by Nathan Trop, AngelsWin.com Columnist
The Angels, once a perennial playoff contender and World Champions in 2002, are coming off their sixth season missing the playoffs in the last 7 years, the only playoff appearance being a division series sweep by eventual Champions, the Kansas City Royals. For the last five years they have had the best player in baseball, payroll is as high as it has ever been, and yet outside of the 2014 season the teams have been average at best. I thought I would look back at the events that I feel changed the course of the franchise and derailed the Scioscia era, leading them to where they are now, .500 at the end of May, a distant third place in the AL west and likely destined for another season of failure.
January, 2005 – Name changed to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Ok, I honestly just threw this in here because we can still all agree that this name is stupid right? Other than making the Angels the punchline of an endless number of jokes, it had no impact on the future of the franchise.
February, 2006 – Bengie Molina signs a one year $5 million contract with the Blue Jays
Molina, an excellent defensive catcher and clutch hitter was not re-signed by the Angels, eventually signing a very affordable contract with the Blue Jays. The Angels were certain their top prospect, Jeff Mathis could do the job.
But Jeff Mathis sucked.
November, 2006 – Angels sign Gary Matthews Jr to five year $50 million contract
I almost left this off of the list because by comparison it doesn’t seem like a lot of money, and the Angels kept winning despite the fact that Matthews was absolutely terrible. It was a signing that at the time was panned by just about every baseball pundit on the planet and should have been a lesson learned by the Angels and owner Arte Moreno.
October, 2007 – Bill Stoneman steps down as GM and Tony Reagins takes the reigns
Bill “sit on his hands” Stoneman was for better or worse the most successful GM in Angels history, quickly hiring Mike Scioscia and building a World Champion team in 2002. As a fan it was frustrating, even maddening dealing with the fact that he would never make a deal. After all, he held onto Brandon Wood instead of trading for Miguel Cabrera. One thing stands out though, the Angels had an incredibly deep and talented organization and the effects of excellent draft strategy and organizational management lead to the most successful era in Angels baseball, by a long shot. David Eckstein, Ervin Santana, Erick Aybar, Kendrys Morales, Howie Kendrick, Nick Adenhart, Joe Saunders, Mike Napoli, Scot Shields, Francisco Rodriguez, Chone Figgins, John Lakcey and the list goes on, so much young (and cheap) talent.
Reagins tenure with the Angels started out fine, he signed Torii Hunter and made a mostly neutral trade of fan favorite Orlando Cabrera for Jon Garland. In 2008 the Angels won the division and 100 games, in part because of a huge acquisition of Mark Tiexeira, unfortunately the Angels were unable sign Tiexeira to a free agent contract during the off season due to his, or maybe his wife’s, preference to play on the east coast, leading to a petty and childish feud between Arte Moreno and super-agent, Scott Boras. Beyond that, it always felt like Reagins was just Scioscia’s pawn, unable to make the right deals and mostly inept highlighted by a very one-sided trade for Dan Haren in 2010 that saw all of the Angels minor league pitching depth traded away.
January, 2009 – Scioscia signs ten year contract extension
I am not the biggest fan of Mike Scioscia, but at this point in his career, signing him to an extension is a no-brainer. The issue is how long the extension was for. Perhaps Arte was worried that the rival Dodgers, Scioscia’s former team, would try to pry him away from the Angels, but a ten year extension is unheard of. There are so many reasons not to make a deal like that. For one it removes all pressure to perform, worst case is you get fired and have a multi-year golden parachute. It also basically requires giving the manager more control over the organization, and while Scioscia at this point has proven that he is an excellent manager, you don’t want your manager making organizational decisions. By definition of their job, Managers want to win now, they only care about the team they are putting on the field tomorrow, and this weekend. The long term health of the organization is not their primary concern, nor should it be.
June, 2009 – Angels draft Mike Trout in the first round of the draft
With the 25th pick in the 2009 MLB draft, the Angels got the best player in baseball. As Angels fans, we are so lucky to be able to watch Trout play day in and day out, and equally lucky that he is such a down to earth and good person. In the last few years when the Angels have been a bad team, there has been one bright spot and that is Mike Trout. If you were to ask me if I would trade Mike Trout for playoff appearances the last five years, I wouldn’t even consider it. I think all sports fans can appreciate world class talent, but when that talent is on your team it is so much more satisfying. The problem with is, how have the Angels not been able to win with the best player on the planet, potentially one of the best all-time. Everyone is familiar with the notion of Mike Trout being wasted and I do believe that is true, although not in the “Angels should trade him” or “he will sign elsewhere” sense, just the sense that it takes some level of organizational incompetence to not win with such a talent.
