Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Perfect Storm Brewing for Angel Takeover of LA?

Part I of II

With the dust cloud being created by the controversial Angels name change, a much larger and multi-faceted war being waged by Head Halo Arte Moreno is getting obscured. Strangely, the Dodgers seem to be moving aside, disavowing their status as a big market team and embracing the economics of a small to mid-market club. As teams get ready to play their first spring games in the next couple of days, the Angels carefully drawn marketing battle plans are well underway on several fronts:

Front One

Affiliate the Angels with the broader market. Obviously, this has been done with much admonishment from Angel fans, the Dodgers, Dodger fans, the City of Anaheim, the City of LA and countless pundits around the world. They chortle at the ridiculously clumsy Halo moniker of "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim" but with every word written in newspapers, uttered over airwaves or jettisoned in to cyberspace they underline Moreno's message "Angels = LA Market". No matter what you think of the name you have to appreciate the fact that people have talked about the Angels more than just about any other team this side of New York and Boston and in every instance the terms "Los Angeles" and "Angels" have been mentioned. Even if used detrimentally, the psychological connection continues to be enforced in the minds of consumers, advertisers and fans. Dodger owner Frank McCourt unintentionally perpetuates the notion with every sarcastic remark or action as when he presented MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and his wife with Dodgers caps embroidered with "Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles" on them. Funny, but all McCourt did was make everyone in the room suddenly think "Angels".

Front Two

Field the best team in Southern California with recognizable stars but stay within $100 million. This looked to be the goal of both the Angels and Dodgers this off-season. But two very different paths were taken to reach the same goal. The Angels have been picked by virtually every baseball prognosticator to repeat as AL West Champs. They have dumped a head-case player (Jose Guillen) for one that has been a fan favorite everywhere he has played (Steve Finley). In addition they strengthened their starting rotation by signing Paul Byrd to replace Ramon Ortiz and Aaron Sele while upgrading (arguably) at shortstop. The Angels downgraded at third base but did so thoughtfully with a potential rookie-of-the-year and what many experts say could be a perennial All-Star in Dallas MacPherson. In addition the Angels saved $30 million that they will not have to pay Troy Glaus over the next three years. Likewise they elected not to re-sign an aging Troy Percival and will go with the far more economical Francisco Rodriguez (though the Angels will only enjoy one more year of K-Rod at his discounted price since he become arbitration eligible next year). At worst this team is as good as last year's while the Angels biggest divisional rival, Oakland, has taken a huge step backwards, if only temporarily, by trading two of their star pitchers (Tim Hudson & Mark Mulder).

Meanwhile the Dodgers seem to be going in the opposite direction and according to MSNBC, are doing so in a calculated effort to mimic the business plan of the Oakland A's. To this end the Blue Crew replaced $16 million first baseman Shawn Green with $400,000 Hee Seop Choi. After trading Catcher Paul Lo Duca last year the Dodgers are pinning their hopes on rookie Dioner Navarro to coax another magical year from their starting rotation. Navarro is a great prospect but that is a big task for a kid with seven career big-league at-bats. Given that Lo Duca just signed a 3-year $18 million deal with Florida, the Dodgers probably saved $17 million over the next three years if Navarro pans out. A big 'if' for a critical position in which the Dodgers have, seemingly, always had a standout player. The Dodgers give up on pitcher Jose Lima despite his inspirational play last year and go with Derek Lowe, a pitcher who’s ERA has climbed and number of wins dropped in each of the last three seasons since being made a starter by the Red Sox. Perhaps a change of leagues can resuscitate Lowe's foundering career as a starter but just as AL batters seemed to figure him out, it will not take long for NL batters to make their adjustments. They Dodgers then make the curious move to sign Jeff Kent to a two-year $17 million contract, ostensibly to replace the middle-of-the-lineup offense the Dodgers lost in Beltre and Green. Kent is still a fine ballplayer but he and the oft-injured JD Drew can hardly be drawn as improvements over the players the Dodgers lost. In addition the Dodgers have replaced solid “clubhouse guys” with malcontents such as Milton Bradley and Drew.

MSNBC makes the argument that the Dodgers are clearly motivated by an obsession to reduce costs and the cash-strapped McCourt is banking on Dodger fan loyalty to see them through what will no doubt be turbulent times in the shift to a "Moneyball" style of management. While an argument can be made that the Angels have made a few Moneyball moves as well it can also be argued that they replaced departing stars with those of comparable value save Glaus. The Angels biggest risk this coming season is putting a Triple A "Player of the Year" in at third while the Dodgers replace their star third baseman with a 35-year-old career .243 hitter in Jose Valentin. A player who managed to bat just .213 last season for the White Sox and seems to personify MSNBC's description of some Dodger players as "stop-gap" solutions.

Success on the field will be determined over the next six months but the Angels seem to be the consensus favorites to be the best team in the Southland. In fact, with a potent Padres team down the freeway in San Diego, the Dodgers stand the risk of being just the third best team in Southern California this season.

Part II will be posted later today...


Blogger Uncle Al said...

Since McCourt bought the Dodgers, I've wondered from time to time what the baseball scenery would look like if Steinbrenner died and his estate sold the Yankees, Yankee Stadium, their cable network, and the other related paraphernalia for, say $1 billion, to a McCourt-like buyer who had to mortgage to the hilt everything he owned to swing the deal. Wouldn't it be a kick to see the Yanks playing Moneyball!

6:00 PM  
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10:20 AM  
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