket prices. With this in mind, the baseball world looked on as he passed up pricey stars Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Jayson Werth and Adrian Beltre. We applauded him and Tony Reagins for their prudence and thrift, being confident that they could deftly shed payroll while maintaining a competitive roster.
The acquisition of Wells throws all the logic and penny-pinching out the window. Toronto is clearly getting less talent in return, but the chance to shed Wells' unwieldy contract made this a no-brainer for them.
So what gives, Arte? It's not as if he's a short-term option. He has four years and $86 million left on his contract. He's certainly not worth what he's earning. Carl Crawford, a far better player, didn't even get that high of a yearly salary. At 32 and entering his twelfth season, he's certainly past his prime.
It seems like Moreno exchanged a few minor financial headaches (dealing with Napoli's arbitration case and Rivera's $5.25 million) for an unrelenting migraine of a problem. The Angels might have made the roster noticeably better, but there is now no flexibility to do anything else with the roster.
Let's hope those ticket prices don't go through the roof, either.
Could the Angels have plans to deal their top major-league ready prospect?
Whether it has worked out or not, Moreno and Reagins have always thought a few steps ahead of their current reality. The Torii Hunter signing just a year after the Gary Matthews Jr. debacle lessened the need for the lumbering Vladimir Guerrero to play outfield for two years. Letting Francisco Rodriguez walk after breaking the single-season saves record looks great now that he's overpaid to sit and watch the Mets play from behind in the bullpen. The list is long of examples like these that were made possible by the creative minds of management.
The writing is on the wall for somebody in the crowded Angel outfield. Short of getting a rule changed so that they can hit and field five outfielders at the same time, there will be a talented outfielder sitting everyday. The list includes Hunter, Peter Bourjos, Wells, Abreu, Willits, and the immortal Mike Trout. Within a year after Trout arrives, that will be six guys for three fielding spots and a DH. Not enough at-bats or gloves to go around for that group.
Given the Wells acquisition and subsequent logjam, I have a hunch that the Angels will soon be back on the trade channels gauging interest in one or multiple of the named. The likeliest trade candidate? I think it is Bourjos.
After bursting on the scene and pushing the acrobatic Torii Hunter to right field, Bourjos flashed his A-plus glove by making some stellar plays. However, his bat was nowhere near ready, and I really had to get past how good his defense is to see his horrible offensive numbers for what they are. In roughly a third of the season, Bourjos hit .204, walked only six times, punched out 40 times, and stole ten bases. Hardly what you ask from a leadoff hitter, even one who is experiencing his first growing pains as a hitter on the big league level.
He has loads of potential, versatility, is young, and has no permanent place with the Angels. Once Trout arrives and starts dropping jaws all over Angel Stadium, everyone will forget about Bourjos if he's not traded by then. He's a natural center fielder with two Gold Glove center fielders ahead of him and one on the way behind him.
Seems like the writing is on the wall for Bourjos. A mid-season trade to the Chicago Cubs in a package for third baseman Aramis Ramirez would be a great fit for the Angels. Stay tuned.
...as the saying goes. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of potential pluses and minuses to adding Vernon Wells, the All-Star/Gold Glover/underachiever/headcase.
Time will tell how he adjusts to the AL West, a new stadium, a winning culture, and a group of professional hitters surrounding him in the lineup.
Arte and Tony are betting that he produces like it's 2003, or else the trade of January 21, 2011 will not only look bad for the Angels, it will have set the organization back several years competitively.