Thursday, December 8, 2011

Arte Moreno's Game Changer - Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson to the Angels

By far, this has been the craziest day in my sports watching lifetime. My work productivity was cut by at least 1/3, and my standing at the company has undoubtedly fallen, as my peers in the comic book industry wonder why I care so much about a guy named "Poo-holes" and another guy named "Pow Gassul".

While this Laker-Hornets trade, or perhaps lack thereof (let's give this a day before we call this deal absolutely dead, shall we?) is dominating the headlines, it feels like it's been weeks since I learned that the two most prominent free agents in the MLB offseason, Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson, both signed massive deals with YOUR...Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

I've read a lot of reaction to the signings, positive and negative, but either way, there's no denying that it's the landmark move in the 8 year ownership of Arturo Moreno, and perhaps even in all of baseball in that same time frame. I'm going to go through a list of reaction I've heard today, and give my impressions on what this is and what this isn't:

"Can you say LeBron?"

This is not a LeBron situation. In some effects, yes, it is, but in most it is not. Similarly, both players are considered the best, or at the very least amongst the best of their prospective professions. No matter what team they played for or what conference they were in, both these players were going to change the culture of not only the teams they played for, but even the cities and states that that team was in. Both men have won MVP awards, Pujols thrice and LeBron on two occasions.

But the difference is that Pujols left a winner; not just in that he is still washing the champagne from the locker room celebration and perhaps some other liquids from the post-locker room celebration, but in that he has done nothing but win titles and accolades his entire career in St. Louis. Unlike LeBron, who won two MVPs in his two last years of being in Cleveland, Pujols won his awards years apart (in 2005, 2008 and 2009). In a time where home run hitting first basemen are seemingly being farmed on a ranch somewhere, Pujols has emerged as a 6 time silver slugger, a 2 time Gold Glove winner and a 9 time All-Star. But more important than his own personal accomplishments were that of the team. The Cardinals went to the postseason a Jeter-ian 7 times in his 11 seasons, winning the pennant in 2004, 2006 and 2011, and the World Title in the latter two years. He managed to do all of this while putting up the same type of statistics in the playoffs that he did in the regular season (reminds me of someone else I just mentioned...oh wait. It doesn't), with a 1.046 postseason OPS as opposed to his 1.037 OPS from April until September.

Quite honestly, there was nothing left for Albert to do in St. Louis. He didn't tell the Cardinals over national television or leave them hanging for a year. He wanted to stay in St. Louis, but the deal just wasn't there. True he left for a bigger market team, but he also left for a team that hasn't won a pennant since 2002. Cardinals fans should rightfully be sad to see him go, but should be being thankful that they got to see one of the five best players of all time for 11 years.

Pujols leaving St. Louis today was nothing like LeBron leaving Cleveland. He gave everything he had, and it was more than enough. No one can say that of James.

"What a callous move"

This was not callous. First of all, let's get this out of the way; the deal that the Angels gave Pujols was worth over $50 MILLION DOLLARS MORE than what the St. Louis Cardinals were offering. FIFTY. MILLION. DOLLARS. I'm sure a lot of people will mutter "what's $50 million dollars when you have so much money already?". Listen everyone. $50 mil is $50 mil no matter how much money you have. This guy is not a billionaire where he can just laugh off that amount like a bill from the dry cleaners. The man just set up his great-great-grandchildren for life. Lay off. And stop being ridiculous.

Second, and more importantly, two weeks ago I read an article by Peter Gammons about the greatness of Tony La Russa and how much he'll be missed in St. Louis. In it, La Russa recounted about how close he got to many of his players, mentioning that Albert often has said publicly about how he considers Tony a "father to him". La Russa didn't deny it, and in fact talked glowingly about how much it meant to him.

If indeed that was true, and Pujols had that type of relationship with his recently departed ex-manager, then this adds an entirely new level of complexity to Pujols leaving St. Louis. Maybe with La Russa leaving, it would be extremely difficult for Albert to work there every day. Perhaps he was unhappy with the organization allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent and his manager was the only thing keeping him there. The truth is that I don't know and we won't know until Pujols' press conference probably. His reasons for leaving probably go further than we can speculate.

