Baseball

Prospectus Feature: Angels Annual Essay


Image credit: © Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Ohtani Week: a celebration of, well, Shohei Ohtani. There’s been no player more fascinating or exhilarating since Ohtani graced our shores in 2018. Over time, the initial curiosity and excitement surrounding MLB’s first true two-way player in a century morphed into something more: Pure, uncut awe derived a superstar breaking barriers previously thought unreachable. All week, we’ll be talking about the most lovable—and possibly most talented—man in baseball. So throw on your Angels cap, grab your laptop charger, and dig in.

In this moment of crudity and avarice and shameless unrepentant bad faith, in the unnerving context of society’s most powerful concerns no longer even bothering to act as if they’re bound by norms or rules or laws, while being spun through innumerable concurrent crises, it is natural and understandable to wish that your favorite baseball team might be run like a humble family business. If you want to be a jerk about it, it is true that the Gambinos and the Sacklers and the Falwells are also family businesses, but not every family enterprise is quite as gnarled or brutal as the big ones everywhere squeezing and bilking and immiserating the rest of humanity. There are other such businesses that really do resemble the revered American ideal, and which exist as literal brick-and-mortar manifestations of the human drive to provide and succeed and create.

That last bit is the family business dream as it is sold, mostly, although the gilded goblins squatting atop everything cast a cold and ironic shadow over that sentimental concept. But fans who have felt that wish—those on the wrong end of sudden executive austerity, or lost in some ill-defined and quite possibly endless rebuild—know what it’s about, which is finally nothing more or less than sensing a human face and some identifiable human motivations behind the behavior of the team to which they have committed some objectively unwise chunk of emotional wellbeing. It’s a bad idea to put the happiness of some (or really any) months of your life in the hands of a damn baseball team, but no one who cares about the Angels, or any other baseball team, got into it because it seemed like the savvy thing to do. The salient question, where the uniquely blessed and persistently cursed Angels are concerned, is why and how all that caring came to feel like such a waste.

There are many worse teams and let’s say several more dysfunctional organizations than the Angels. Some of the former are quite clearly not trying to be anything at all beyond Recipients Of Profit-Sharing Distributions and the monies owed them in television deals; others are actively trying to be bad, so that they might someday maybe be good; still others are engaged in data-driven arbitrage campaigns so intricate and sophisticated that the actual baseball product seems rather beside the point. This is just how Major League Baseball works at this moment, and while it objectively sucks on its merits, the Angels are at least not one of those teams. They really are trying to win, and over the last five seasons they have mostly lost.

A club that is run according to a proprietary algorithm or opaque AI protocols or just an overtly cynical financial mandate is at bottom not factoring the interest of its fans into the equation at all. It’s a financial gambit, and as such hard to love even when it is also competent enough to be admired. But a team that is run according to the whims of actual humans—one run as a family business, and so uniquely dysfunctional in the ways that only unhappy families can be—can be self-thwarting and repellent in the ways that only humans are. Systems focused on efficiency tend towards degradation; the pressures of the marketplace push the people trapped underneath those rational and merciless structures inexorably down and out. But nothing on earth fucks up quite as consistently or stubbornly as people do. This is what social scientists call “the funny part.”

Any family business, if permitted to atrophy over a sufficiently long period of time without any meaningful consequence, will eventually collapse into the dead-star density of the Wilpon-era Mets or the circa-now Trumps—a feudal and floundering enterprise ruled by soggy and unappeasable patriarchs and scrapped over among cruel, lazy, utterly unremarkable heirs from which only certain sour noises can escape. Make values the central tenet of an organization and that organization will ultimately be a prisoner of the powerful people whose idiosyncratic ad-hoc values those are. If the owners are sufficiently weird, you wind up with selectively pious and broadly inexplicable organizational philosophies like those seen in Colorado and Kansas City in the last decades. If the owners are just replacement-level rich people, the team will in time come to reflect their bulletproof mediocrity. And if a team is run by a highly leveraged investment group that purchased the team with copious amounts of debt—as the Marlins are, for instance, and as other teams will be as franchise values continue to outrun the prices that even unconscionably rich people can pay—then that team will look and function and feel precisely like what it is, which is a way for investors to claim the annualized return on investment they believe is their right. 

