Monday, July 29, 2013

The Angels: Problems of Personnel and Personalities

            By Ross Newhan

            In the shadow of the rampaging Dodgers, the other Los Angeles baseball team is dead in the American League West and miles from wild card contention.

            Amid obvious personnel issues and less apparent but also detrimental personality problems (see below), the Angels (with Albert Pujols probably out for the remainder of the season) would have to win 42 of their last 59 games to attain 90 victories, a likely minimum to make the playoffs.

             In what would be the fourth straight year devoid of October in Anaheim, 19 of the other 29 teams have a better record than the Angels, who trail Oakland by 13 games in the division despite a payroll more than twice that of the A's.

            Underachievement? Undoubtedly.

            However, it can also be argued that the Angels were set up to fail via the way owner Arte Moreno authorized the spending of his TV billions during the off-season.

            In fact, it is difficult to figure out what the club's overriding philosphy has been during a period in which Moreno has played a conflicting game of moneyball  (not to be confused with the A's brand) and the farm system has detiorated into one of baseball's worst, top prospects being used like so many poker chips in trades or draft compensation for free agent signings.

             It's a long, intertwining list of potential possibilities (no need to go over the failure to meet Matt Harvey's price when selected by the Angels out of high school in the third round of the 2007 June draft), young players who have fulfilled their promise elsewhere while the Angels have made head scratching decisions such as wasting millions on Gary Matthews Jr. and Vernon Wells while failing to sign game changers of the Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Mark Teixera (who probably wasn't going to be bought out of his desire to play in the east) caliber.

           That, of course, leads to the new TV contract and the 10 year, $240 million signing of Pujols, now 33,  and the five year, $125 million signing of Josh Hamilton, now 32, and, any way you want to analyze it, it's impossible to see anything but a long, slow slog through the life of those contracts.

           As a scout for an opposing American League team put it: "Pujols still has some thunder in his bat but you have to wonder if his foot injury is the start of an overall breakdown, and it's difficult to know what to make of Hamilton (.220, 15 homers, 43 RBI). He's continued the regression we saw in the second half of last year, generally hits only mistakes, is lost against left handers and hasn't played well at all in the outfield."

          Hamilton was signed in what appeared to be an over-reaction to the Dodgers signing of Zack Greinke after the Angels failed to retain the pitcher they had obtained from Milwaukee in mid-season of 2012, a trade in which they gave up their top prospect, infielder Jean Segura, who has become a  proven commodity at shortstop with the Brewers and one of the National League's top hitters

          With Greinke gone, the Angels needed to rebuild their rotation behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, but the Hamilton money sent General Manager Jerry Dipoto into a secondary market for the likes of Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Ryan Madson, Jason Vargas and Sean Burnett, a group depleted by injuries and ineffectiveness. In a year that has seen the Angels break down in virtually every category of play, the limping Pujols, the laboring Hamilton and the inability of the middle to back end of the rotation to sustain momentum have symbolized that collapse.

          In addition, three people with inside knowledge and who I talked with individually, each cited an unsettling clubhouse atmosphere in which younger, star caliber players (Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo, among them) have pursued a stronger voice and visibility only to be deterred by a veteran group that includes Pujols and Hamilton.

          Said one of the three people, all of whom requested anonymity because of their close relationship with the organization:

          "I think it would be overkill to call it a chasm, and I can't say it has consistently impacted performance, but I do think there is a generational gap, a question of style and the way things are done, that has been consistently difficult to manage."

         Seldom, of course, do the relationships or daily atmosphere in a baseball clubhouse reflect a perfect blend, but in a year when nothing else has been perfect in Anaheim, "the fact that players have at times left the clubhouse amid varying degrees of disagreement only to then attempt to perform at their best doesn't translate to a comfortable environment," the person quoted above said.

