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New organizing principle

The Angels' successful system has become the envy of their AL West rivals, who must retool if they are to become competitive again.

September 02, 2008|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

The Angels have turned baseball's proud parity into an American League West parody.

It's not just that they are running away with the 2008 race, counting magic numbers with a month to go. It's that they have the look of an organization that can continue to dominate.

Deep where they have to be -- the farm system and owner Arte Moreno's wallet -- the Angels are headed to their fourth division title in the last five years, their fifth playoff appearance in the last seven, and their sixth straight year of 3 million or more in attendance.

Their dominant run resembles that of the streaking New York Yankees during the second half of the 1990s, but their foundation and composition are even more solid, their payroll certainly more reasonable.

They are not only winning the West in '08 but shredding it.

In the process they have forced overhauls of differing degrees in Texas, Oakland and Seattle, recognition and admiration for what the Angels have accomplished as an organization throughout the division, and a hint of bravado when it comes to competing in 2009 and beyond.

"I don't think any of us in the AL West is conceding the division to the Angels in the future at all," longtime Seattle Mariners President Chuck Armstrong said, "but I think we all admire the job they've done for the franchise, the fans and that region. They've set a standard, given us a target to shoot for. We want to beat them, but is it going to take some work? Well, this isn't Notre Dame loading up on a bunch of patsies and throwing in Michigan and USC to make it look respectable. The schedule is pretty much the same for all of us."

The ramifications stretch beyond the current standings.

The Mariners recently fired their manager and general manager and remain burdened with multiyear contracts that failed to close the competitive gap.

The Rangers hired Nolan Ryan with broad authority as club president, hoping his Hall of Fame pitching insights can help end the long struggle to build a staff comparable to their long-productive offense.

The Athletics, trying to work through the bureaucratic hurdles that continue to delay a new ballpark in Fremont, are undertaking the biggest makeover of Billy Beane's career of successful makeovers.

Each of those organizations can take heart in the fact that they've been on top before, forcing the admiring Angels to look up with wishful thinking. The Mariners, for example, had the best record in baseball from 2000 through 2003, a four-year span in which the A's went to the playoffs every year, repeating as division champions as recently as 2006.

There is no defining blueprint in what can be a cyclical business.

It's just that the Angels have seemed to create a sustainable design, producing a more convincing environment in that same division the others have led or won at different times in the past.

"Divisions and dominance go in cycles," Beane said. "That being said, the Angels have become the organization we all thought they could become. They've done a phenomenal job, starting at the top, creating a brand name locally and complementing it in the best way possible on the field. They've done a great job with the farm system, and they have the resources to pursue premium free agents or trades.

"I mean, do they spend a lot more money than we do? Certainly. Are they spending more than some other people? No. They're doing it as well as you can do it. They've enhanced their product and brand name and reinvested wisely."

As much as the Angels are being saluted for possibly producing baseball's best team and most admired organization, no one has been applauded over the years more than Beane for his frequent reconstructions with limited finances.

Even amid the title run of '06, however, Beane didn't like where the A's were headed "because we didn't have the farm system we needed and we were getting to a payroll level we couldn't sustain. It was time to take a breath and start over, to regenerate what we had done 10 years ago, which was to invest in a very young team and add to it when the time was right."

Beane didn't take only one breath, he took several, loading up on prospects by trading Nick Swisher, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Mark Kotsay and Rich Harden, among others. The developmental report card may not be in for two or three years. Right now, the A's are buried in the West, last in the league in almost every offensive category, with all those prospects struggling.

"I don't like where we are," Beane said of the current standings, "but I like where we are headed. It's a work in progress. I mean, there's no franchise in baseball history which has had to do what we've had to do as many times as we've had to do it going back to Connie Mack. When you're with the A's, you get to a certain level, you sustain success and you start all over. Mack did it in the '30s. Charlie Finley did it in the '60s and '70s. We've been here before. It's the hat we wear."

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