Angels' Josh Hamilton swings at strike three in the second inning… (John Sleezer / MCT )
The Dodgers barely had emerged from bankruptcy last year when the Angels made their annual pilgrimage to Dodger Stadium. The home team featured an infield of Elian Herrera at third base, Dee Gordon at shortstop, Jerry Hairston Jr. at second base and James Loney at first base.
The Dodgers sold more than 50,000 tickets. They were in first place.
The 2013 edition of the Freeway Series opens Monday at Dodger Stadium, with marquee men Josh Hamilton, Adrian Gonzalez and Zack Greinke new to the rivalry. The Dodgers do not project a sellout, or anything close.
GRAPHIC: Compare Dodgers', Angels' salaries
The Dodgers, with the largest payroll in baseball history, are in last place. The Angels, the team that dropped $375 million on Hamilton and Albert Pujols, have a losing record even after winning their eighth consecutive game Sunday.
The middle class of the major leagues loves this, the snickers from the teams without mega-billions in television riches. You can almost hear the heartland owners, laughing at the L.A. teams falling on their moneyed faces.
"I'm sure of that," Dodgers President Stan Kasten said, "because I used to say that."
Kasten was president of the Atlanta Braves for all but the final two years of their streak of 14 consecutive division championships. The Braves never fielded the highest payroll in the major leagues, and Kasten repetitively preached the virtues of scouting and player development.
John Carpino, the Angels' president, declined an interview request but did respond to questions via e-mail. He said the signings of Pujols and Hamilton have been good for the Angels, and good for their business.
"There is a tremendous amount of business value in regards to the signing of both Albert and Josh," Carpino said, "starting with what they add to the lineup in addition to the positive perception of their charitable contributions within the community.
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"We are in the business of serving fans, and Angel fans deserve the best team in baseball. From a business standpoint, better players should lead to better team performance, which will have a positive impact on revenue."
Pujols is 33 and Hamilton 32, with each player on pace for the worst season of his career. The Angels have not made the playoffs since 2009, with season-ticket sales down by about 2,000 this year. However, Carpino said the Angels project selling more than 3 million tickets for the 11th consecutive year.
The Angels take a long-term view — Carpino said the team continually modifies its seven- and 10-year business plans — but the club appears to have bumped up against its spending limit.
After signing Pujols, Hamilton and pitchers Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson to contracts totaling $537.5 million over the last three years, the Angels traded Vernon Wells this year to get under the luxury tax threshold. The threshold increases from $178 million this year to $189 million for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons.
"We should operate our payroll below the luxury tax," Carpino said.
The Angels have developed a home-grown core that includes Weaver, outfielders Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos, and infielders Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Alberto Callaspo. The Dodgers' home-grown regulars: pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, catcher A.J. Ellis, and outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
The Dodgers might operate above the luxury tax this year, and for a few years to come, but Kasten said that is not part of the long-term business plan. Instead, he said, the new owners wanted to spend to win now while revitalizing a hollow minor league system, rather than sit back and wait three to five years for the farm to grow.
In ownership's first full season, the Dodgers sold a record 31,000 season tickets. They lead the major leagues in attendance.
"We understand that you can't win by just writing checks," Kasten said. "For us, in our market, with this fan base, we felt it was something we needed to do for now. But it is not our long-term strategy. Our long-term strategy is one you might recognize from my history."
Here's the thing: You can't win on scouting and player development alone. That is a foundation, with free agency a necessary supplement. Spending does not guarantee winning, but spending absolutely correlates with winning.
In the 12 years in which the Braves won the NL East under Kasten, they had one of the top five payrolls in the NL every year but one. They had the highest payroll in the NL five times.
You have to spend the money. If the Dodgers and Angels do not sell out their four games this week, that is a referendum on what they got for their money, not whether they should spend it.