I think we are lucky that Trout is a down to earth and unassuming star. I don’t know if he would want to leave the Angels at the end of his current contract for a contender closer to his home in South Jersey, teams in larger media markets. I do know without a doubt, someone as good as competitive as Trout is must want to win something meaningful, I just hope it is with the Angels and we get to experience the next 15 years of his career like we have the first five plus.
June 2009 – Angels fire Supervisor of International Scouting Clay Daniel and several other international scouts
Amid a scandal breaking out surrounding skimming of bonuses for Latin American players, the Angels fire the International Scouting director and many other international scouts, gutting the organizations international scouting department. In my opinion the team still has not recovered from the loss of international presence. Consider all of the great Latin American players that the Angels had contributing to the team up to this point, Ervin Santana, K Rod, Kendrys Morales, Erick Aybar, etc.
May, 2010 – Kendrys Morales breaks his leg
After starting the season slowly (a Mike Scioscia era trend) the Angels got hot and slugger Kendry Morales was mashing when Morales broke his leg celebrating a walk off grand slam, the Angels stayed hot in June but never was able to replace his bat in the lineup and ultimately finished the season under .500 the beginning of the Scioscia era downward spiral. Kendry eventually came back in the plural form more than a year later, after a leg transplant, probably, but never did regain his singular form.
September, 2010 – Scouting Director Eddie Bane is fired
At the time I was not as outraged at this move as some others were. Bane certainly was a friend of the AW community, providing access to the team’s player development and draft strategy that was unrivaled. However the lack of young talent in the farm system was starting to show, which in hindsight (my own), was more to do with bad trades and free agency signings than anything else. Bane’s last draft for the Angels included one Mike Trout and Garrett Richards. The stability and consistent quality provided by Bane in the seven years he was with the Angels has not been found since he was fired.
January, 2011 – Angels trade Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera to the Blue Jays for Vernon Wells
In 2011 the Angels went into the off season desperate to improve the offense and it seemed destined to sign Carl Crawford a player that it seemed would fill several needs, but he ended up signing a big contract with the Red Sox and the Angels ultimately dodged a bullet because he did not live up to his contract. From there the Angels pivoted to Adrian Beltre, the Angels reportedly had offered a five year contract but were unwilling to match the six years that the Texas Rangers offered, in my opinion starting a downward spiral that is still felt today. That contract ended up being a great deal for the Rangers, Beltre hit the ball consistently while also providing gold glove defense at third base, leading the Rangers to division titles and failed World Series runs, meanwhile the Angels were still without a big bat to hit in the middle of the lineup with Torii Hunter.
That is when Arte Moreno reportedly threatened Tony Reagins to either trade for Vernon Wells in the next 24 hours or be fired. The Angels traded slugging catcher Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells, Napoli was quickly traded to the Rangers and went on the absolutely crush the Angels every time he faced them. Meanwhile the offensive black hole that is Jeff Mathis continued to be a drag on the lineup and Vernon Wells quickly joined him. After two terrible years the Angels traded Wells to the Yankees, somehow retaining only $28 million of the $42 million he was owed ending what was an absolutely terrible relationship.
I always point to this as being the downfall of the Scioscia era, losing out on Beltre, an incredibly talented player that would have been perfect for many reasons and making the stupid reactive move for Wells put this team in a hole that could not be gotten out of.
October, 2011 – Tony Reagins is fired and Jerry Dipoto becomes the next Angels GM
Two straight seasons of missing the playoffs and some big trade and free agency flops lead to Reagins being fired and Jerry Dipoto, a disciple of Bill James’ analytics is hired. Dipoto signaled a big change for the Angels who up until this point were not practicing the “Money ball” philosophy. Ultimately it was a huge failure, Dipoto’s version of “Money Ball” turned out to be spending huge amounts of money on free agents and trading away all the young talent for rentals and over-priced veterans. Additionally he never seemed to get along with Scioscia, an old school ball player and manager, at one point making roster moves to force Scioscia to stop putting players in the lineup. Scioscia definitely didn’t seem to appreciate having his power taken away and a different philosophy forced on him either.
Ultimately Dipoto threw a temper tantrum and quit in the middle of the 2015 season.
