COMMENTARY | It is arguable ... OK, it is likely that Arte Moreno's checkbook has done more harm than good for the Los Angeles Angels the last two seasons.
Between Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Joe Blanton, the Angels owner has committed the club to more than $600 million in player contracts that began in 2012 and 2013. An even longer pattern of free-agent signings has reduced the Angels to part-time participation in the first two rounds of the last eight June amateur drafts.
We can see where it has gotten the Angels. They are 33-43, with a player development system widely ranked as the worst in baseball.
In at least one sense, though, Moreno deserves some credit. In the few interviews that he does -- and they're never in the local media -- he refuses to point fingers. In an interview last month on FoxSports.com, Moreno said straight up, "If you're going to blame anyone, you've got to blame me." In an interview published June 24 by USA TODAY, he didn't have harsh words for anyone.
Now, these are public statements that may or may not describe his true feelings. But there is something classy about the guy on top taking the bullet in public. He might go out of his way to avoid daily face-to-face abuse, as most anyone would, but he takes responsibility. And if he dislikes the Los Angeles media -- "(S)ome of these people are just flat-ass cynical,'' he told USA TODAY -- he's not completely in hiding.
Of course, the ride for Moreno has been pretty easy. He purchased the club in May 2003, and this stands to be the Angels' second full season since then to end with a losing record. In the meantime, they have won five divisions, seated more than three million fans every year and signed a local television deal worth more than $3 billion.
So, Moreno can be gracious. About general manager Jerry Dipoto, who has been on the job for less than two years, he can say that he likes the systems being implemented and that the GM needs time "to get our system working." About manager Mike Scioscia, Moreno can say, "Mike has earned an opportunity to get this thing straightened out." About Pujols, Moreno can say he has no buyer's remorse, adding, "(H)e's the gentleman of gentlemen." Even about Josh Hamilton, he said, "Five years from now, we can sit down, and then ask me about the investment in the man." All of this is from the USA TODAY interview.
But the real question of interest to Angels fans remains unanswered. What is Moreno learning from all of this?
The Angels under Moreno are on a trajectory suspiciously like the trajectory of the Houston Astros under their former owner, Drayton McLane. When McLane purchased the Astros in 1993, the organization was flush with prime-aged talent and a strong farm system that produced it. But McLane refused to stay out of the way, and he never did figure out the importance of player development. For 15 years, McLane lived off that farm system while refusing to replenish it, preferring to sign big contracts with stars from other teams. Inevitably, the Astros collapsed. They haven't enjoyed a winning season since 2008, and they haven't won as many as 60 games since 2010.
There's a lesson in that. There's also a lesson in this, taken from Moreno's remarks about Hamilton in USA TODAY: "When we looked at him, we're thinking, left-handed power. Good defense. Can run."
But the Angels needed also to be thinking this: "Had a substance relapse before the 2012 season, then batted .252 after May 11. Ended the season on ill terms with a team for which he hit 43 homers. Nobody on earth would be fool enough to pay this guy $25 million per year."
Moreno defended his free-agent signings, saying to USA TODAY, "I owe it to the fans to give them hope. I'm not trying to tell you we're doing everything right all of the time, but it's not because we're not trying."
Perhaps, though, we're all past this idea by now that aging stars from other teams with expensive contracts will solve anything. That approach isn't working for the other team in Los Angeles, either. The Angels' best players right now -- Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick -- all are home-grown. Maybe we've learned the hard way. Many baseball fans are too sophisticated to be taken in by mercenary ballplayers. They see hope in player development.
That hope is not much to be found right now in the Angels. Moreno should take heed.
Bill Peterson has covered and written about Major League Baseball for more than 30 years in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Texas and Los Angeles, where he now lives and writes a baseball blog, Big Leagues in Los Angeles. He is a lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
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