"This was all about the money"

This was not all about the money. Both CJ Wilson and Albert Pujols were offered more money to play in Miami with a great young Marlins team that they could have made into a contender. But what I'm guessing is that the draw of playing for a owner with a proven track record of big moves and free spending, not to mention a commitment to winning is an opportunity that couldn't be passed up. Playing alongside Mike Scioscia, a MAMBINO favorite, is an opportunity that couldn't be passed up. Lacing up in a beautiful ballpark in sunny southern California, especially for CJ, a hometown boy, is an opportunity that couldn't be passed up. This wasn't just about the money for these two men - it was about competing with people they could trust and would provide them the best ongoing chance to win.

But I'm sure the money didn't hurt.

"This was like 2003 when the Angels went out and signed Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon"

This was not like winter 2003. At the time, both guys were the best position player and starting pitcher available. Vladimir Guerrero is a great player and a legitimate Hall of Famer, but at the time of the signing, he was just a relative national unknown who had spent years toiling unnoticed on a postseason-less Montreal Expos (RIP) team. Vlad certainly wasn't a 3-time MVP who just came off a World Series victory. Bartolo Colon has always been a fat guy, but at the time he was a fat guy that had had some success in Chicago, Montreal and Cleveland. He wasn't CJ Wilson, coming off two seasons of a 3.00 ERA and pitching in two World Series. This was the greatest single one-day free agent haul of any team in baseball history. In fact, Pujols himself might have sealed that deal early this morning.

Personally, today was more than just these questions and comments I found around the social media networks. Today was about how the Angels swung the balance of power in the Los Angeles sports scene, perhaps for good.

As I've written in the past, Arturo Moreno made his first move 7 years ago when he rebranded his team as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, initiating his financial grab towards the county to the north. Over the years, he's signed a lot of marquee free agents, Vlad, Bartolo, Beltre, Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu being amongst them, as well as made daring trades that took on mountain of salary. Even in the times where the Angels came short during the Winter Meetings, there was never a time where their name wasn't mentioned in trade and signing rumors.

But today was his strongest statement to date. While the Dodgers suffer the consequences of being collateral damage in the McCourt divorce, damaging their brand name to unmeasurable lengths, the Angels stepped into a void that the giants in Chavez Ravine have filled for years. They saw that the Dodgers, who have arguably been down for years, were not going to be in those depths for much longer, and chose for now to be the time to make not just a splash in Southern California, but nationally. Today, all you heard was "Pujols to Los Angeles", "CJ to LA". Did anyone think they meant the Dodgers? No, they didn't.

With everything I just mentioned, the Angels proved that they are a place to come and play. Both men took less money to be with Scioscia and Moreno, to be a part of their culture and in their estimations, have the chance to contend for titles. They didn't feel that way about Miami, and apparently, about Texas or St. Louis. Though I believe Matt Kemp is a more valuable player overall (defense and position included), there's no doubt that Pujols is the more important player, whose name carries more weight than almost anyone in the league. It won't be long before there are red Albert Pujols billboards lining Wilshire Boulevard and CJ Wilson posters on every bus stop in Culver City. The LA Times headlines will read of how the Angels signed the best hitter in the National League and the best free agent pitcher on the market. The assimilation had already begun earnest, but may have just reached it's tipping point. But this isn't just crazy theory I'm talking about; this has happened before.

In 1980's New York when the Yankees missed the playoffs for 16 straight years, the Mets were winning 90 games a year, going to two postseason and winning an epic World Series over the Boston Red Sox. To this day, I meet more Mets fans in their 30's and 40's than I think there should be in a city where the Yankees have 27 World titles. There was a power vacuum in the New York baseball world for the first time since the 1910's, and the Mets stepped up and grabbed that brass ring. 30 years later, I still see the effects daily.

I believe the Angels are making that same move, different coast. Today was a game changer. Not just on the field, but in the hearts and minds of Southern Californians everywhere. The perception has changed, and Arturo Moreno should be commended for consummating a move 7 years in the making. I am dropping "of Anaheim". Welcome to the show, Los Angeles Angels. I can't expect you'll be going anywhere soon.

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