Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Perfect Storm.....Part II

Part II of II

Front Three

Position your ball club as "Big Market". This started almost immediately when Moreno signed Guerrero, Colon and Escobar to big contracts. It continues with the name change and the commitment to long-term winning the Angels have shown by NOT trading away key prospects and filling gaps with solid major league free-agents like Finley and Byrd. Not nearly as flashy as last off-season but prudent given this season’s developments. The Angels knew that their divisional competition was not getting stronger. Had Oakland added hitters ala Seattle instead of dealing pitchers than the Angels would have been forced into an arms-race. But with Oakland retrenching, Texas standing pat and Seattle still hopelessly without any pitching, the Angels could proceed with the knowledge that they still had the upper-hand in the American League West. With Tim Salmon's nearly $10 million contract expiring after this season the Angels will have some payroll flexibility going into next off-season. In addition, should MacPherson develop as their starting third baseman the Angels could be in a position to move first baseman Darin Erstad in favor of low-cost uber-prospect Casey Kotchman. However, the Angels would be wise to retain Erstad as a back-up to the 39-year-old Finley unless one of their outfield youngsters such as Juan Rivera develops into a starter this season.

During this past off-season the Angels were calculated to be in the hunt for the free agent cout-de-gras of the year: Carlos Beltran. A five-tool All-Star who was also coveted by the Yankees, Astros and Mets. Ultimately Beltran signed a seven-year $119 million dollar contract to play centerfield for the Mets and the Angels settled for the far more economical Steve Finley (2 years $14 million). Later the Angels were bidding against Boston for free-agent pitcher Matt Clement who signed with the BoSox. But for the Angels to be routinely mentioned in the same breath as the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox when it comes to signing big name free-agents signals that they are not being thought of as "small market" by the players or other teams. The Angels hope to grow their revenue so they can increase spending and habitually field one of the best teams in baseball. The Angels hope to artfully balance big free-agent signings with developing minor leaguers. But the Angels are now competing with other big market teams to sign high-end prospects like Cuban defector Kendry Morales whom the Angels inked to a six-year $5.4 million contract last December. In fact, the Angels have quickly usurped the Dodgers prior advantage in signing Latino players thanks to Moreno’s Mexican heritage and a large contingent of Latino players now occupying the Angels Clubhouse. This contrasts sharply with the Moneyball theory of keeping payroll lean and continually replacing star players with high-quality prospects.

The Dodgers meanwhile want to have their cake and eat it too. They want big market revenue and a winning club on a "Moneyball" budget. Actually, it is a brilliant scheme if they can pull it off. Unfortunately, the A's and Twins seem to be the only ones capable of doing so. Even those teams have long 'rebuilding modes when a chasm exists between big league talent and minor league prospects. For Moneyball to work a team needs to be able to constantly pull young players up to phase-out talent that has grown too expensive.

But ultimately the Dodgers still have to win both in their division and in the marketing war with the Angels. They trail on the first task but maintain a lead in the latter thanks to a long winning tradition that has given them a significant head-start (and some really questionable Angel marketing in the past hasn't hurt either). Going forward the Angels and Dodgers both realize that the Dodgers will not lose their true fans, few teams actually "lose" them. Many just go dormant like a swarm of cicada's waiting to awaken every seven years. Dodger fans though have been resilient, never burying themselves into hibernation like many Angel fans in the past. Ultimately that is what the Angels hope to build-in to their fan base, a recession-proof loyalty that can withstand a bad year or two or three. The Dodgers, if they are not successful on the field, will put their fans to the test first and if McCourt proves unable to succeed than their could be heretofore unseen turmoil in Dodgertown.

Even should the Blue Crew stumble, the Angels are not targeting disgruntled Dodger fans, it's their kids they are after. For the younger generation, the ones just making up their minds about which teams they will root for in the decades to follow, the battle is on. LA County children who in the past were simply christened Dodger fans by birth right are now, really for the first time, in play. Will kids in Thousand Oaks rather wear a Jeff Kent or Vladimir Guerrero jersey? Will young fans in Long Beach try to coax their parents into making the drive north on I-110 to Chavez Ravine or out west on the 22 to the Big A? Will we see parents wearing blue at Dodger Stadium but their kids sporting Angels' red during the Freeway Series? If things continue down their current paths then Dodger fans are headed for a destination they have never known: the back seat. Of course, McCourt could change course (assuming he can afford to). Or he could sell off interest in the team ala Jerry Colangelo of the Diamondbacks (of course that didn't work out so well for 'ol Jer who was later forced out by his investors). But as I have stated before, this is no blood sport. With both teams drawing three million plus fans this past season proves that LA is big enough for two teams. I use to think that both could be big market clubs and both equally profitable. But with the current thinking by Dodger management, 121 years of tradition could be plowed under leaving one “Big Market” team in the Southland.


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