Albert Pujols deal makes Angels important in L.A. and the AL

Signing the highly prized free agent shows the Angels are ready to challenge for a World Series title and establish themselves as the baseball standard in Los Angeles.

December 08, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Albert Pujols celebrates following the St. Louis Cardinals' victory over the Texas Rangers in the World Series on Oct. 29. Pujols' signing with the Angels adds even more credibility to a team owner who says he's dedicated to winning.
Albert Pujols celebrates following the St. Louis Cardinals' victory… (Jeff Haynes / Reuters )

The Rally Monkey has become King Kong.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Southern California's cute little boutique baseball team, blew open the cozy walls Thursday with $331.5 million in improvements that could change the local sports landscape forever.

Now starting at first base for the Angels, Albert Pujols, perhaps baseball's best player, a three-time most valuable player signed as a free agent from the St. Louis Cardinals for $254 million over 10 years.

Now in the starting pitching rotation for the Angels, C.J. Wilson, one of baseball's best left-handers, signed as a free agent from the Texas Rangers for $77.5 million over five years.

Now starring as the new boss man for Southern California baseball, Angels owner Arte Moreno.

Before Thursday, Moreno's biggest splash in his eight seasons as owner was the announcement that he was lowering beer prices. Raising expectations is no less bold, considerably more costly and, in the eyes of future Angels followers everywhere, far more enduring.

"This is a monumental day for Angels fans," Moreno said.

It's a potential monument day for Moreno, as the Angels may erect a statue of him if these moves finally push them into national prominence and, even more important, out of the local shadow of the Dodgers.

"It's a very exciting day for the Angels community, for Southern California as a whole," new General Manager Jerry Dipoto said.

The mention of "Southern California as a whole" was not accidental. Before Thursday, the Angels barely owned a piece of it. Now they are attempting to grab a ravine full of it.

Thursday's stunning shopping spree is truly as much about perception as winning percentage. Since buying the team in the spring of 2003, just months after the Angels won their first World Series, Moreno has tried and failed to stretch the team's brand beyond the club's Anaheim confines.

He built a consistent winner around the managerial skills of former Dodgers All-Star Mike Scioscia, yet the team still barely registers a buzz in Los Angeles.

He has operated an Angel Stadium that is more pleasant and fan-friendly than Dodger Stadium, yet folks from Los Angeles still buckle under the hourlong rush-hour drive required for most night games.

Several years ago, Moreno even changed the name of his team to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in hopes of reminding the world that they live here, but the world hasn't much noticed, with Angels memorabilia annually ranking among the league's worst sellers.

The team finally seemed to slip completely into irrelevancy last summer season when it failed to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year amid fan disillusionment with team officials who spent millions on mediocre outfielder Vernon Wells after acquiring him in a trade that sent away catcher Mike Napoli, who eventually wound up with the Texas Rangers, with whom he became a huge star.

One specific target of the fans' ire was Moreno himself, who promised me last winter that he would spare no expense in improving the team, yet again failed to land a top free agent.

With the Dodgers on the verge of emerging from their coma with new ownership next summer, if Moreno wanted to take one more shot at their stranglehold on the region while protecting his sagging brand, he had to act now.

He began the winter by virtually emptying his front office, and has now filled his dugout with two stars so huge, the Angels must be considered favorites to win the American League championship.

"I think it's a tribute to the aggressive nature, competitive nature and quality of our ownership," Dipoto said, adding, "Arte had made it very clear, he wants to win championships, he wants to win rings."

Overnight, it seems, the Angels are in a position to do both.

Before Thursday, the Angels' league-best pitching staff was saddled with its 10th-ranked offense. Pujols, who has slugging numbers that could make him a Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow, will change this.

Before Thursday, the Angels had not added any real star power since Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter while building a quiet little group that is endearing but rarely entertaining. Pujols, who is 31 yet already has 10 seasons of batting at least .300 with at least 100 runs batted in, will change this.

Before Thursday, few outside Orange County really noticed the Angels much. With Pujols' first giant swing and Wilson's first flailing strikeout, all of that will change.

About Pujols, Dipoto said, "Albert's proven over the course of the last 11 years to be the best player in baseball. … Albert brings so much more than just a bat in the lineup."

About Wilson, who ranked seventh in the AL last season with a 2.74 earned-run average, Dipoto said, "C.J. Wilson has been one of the premier starting pitchers in the American League over the last few years, and we felt it was a fantastic opportunity to add a quality left-handed starter to our lineup."

There will be complaints that Pujols' 10-year contract is too long to expect consistent production, yet there are two big reasons it might be just long enough. Because the Angels play in the AL, Pujols can end his career comfortably as a designated hitter. Because of this, the man with 445 home runs has a chance to surpass Barry Bonds' career record of 762 homers while playing for the Angels. If nothing else, Pujols can hit enough to become the greatest home-run hitter who has never been linked to steroids.

C.J. Wilson makes the Angels really good. Albert Pujols makes the Angels great.

On the most compelling day of his regime, Arte Moreno has accomplished even more by making the Angels relevant.

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