— The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have taken a bold financial step they've never made before under longtime owner Arte Moreno.
The simple answer is Albert Pujols — the greatest hitter of this generation, and possibly any generation before he's finished — is an exception worth changing a payroll structure for over the next decade. And paying Pujols $25 million per year until 2021 certainly will do that.
But there's more to it than that.
First of all, keep in mind that the Angels' payroll in 2011 climbed to slightly over $140 million — up from a 2007-10 range of $110-120 million. In other words, really not all that far from the Red Sox-Phillies second layer of the MLB payroll stratosphere. (Nobody is close to the Yankees' $200-million range). That's what 3 million paying customers annually in Angels Stadium and a $50-million-per-year local television rights deal can help do for you.
Indications were the Angels would hold steady at around $140 million for 2012 — even with the expected push to sign C.J. Wilson. But when Pujols failed to reach agreement with either the St. Louis Cardinals or Miami Marlins, the Angels quickly stepped up to change their financial landscape — and MLB's as well.
Contrary to the 48-hour time frame in which the Pujols signing unfolded, 'this was no knee-jerk reaction,'' the club's new general manager, Jerry Dipoto, said Thursday in a televised interview. "You think through even the smallest of trades. We thought about many options, this being the most dramatic.''
Actually, forces leading to a huge organizational shift — including the hiring of Dipoto — started exactly one year ago, when the Angels failed to land Carl Crawford in free agency, as many had expected.
Regardless of Crawford's disappointing season in Boston, the Angels were caught short offensively in 2011, when some felt they over-achieved to win 86 games and finish 10 games behind the Rangers in the AL West — and just short of the wild card. Soon afterward, Dipoto's predecessor — Tony Reagins — was fired, as were several others in the front office and scouting department.
An don't forget that Moreno is the same guy who changed the name of his team based in Anaheim to 'Los Angeles'. The current plight of the crosstown Dodgers has been offering the perfect time to grab a bigger chunk of the So-Cal market. There can be no bigger play in that regard than signing Pujols.
With Pujols and Wilson, the Angels will pay about $117 million in 2012 to just seven players, all making eight figures. The other five are Vernon Wells, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Torii Hunter and Ervin Santana. They have a $9-million option on 38-year-old Bobby Abreu, which may not be picked up, while free-agent pitcher Joel Pineiro's $8-million 2011 salary is off the books.
Seven other veteran players, including newly signed setup man LaTroy Hawkins, will combine to earn about $30 million, so the overall payroll figures to reach the $160-165-million mark.
However, there is some financial easing on the horizon. They're stuck with three more years of Wells at $21 million per, but Hunter ($18 million) is in the final year of his contract, as are Haren ($12.75 million) and Santana ($11.2 million), although the club has 2013 options on both pitchers.
So it's really only Pujols, Weaver and Wilson who have guaranteed money beyond 2014 — which sets up a window for expected championship contention after a decade of falling short (three ALDS exits and two ALCS exits since their 2002 World Series title).
And that's the other factor in play here. That 2002 championship came one year before Moreno took over. Division titles are nice, but the Angels haven't won a pennant on his watch, let alone a World Series. If Pujols (and Wilson) can help bring a World Series title, those last couple years on Pujols' contract at age 40 and 41 won't look so burdensome, will they?
"Winning championships is at the heart of this,'' Dipoto said.
So what are the Angels' chances of doing so? They appear to be a team entirely capable of moving to the mid-90s in wins in 2012 — certainly a playoff team in the expanded format. But also a team with some concerns and issues remaining.
Anybody who knows Dipoto or manager Mike Scioscia knows that both stress pitching first. So as Scioscia said, 'while it may appear you're getting greedy' to want another quality starter behind Weaver, Haren and Santana, that was the Angels' intention all along.
The perfect fit on a couple of levels is Wilson, who grew up 12 miles from Angels Stadium and is the quality left-handed compliment to the three right-handers. Wilson's numbers should go down a bit with the change in home ballparks, and with only two years as a starter, should have a longer shelf-life than the normal 31-year-old.
Bottom line, this has become a championship-caliber rotation, and that will ease the innings burden on the bullpen.
The projected lineup looks like this: SS Erick Aybar, 2B Howard Kendrick, 1B Pujols, RF Hunter, DH Mark Trumbo, LF Wells, 3B Alberto Callaspo, C Chris Iannetta, CF Peter Bourjos.
Pujols would make the 1927 Yankees' lineup better, and he's a good bet to lead the Angels in all six major hitting categories — average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, home runs, RBI and runs. But there's a long way to go for an offense that finished 17th in the majors in runs, 15th in batting average, 21st in on-base percentage, 14th in slugging percentage.
One immediate concern is how right-handed the Angels are, with only the switch-hitting Aybar and Callaspo as left-handed options — other than expected role players Maicer Izturis and Hank Conger. That's why the Angels are hoping Kendrys Morales can make it back after missing 1 1/2 years due to a broken tibia and two surgeries.
Ideally, Morales will be the left-handed presence (as a DH) immediately behind Pujols. Dipoto says Morales 'looks great' swinging the bat, but nobody will know until spring training when and how much Morales will be able to contribute.
So what happens to Trumbo, the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, who blossomed with an opportunity in place of Morales? Fortunately, he also can play third base and left field, and it could turn out that he accumulates at-bats and playing time as a DH and multi-position guy.
Another dual question is the decline of Wells vs. the emergence of super prospect Mike Trout. Even with Wells, the Angels have arguably the game's best defensive outfield, and Trout's presence will only make it better.
But Trout, 20, needs to play every day, so how much time he'll spend at the big-league level in 2012 could depend on the fortunes of Morales, Trumbo and Wells. There's also the chance of him forcing his way into playing time.
All of which makes spring time around Tempe Diablo Stadium — the Angels' Cactus League home — a highly anticipated event.