Given the realities of that last option, a team and its fans being beholden to one rich man’s pride starts to seem comparatively appealing. This has traditionally been a popular model, and not just because the grandiosity of vain rich men has occasionally inspired them to create—or, at least, sufficiently compelled them to allow others to construct—great baseball organizations. But, again, all this is dependent on those men. It’s dependent upon the readiness and depth of their wealth, of course, but also and more saliently the scope of their vanity. It is one thing for an owner to view his team as a legacy, a towering accomplishment that he will bequeath to his family and community and The Ages when he’s gone; it is another for the owner to consent to let other people, who are not as rich but much more knowledgeable, run the thing.

When and where this works, it works. When it doesn’t, you have the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the baseball team owned and controlled by a very rich man named Arte Moreno. In some important ways, the Angels are decently positioned for future success. They have literally the best baseball player on earth and the coolest erstwhile two-way talent in a damn century, a rejuvenated farm system, a hotshot new GM, a new manager with a World Series pedigree, and an owner willing to spend on talent. That all sounds pretty good, and on paper even looks pretty good provided you skim the pitching-related part of the prospectus. But the Angels are still Arte Moreno’s team, and so still both very much a family business and an object lesson in being careful what you wish for.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s not the job it should be,” an MLB GM told the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin in September, as the Angels prepared to move on from GM Billy Eppler after five years. “It should be a great job. It should be one of the easiest recruitment jobs in the game. Who doesn’t want to live there? To me, it’s one of the best locations in the world. But something is going on there that is cannibalizing what they’re doing.”

As a general rule, it is wise to be skeptical about people talking shit anonymously, and doubly so when those people work in baseball. But when Anonymous Shit-Talking GM Guy is right, he’s right—if not necessarily about Orange County, which is fine except when and where it’s the worst place on earth, then definitely about the tremendous latent potential in the team that plays there. The perception among the MLB execs that spoke to Shaikin was that Moreno’s overbearing and overwhelmingly unhelpful ownership was the team’s biggest and stickiest problem, and that can be true even if a bunch of anonymous MLB types claim as much. But Moreno’s is a very specific type of bad ownership. 

The issue is not that Moreno doesn’t care about winning, or is unwilling to commit his vast personal fortune to that end; he does, and he has been. The problem is that Moreno wants to win his way, with his guys and his hunches and his antique rich guy’s conception of what winning baseball is all about. This is something like the single shared value of America’s Extremely Rich People; Moreno can see that his team is losing, and hate that, but he is unwilling or unable to adjust any of his curdled priors or loosen his grip even when it has been proven that His Way does not work. If you’re rich enough, you can just go on like this indefinitely; baseball, with its clearly delineated and highly public results, tends to make that failure easier to hide. 

Moreno has spent the last decade and change sticking defiantly to his guns, nudging and dealing and trying again in the expectation that this time he will turn out to be right. The Angels won the AL West five times during the first six years of Moreno’s ownership, although they won just one postseason series during that stretch. Since 2009, the year in which Mike Trout led one of the great June Draft hauls in history, the Angels have made the postseason just once. Trout, who has been the best player in the sport since 2012, still has just 12 postseason at-bats. Whatever Moreno is trying to do here has clearly failed, and yet improbably and obstinately it goes on more or less as it has.

Nothing collapsed, exactly, during those years of atrophy and drift. That was the thing: nothing much changed at all. Everything just declined, even as Trout announced himself as the greatest player of his era. To the extent that Eppler succeeded during his tenure as GM, it was in finally forcing some upgrades and updates to an organization that had become expensively and rather proudly dated as it rotely ran it back year after year. Eppler won a power struggle with long-tenured manager Mike Scioscia and replaced him first with Brad Ausmus and then, after just one year, Joe Maddon; Eppler scouted and spent and successfully turned one of the sport’s most barren farm systems into one that is if nothing else currently flush in promising outfield prospects. It helped, albeit in ways that are unlikely to benefit the 2021 model.

