When still in the throes of a third-place finish, owner Arte Moreno announced he would upgrade his Los Angeles Angels no matter the cost. We couldn't have known he meant in reserve outfielders and catchers.
Nearing the end of what was beginning to look like a clumsy and disappointing offseason for an organization coming out of the most decent decade in its history, the Angels traded for Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells(notes) on Friday.
The Blue Jays are expected to kick in a small amount of cash (maybe $5 million) to help cover what a year ago was being discussed with the worst contracts in baseball – $86 million over four years remains on the original seven-year, $126 million deal. In return, the Jays receive two players the Angels didn't have big plans for – catcher Mike Napoli(notes) and outfielder Juan Rivera(notes) – but who together won't make half the money Wells will in 2011.
Well, OK then.
The Blue Jays take a step back in the AL East in order to one day challenge the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, who on Friday refreshed their offense by agreeing to terms with Johnny Damon(notes) and Manny Ramirez(notes). The money the Jays save on Wells can go toward the June draft picks they have accumulated and perhaps a contract for Jose Bautista(notes) – all part of general manager Alex Anthopoulos' master plan to bring back the organization.
The Angels, on the other hand, had to make a move. They were finalists on left fielder Carl Crawford(notes), who took $142 million over seven years from the Red Sox. They were in until the end on third baseman Adrian Beltre(notes), who signed with the Texas Rangers for a guaranteed $80 million over five years. And, in spite of the frailties on the back of their bullpen, they passed on Rafael Soriano(notes), who got a three-year, $35 million contract from the Yankees.
In there somewhere, Moreno reminded everyone that the Angels are not the Yankees or the Red Sox, which didn't do much to soothe Angels fans but might at least have tempered their expectations moving forward. And though the Angels' failures in free agency – what they might call prudence – meant good-guy Moreno took the most sustained criticism of his eight-year ownership of the club, it also spoke to the community's faith in his stewardship. When the Angels did not win the AL West for only the second time in seven seasons, and when he promised grand improvement, fans braced themselves for grand improvement.
While the ninth inning and third base remain questions, and while Wells looked a lot more like Crawford four years ago than he does today, this is a solid deal for the Angels. The risk is in the money – they'll pay more to Wells, who turned 32 in December, in average annual value than they would have for Crawford or Beltre.
The question, of course, is Wells' prodigal bat. After three seasons in which he batted .265 and hit a total of 51 home runs, a slide in production partly attributable to a wrist injury, Wells batted .273 with 31 home runs, 88 RBI and 44 doubles. Hitting coach Dwayne Murphy's scheme to hunt and hammer fastballs seemed to suit Wells, as it did most of a lineup that hit 257 home runs, and as it should help a big swinger like Napoli.
The Angels are better for it. If they're going to be better than the Rangers and the Oakland Athletics, they still might need grand improvement at third base.