        Where the Angels head from here and what impact this disappointing (and dispiriting) season will have on Moreno as he weighs 1) the future of Manager Mike Scioscia (signed through 2017) and 2) the relationship between Scioscia and Dipoto, isn't clear, but this is:

        Three days away from the non-waiver trade deadline the Angels aren't expected to be a major player. They are burdened with too many big contracts to be a significant seller and--with the next payroll tax level in mind--they are too far out of the race to be a significant buyer.

     The disabling of Pujols at this juncture and the trading of Scott Downs was an admisstion, in fact,  that they have taken a realistic look at the standings.    


Monday, July 22, 2013

Braun Merely the First Domino

                    By Ross Newhan

                     The first domino in baseball's determined investigation into the distribution of banned substances through a Florida "wellness clinic" has now fallen.

                     The suspension of Milwaukee left fielder Ryan Braun for the rest of the season without pay is expected to be just the first of possibly a dozen or more suspensions, claiming, perhaps, Alex Rodriguez and Nelson Cruz, among others.

                    Braun, a former National League MVP, did not appeal his penalty for "violations of the Basic Agreement and its Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program," MLB said in a statement.

                    That drug program, considered the toughest in professional sports, and the sweeping investigation into the since closed Biogenesis clinic, may be seen as coming too late to benefit the sport's non-cheaters, many of whom paid a significant price statistically and financially, during the height of the Steroids Era, but that should not diminish the steps that MLB has since taken and now continues to take.

                  In a statement, Braun said: "As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect. I realize now that I have made some mistakes. I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions."

                 Braun's suspension fell under the commissioner's power to discipline for "just cause" rather than a violation of the Joint Drug Agreement relating to failed drug tests. Braun's links to Biogenesis, established in the investigation, according to MLB sources, and the testimony of Anthony Bosch, a director of the clinic who has cooperated with MLB investigators in an attempt to escape possible legal ramifications.

               In Braun's case, MLB also considered his failed drug test in the 2011 post-season, which was overturned on an appeal relating to the chain of evidence protocols.

              It is unclear how many other players facing potential suspension because of the Biogenesis investigation will accept their penalty without appeal, as Braun has.

              According to MLB sources, Braun met with investigators on June 29 and failed to answer questions relating to the clinic. However, after weighing the depth of the evidence against him, the sources say Braun asked for a second meeting and opted to accept a deal that would limit his ban to the remainder of this season, a total of 65 games compared to the 50 game penalty for a first failed drug test.          

           MLB is expected to announce remaining suspensions all at once. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

All-Star Game? Who Cares? Bring on the MVP!

                      By Ross Newhan                      

                      It appears doubtful that Yasiel Puig will make the National League All-Star team.

                      Big deal.

                      He can go directly to NL MVP, a more significant accomplishment for Puig and the Dodgers, who have been in full flight since Puig arrived from double A with bat, glove, arm and a joie de vivre that has infected the entire roster.

                     Of course, what 22 year old wouldn't display a joy of life after finally making good on multiple attempts to shake off the restraints of his Cuban homeland, receive a seven year, $42 million contract from the Dodgers, drive to work in a new Mercedes and capture a national spotlight with some historic numbers through his first five-plus weeks, becoming only the second major player to sustain a .400 average through 100 at bats?

                   Make no mistake, Puig alone hasn't been responsible for the Dodgers awakening, for their five straight series victories (including the current series against division leading Arizona) and their 14 wins in the last 17 games, but it is his obvious spirit and tangible talent--more than anything--that has seemed to make believers of teammates previously struggling to believe while keeping the cash registers humming in the same merchandise shops where Manny was once king.

                 Put another way: In my 50 plus years of covering baseball it is difficult to remember a player arriving from the minors with the package of tools that have so dramatically turned around his team's season.

                Can the Dodgers maintain the run? Can Puig?

                Well, if they do and he does, if you project his eight home runs, 19 RBI and incredible 55 hits in 34 games over the remaining 73 games, if you believe the magic is real, an MVP Award is quite possible, and who will remember that he was sitting in his downtown apartment when they played the All-Star game?