The team somehow never managed to finish above .500 under Eppler, but the organization that Perry Minasian inherited from him late in 2020 was both more contemporary than it had been and nothing like state-of-the-art. Shaikin noted that the Angels had just 43 baseball operations staffers at the start of the 2020 season, whereas the Dodgers had 62; Moreno furloughed a massive percentage of the club’s player development staff and swathes of minor league coaches in June, although the organization brought some cross-checkers back before the draft. In terms of decision-making, no executive has more say than Moreno himself, who obsesses over hiring managers, vetoes his front office’s moves when the spirit moves him—he personally shot down a February trade that Eppler worked out with the Dodgers that would have brought in Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling—plays favorites, and is generally always a whim away from reacquiring Vernon Wells. The man’s favorite team is the Los Angeles Angels, and he wants them to win the World Series this year. The whole organization is pegged to that blank and goofy urge. Of course it doesn’t work.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Ownership’s lack of interest and investment in player development has kept the team stuck in an endless and vexing present in which Trout shines, blameless and brilliant, from the center of a grim maelstrom of imported patches and limping leftovers and readily available non-answers. Every half decade or so, the farm system produces a useful everyday player—David Fletcher really is pretty good, and while Jo Adell was decidedly not in his 2020 debut it would be foolish to stop believing before he’s even played in front of fans—and those players slot in wherever there is space. And then it just happens roughly the same way the next year, and the year after that.

It all has managed to remain reliably purgatorial despite Trout’s persistent excellence and the tantalizing presence of Shohei Ohtani and Moreno’s willingness to buy talent where available. Minasian quickly went to work in the offseason, replacing Andrelton Simmons—there is no greater testament to the void in which this team exists than the fact that it instantly made Andrelton Simmons forgettable—with Jose Iglesias and adding closer Raisel Iglesias and lefty Alex Claudio to the bullpen at a notably minimal cumulative outlay. But it is striking that a team with both Anthony Rendon and Mike Trout still feels so urgently in need of refurbishment. The 2020 season was too short and flukish and grim to mean much, but Adell and Ohtani could hardly have been worse, Justin Upton wasn’t much better, and the best pitcher on the roster was either Dylan Bundy or reliever Mike Mayers. That is still true as I write this.

It will surely change, although as always the question is how much. Minasian is not under the same austerity orders as many other big league GM’s—Moreno didn’t commit to raising the payroll in 2021, but did say “let’s put it this way, it’s not going down”—and that is an advantage in itself. “One of things that makes this job so intriguing is this is not a 100-loss team,” Minasian said in November. “This is not a five-to-seven year rebuild. This is going to be a competitive club.” Minasian has displayed a knack in his previous gigs for identifying undervalued talent, but the Angels will need to both pull some gems off the curb and pay MSRP for top-of-the-market talent if they’re going to dramatically change their outlook for 2021. This is a heavy lift on its own, but when ESPN’s Buster Olney polled former Angels employees in November about how Minasian might make things work in Anaheim, every answer resolved to managing Moreno. It’s his team, after all.

Managing Moreno means that longer-term decisions will necessarily take a backseat to near-term ones, which is nothing new. The broader work of building out this organization into something more sustainable, which amounts to making a headstrong and proudly out-of-touch old grouch with a lot of money yield some authority over something he knows nothing about for the first time in his life, is the more difficult bit. That is more or less the challenge facing a great many other American institutions at this moment, as it happens. In sclerotic family businesses as in any other crumbling institution, accountability is the first and most devastating casualty. When the only rule in effect is “the rich guys are going to do whatever they want, without any conceivable consequence” it is not difficult to see how things will unfold, or how they become so difficult to fix.

And yet it would be foolish, here or elsewhere, to say that things can’t get better for this team, even if by accident. The Angels have Mike Trout, and Anthony Rendon, and as much Shohei Ohtani as heaven allows, and however much Justin Upton there is left. Even the pitching, which I have politely avoided talking about until this point, has some promise—Dylan Bundy shouldn’t be the team’s ace, but a rotation that features him and young starters Griffin Canning and Patrick Sandoval could become workable if sufficiently good pitchers are slotted in above them all. This is not a division-winning roster at present, but such a team could be built upon it given the necessary resources and room to move. That’s a load-bearing “could,” but you know that by now.

Given the broader retrenchment in the league and the subsequent shock of this last and mostly lost pandemic season, a sufficiently creative and sufficiently empowered Angels front office could flip this gilded dud of a roster into a contender with relative ease. The Angels could be any number of things, up to and including a contender, but what sets them apart, as one of the league’s truest family businesses, is that they’ll only become what their owner will let them be. They are Arte Moreno’s team, no more and no less. They could be something more, but also this is what they are. That’s what makes them infuriating, and keeps their circumstances so infuriatingly familiar.

Subscribe to Defector for more from David Roth.

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