Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pujols debut marks just the start for Angels

Despite frequent predictions of imminent glory, the real payout from the Angels' acquisition of Albert Pujols should come some time after 2012.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in LA


The Angels aren't the Angels anymore. They are Albert Pujols and whatever the Angels can put around him. It's a proven approach. The St. Louis Cardinals won two world championships that way.

How the Angels build around Pujols will be their story for this and the next several seasons. The Angels take on big contracts every year. The whole promise of Pujols is that he is a different kind of contract, a different kind of player, an anchor who can hold a team through rough waters. But he is not a one-man team and the team he joins now is two years removed from its last finish less than ten games down in the American League West.

The Angels start their season at home Friday night against the Kansas City Royals. Pujols will bat third and play first base. He will be the best player on the field. But he's not, yet, the definitive centerpiece of his team. He is a solution in the midst of a problem. Right now, he's a huge contract added to the Angels' stack of contracts, some of which are among the worst in the game. When you realize the Angels are on the hook to Vernon Wells for $21 million in each of the next three years, that $240 million over ten years for Pujols doesn't sound like such a desperate overbid.

According to Cot's Contracts, the Angels are paying Pujols only $12 million in 2012 -- less than they are paying Wells, Torii Hunter ($18 million), Jered Weaver ($14 million) and Dan Haren ($12.75 million). Close behind is Ervin Santana ($11.2 million).

After 2012, contracts for Hunter, Bobby Abreu ($9 million in 2012), Erick Aybar ($5.08 million) and Maicer Izturis ($3.8 million) expire. The Angels will have 2013 options for Haren ($15.5 million), Santana ($13 million) and Chris Iannetta ($5 million). They also will have arbitration decisions to make about Kendrys Morales, Jerome Williams, Alberto Callaspo and Hisanori Takahashi.

If the Angels pick up all of those 2013 contract options, they would end this season with around $450 million in salary exposure for future years ending in 2021, the last year of the Pujols deal. That's about $50 million per year for the next nine years. Their new television contract with Fox, reportedly $3 billion over 20 years, pays $150 million per year, $100 million per year more than their old deal. They can cover it.

For all their big contracts right now, in other words, the Angels have incredible flexibility for the future seasons of their contact with Pujols. If the Angels play their cards right, this 2012 club won't be close to their best club in the next ten years. Once the Angels shed their contractual commitments to decaying veterans and replace them with live players, they will take off.

The task of building these clubs nominally goes to General Manager Jerry DiPoto, hired last October, six weeks before the club signed Pujols. With the Angels, though, who calls the shots is as interesting as the shots that are called. Owner Arte Moreno is a big-picture, strong-willed sort who has been influential in recent free agent signings. Manager Mike Scioscia also is known as a strong voice in player personnel moves.

That process has only just begun. Fans should not be surprised if the Angels can't overtake the Texas Rangers this year. They still have a distance to cover. The Angels who Pujols joins have less punch than the Cardinals he left behind.

The Angels who Pujols joins are a solid ten games inferior to the Rangers, as demonstrated by two consecutive seasons ending exactly that way. So, that ten-game difference isn't some random fluxuation of statistical probability. It's the difference between the Rangers and Angels when Pujols signed.

Pre-Pujols, the Angels had one, and only one, strong feature -- the starting rotation front three of Weaver, Haren and Santana. The bullpen was shaky, and still is. Around the regular lineup, the Angels had one, and only one, position -- second base with Howie Kendrick -- for which they did not need an upgrade to average major league productivity for a regular at that position. Pujols brings them up to two.

It's true that the Angels signed C.J. Wilson off the Rangers, improving themselves while weakening their nemesis. We'll see if the Rangers made up for it on their end by going to Japan for Yu Darvish. And don't be too surprised, by the way, if Wilson ends up closing games for the Angels, because a chance remains that they will need someone to do it, and Wilson has done it well.

The Rangers aren't going away quietly. They are an angry, hungry group after two straight pennants without a world championship to show for it. They came within one out of winning it all last year. They've got the ethos to get it done, starting at the very top with the great Nolan Ryan, and they have assembled a much better club for doing it. They’re a serious operation. They're not packing it in over a good offseason for the Angels. They have money, too.

The Angels have just begun to build a true challenger by signing Pujols. They've got intriguing young talents like Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout, and aging pieces like Hunter, Wells and Abreu are starting to fall away.

Pujols will put a jolt into this staggering offense this year. But he doesn't have enough help.  We all remember that he one-manned the Cardinals to gold in 2006, but that was an 82-win team in a weak division prevailing by guile. The more formidable Cardinals of the Pujols years included one or two additional top-notch producers. The Angels don't have that. They won three straight divisions, 2007-2009, basing their offense on expensive veteran star outfielders whose decline we have since witnessed with our own eyes. Only when that team crumbles away and we see a new team built around Pujols will we see the Angels with whom he makes his true mark.

The 2012 season will be a year of transition in Anaheim. It might even be victorious. But for that to happen, Pujols will not be enough and the Angels still probably don’t have enough to go with him. They still need some players reversing the aging process, or some other players accelerating the maturation process. That’s this year. Next year and beyond, they’re going to need new players to go with Pujols.

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