December, 2011 – Angels sign Albert Pujols to a ten year $254 million contract
The Angels, mostly known for stealthy free agency signings like the signing of Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter, struck again, out-of-nowhere signing the at the time best player in baseball, Albert Pujols to a gigantic ten year $254 million contract. While most people seemed to think that the later years of the contract would probably not work out, the first few years would be fruitful, Pujols, the most well rounded hitter in the game would immediately have a huge impact on the Angels, or so we all thought/hoped.
Unfortunately persistent nagging injuries and poor performance have led to this being the second biggest free agency bust for the Angels. The contract which is as un-tradable as the no-trade clause has put the Angels in a very poor position, considering that the farm system has been barren and they are up against the luxury tax threshold. With five years and $150m+ left to go on the contract the Angels are significantly limited when it comes to filling the holes in the roster and it really is too bad because as my Point/Counterpoint partner Glen mentioned to me in a conversation yesterday, can you imagine how good Mike Trout would be with a good hitter hitting behind him? That hitter should be Albert Pujols but while he does occupy the lineup spot after Trout, he doesn’t hit behind him.
December, 2012 – Angels sign Josh Hamilton to a five year $125 million contract
Much like the Gary Matthews Jr. signing, he only had a couple years of big numbers to back a big contract, but more worryingly a substance abuse history that erased years of his MLB career. Again like Pujols and Matthews, Hamilton never really got going; a decent first year was followed up with an absolutely awful second year including an 0-fer in the playoffs. That offseason while on the mend from shoulder surgery Hamilton self-reported a drug relapse and while the MLB decided that they could not suspend him for self-reporting, Arte was furious, basically publically demanding that the MLB suspend him and saying that he didn’t want Hamilton back on the team. An embarrassing moment in Angels history, while I agree with Arte’s frustration, his $125 million under-performing player is out partying instead of training. You can’t have that kind of drama in public. Do it behind closed doors, express your anger, but ultimately, addiction is a disease and addicts need support. How could the Angels not have expected or at least planned for that outcome when they signed him to the contract in the first place?
Arte got his way and Hamilton was traded to the Rangers in April 2015 for peanuts and the Angels are still paying him nearly $25 million this season to loaf around on the couch somewhere in Texas.
2015-2016 – Several major arm injuries and Billy Eppler becomes the GM
The Angels suffered a rash of serious arm injuries to their young but effective pitching staff and because of a payroll near the luxury tax threshold and a lack of organizational depth they have been doomed to poor records and journeymen pitchers like Brooks Pounders and Doug Fister.
Eppler has made some strong signings and acquisitions in Andrelton Simmons, Cameron Maybin and Yunel Escobar. He seems to work well with Scioscia and the farm system is improving.
There are other events that I left out like the tragic loss of Nick Adenhart and the signing of CJ Wilson. The early Scioscia years included some excellent assistant coaches like Bud Black, Joe Maddon and Ron Roenicke.
The 2015 free agency class was one of the best in recent years but because the Angels were so saddled with bad contracts and a need for pitching because of injuries, past their prime/milquetoast starters like Weaver and Wilson, and all of the talent that Dipoto traded away they couldn’t get the bat they needed to hit behind Mike Trout, just imagine how much better he would be with Yoenis Cespedes hitting behind him. Pitching is much more expensive than hitting in today’s MLB, and you don’t get what you pay for.
When looking through this timeline it is hard to place blame on one person, I think that Arte Moreno made some really bad choices for GM hires and with the contract he gave to Scioscia. The GMs mistakes have led to the Angels not being able to build a competent team arounds the best player on the planet. I also think that the Angels org reacted to playoff losses to “Moneyball” teams and try to build teams that didn’t jive with Scioscia. What made Scioscia teams so great was their aggressiveness at the plate and on the bases. Once they started filling the roster with station to station high strikeout power hitter types it just didn’t work. Additionally the lack of organizational depth and high payroll left the team very few options for filling the roster.
With that said I think Scioscia is too stubborn and stuck in his ways and in many ways the game has passed him by. That isn’t to say that he couldn’t go to another team and make a huge impact, but I think his time with the Angels has run its course though I do not think he will be fired before his contract runs out.
I hope with the Hamilton contract coming off the books that the Angels can make some smart FA signings and even negotiate a large extension for Trout, it would be a dream come true to see him holding up the World Series trophy in Anaheim.