Angels have pricey aspirations

Angels owner Arte Moreno, right, has kept an uncharacteristic low profile of late. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When the Los Angeles Angels wrapped up two days of organizational meetings this past Wednesday, one member of the front office was conspicuously absent. Owner Arte Moreno wasn't in the room.

I don't know why Moreno didn't sit down with his baseball people when they began charting a course through a turbulent offseason, but I can't blame him for making other plans. If I were spending more than $120 million on a team that's a game under .500 on Sept. 22, I wouldn't feel like talking about it, either.

Moreno has been oddly absent during this disappointing Angels season. When was the last time you saw a quote from him? The All-Star Game, maybe? The last time I saw him, he politely declined an interview request. I've been covering this team since 2003 and hadn't before seen Moreno do that. From a media and fan perspective, he's one of the game's most approachable owners.

You've got to figure this season has been eating at him. Not that things like this don't happen, of course. Expensive teams flop. Some, like the New York Mets, make a habit of it. But if it were your money, would you like it?

Here's what's even scarier: In the midst of this great recession, Moreno is in a high-stakes game. He soon has to decide whether he's all in or folding. Even with Kendry Morales returning next spring and with Dan Haren all year, the Angels are probably at least one player away from getting back to bona fide contention. Their finances, meanwhile, are in a precarious state.

The Angels' No. 1 target is Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, a Rodeo Drive kind of purchase. Crawford, 29, will draw something in the neighborhood of a six-year, $100 million contract, maybe more. If his asking price is even costlier, the Angels probably won't be in the bidding race at the end. But multiple team sources have indicated that they are planning an aggressive push to sign Crawford. He's the perfect guy for this team, a catalyst for a lineup that stagnated far more quickly than anyone expected.

All the losing this season has hit the Angels in the wallet. The atmosphere during much of the second half has felt like the bad old days in Anaheim. Even though the team keeps announcing crowds of 35,000 and up, keep in mind that number reflects the tickets sold. No-shows have cost the Angels millions in concession and merchandise sales. Season-ticket purchases figure to take a hit during the winter. The place was barely two-thirds full Wednesday night with the first-place Texas Rangers in town.

According to a baseball source, the Angels expect to lose about $10 million this season. So will Moreno go deeper into his pocket to get Crawford? Or will the Angels try to shed payroll to accommodate that contract?

The likeliest player to be dealt is catcher Mike Napoli, who has hit 25 home runs this season and, as he enters his third season of arbitration eligibility, could be in line for a salary of $6 million or more by the spring. It'll take more than that. The good news, from a financial standpoint, is that contracts to Justin Speier ($5.25 million) and Scot Shields ($5.35 million) will expire. The bad news is that a boatload of players -- including pitcher Jered Weaver and Morales -- will be due for big raises via arbitration.

General manager Tony Reagins said he won't necessarily have to rob Peter to pay Paul, or trade Mike to sign Carl.

"You always have to take account of how the finances work, but we're not limited financially in any way," Reagins said. "Whatever we need to do that makes sense and that's reasonable, we'll address."

If you're dubious, bear in mind that the Angels already took on at least $28.5 million in future payroll obligations when they acquired Haren from the Arizona Diamondbacks. You may not like everything this team does, but you can't argue that Moreno has been cheap given the market he bought into.

But even if Moreno extends the payroll to sign Crawford -- or even Jayson Werth or Adrian Beltre -- who's to say this team would become the AL West favorite? The problems might go deeper than a stagnant offense. Fernando Rodney hasn't exactly inspired confidence that he can be a lockdown closer next season. Closers typically have to throw strikes, and Rodney rarely does.
The Rangers have a shrewd front office and good, young players. The Oakland A's have a ridiculously young and talented pitching staff.

"We need to get better in every aspect of what we do," Reagins said. "That's pretty much the tone of the meeting."

Here's how one veteran baseball man described the Angels' 2010 downfall: They bet too heavily on their offense. By letting Chone Figgins go and replacing him with Hideki Matsui, they lost their identity as a defense-and-speed team. The power they hoped for never quite materialized, in part because Morales collapsed in a heap on home plate after hitting his 11th home run May 29.

"They became a club that could not create runs," the scout said. "They have too many of the same type hitter, guys who were supposed to be run producers. Torii [Hunter] tried to do too much, [Bobby] Abreu tried to do too much. They got out of their game plan. It was the first time they had to be that guy."

The cheap solution might actually set the Angels up best in the long run. They could jettison pricey veterans and go young. They could let Peter Bourjos, Hank Conger and, maybe, Mark Trumbo take their lumps in the batter's box, hoping they grow into their full potential in a year or two. By then, maybe Mike Trout will be on the verge of becoming a franchise building block.

But the rebuilding route doesn't seem to be the Angels' way under Moreno and Mike Scioscia. They're in it to contend year after year, even if it keeps getting harder and harder.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.