Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Big Time Talent at a Big Time Price

         By Ross Newhan

         Arte Moreno and Tony Reagins were never as deep in the doghouse of Southern California baseball fans as was/is Dodger owner Frank McCourt, but make no mistake: The howls regarding the Angels lack of major off-season activity were deafening.

         Moreno had said in October he would pay any price to get the Angels back to the post-season, and then the market exploded on him. Carl Crawford was the perfect fit, but Moreno wasn't going to match Boston's $142 million, seven year offer, and he wasn't going to go to five years and $80 million for Adrian Beltre, who signed with division champion Texas and would have filled the Angels lingering cavity at third base.

       Less than a month before the Angels report to spring training it looked as if Moreno and Reagins would have to continue enduring the slings and arrows of outraged fans, but then the general manager, operating quietly, pulled a sleeper deal with Toronto for All-Star outfielder Vernon Wells, and Moreno quickly agreed, even though it takes his payroll to about $145 million, potentially baseball's third highest, and Wells, at 32, is owed $86 million over the final four years of a seven year, $126 million deal.

      The Angels will recoup about $10 million by including Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera in the trade, and there are mixed reports that Toronto, anxious to make payroll room for Jose Bautista and his 54 home runs, is picking up some of that $86 million still owed Wells.

      What to think?

      Well, it's easy to spend other people's money, and the Angels were backed into a corner this late in the off-season. Wells bounced back last season, hitting .273 with 31 homers, 44 doubles and 88 runs batted in after averaging 17 homers and 75 RBI for three disappointing and injury-marred seasons after signing the big contract. Always a respected person in the clubhouse, there are scouts who contend that Wells had seemed to lose some fire on the field, but his performance last year--healthy in body and statistics--would appear to defuse that contention, and Wells has said that his excitement in joining the Angels produced goose bumps.

    With Torii Hunter and the returning Kendry Morales he gives the Angels considerable punch in the middle of the lineup, and with Hunter in right, Peter Bourgos (providing Bourgos retains the job) in center and Wells in left (Bobby Abreau becomes the designated hitter), the Angels should have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.

    Given the quality of the Angels rotation and the addition of Wells and Morales, the Angels are a potential match for the Rangers and improving Oakland A's, and the howling should ease.

    Which is not to say that Wells answers all the questions.

    He is owed $23 million this year and $21 million in each of the following three, which eats up a lot of the payroll at a time when the Angels have been making cuts in their scouting and front office departments.
     In addition, the Angels still have that gaping hole at third base, a back-sliding Eric Aybar at shortstop, a second baseman in Howie Kendricks who has yet to fulfill all of his offensive potential, a catcher in Jeff Mathis who hit .195 last year (unless Hank Conger is ready), an opening at the back end of the rotation if Scott Kazmir can't find his slider again and a hold-your-breath closer in Fernando Rodney.

    Still, the opportunity to get Wells couldn't be bypassed. He brings big time talent and salary (the highest in Angel history).

    Arte Moreno did pay just about any price, as he had said he would. How it plays out is still uncertain, but for the time being he leaves McCourt alone in the doghouse.         


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