The thing is, Adrian Beltre wanted to be an Angel.
Assuming you believe Peter Gammons (only one of the most respected men in baseball), Beltre begged the Angels to sign him after his excellent 2010 campaign in Boston, which in terms of fWAR remains his second best season, trailing only his 9.9 fWAR season in 2004 while a member of the Dodgers, a season he parlayed into a $64M deal with Seattle that winter.*
* Baseball contracts have come a long way in 8 years. If a 25-year old third basemen with an elite glove entered the market after posting a 10-win season now, he would sign for at least $150M. Conservatively.
After the Angels finished 80-82 in 2010, the first year since 2006 they failed to win the AL West, owner Arte Moreno wanted to make a statement in the free agent market. 2009 was really the last year for the Angels “Golden Years,” a period starting in 2002 that saw the team collect their first World Series title and make games in October an annual event for a fan base used to mediocrity — before 2002, the Angels hadn’t made the postseason since 1986, about as long as the current Orioles streak that is going to be broken in a few days. Chone Figgins and John Lackey signed elsewhere (phew), and the Angels no longer wanted the services of 2004-MVP Vladimir Guerrero. 2010 being a season of transition, the offense struggled to the tune of a .309 wOBA (second worst in the AL, ahead of only the historically inept Mariners and their .286 team wOBA) thanks to a lineup of hackers that didn’t particularly hack that well.
With a burning hole in his pocket, Moreno and GM Tony Reagins let it be known the Angels had arrived, dammit, and you best get out of their way. They were getting Carl Crawford, the Tampa Bay lifer looking to take his speed game elsewhere. The Angels seemed like a logical place. A spacious outfield to compliment Crawford’s slash hitting, a team and manager that embraced small ball tactics and stolen bases. The media types all told us everyday: The Angels will sign Carl Crawford. It was only a matter of when, not if.
Then they didn’t. Crawford chose Boston. Nobody knew at the time this was a godsend for the Angels, a second chance granted by the baseball gods to sign someone that was, you know, still good. That player seemed to be Beltre. The Angels had a need at third base, Beltre made his bones in the LA-area, lived there during the offseason, and expressed desire to play for a contender. The fit seemed obvious.
But the Angels lowballed Beltre, balking at his asking price in the $90M range and instead offered a 5-year, $70M deal. Shortly after, the Angels pulled their offer entirely, undoubtedly still sore with Beltre’s agent, Scott Boras, for negotiations that went sour when Moreno attempted to resign Mark Teixeira following the 2008 season. Talks never really progressed after that and, in a move that may have swung two division titles, Adrian Beltre signed with the Rangers for 5-years, $96M. In the two years Beltre has spent in Texas, he’s raked. He’ll assuredly finish this season in the Top 5 in MVP voting, a season in which he’ll post the third highest fWAR of his career.
Now, it’s semi-ridiculous to say Beltre signing with Texas in and of itself swung two division titles to Texas and took two away from the Angels. But the Angels’ subsequent move, desperately shipping Mike Napoli (only one of their 2 or 3 best hitters in 2010) to Canada for a washed-up Vernon Wells, opened the door for Texas to acquire Napoli, where he’s continued to do Napoli things: hit lots of home runs, walk a lot, and provide the type of production that is rare for a catcher.
The Vernon Wells trade will always be Tony Reagins’ most infamous move and will ultimately be the reason he’s never again entrusted with any roster-shaping decisions for a MLB team. It was beyond stupid at the time and now even more so. If you want that trade in a snapshot, check out the game highlights from a couple weeks ago, where Napoli hit a home run to center field and two batters later Wells fell into the stands (the Wells thing is at the beginning of the video).
But at the time, though, I could at least understand Reagins’ motivation. He was under pressure from ownership to make something happen, so he traded away an asset for a player he simply incorrectly valued. And he was going to spend the money on Crawford anyway, so what harm will it do to sign Wells? And to be fair, Napoli’s Piazza impression in 2011 was really just an ill-timed fluke. I watched Napoli for years and he made me want to throw my remote at the TV more than I wanted to stand up and cheer (a byproduct of his career 25.4% K rate but also because even I didn’t understand what a great asset he is). 2011 Napoli? That ain’t Mike Napoli. And what goes unmentioned often is that Toronto flipped him to Texas for freaking Frank Francisco, and Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos is regarded as one of the smartest GMs in game. One of the smartest GMs in the game doesn’t trade Piazza for a relief pitcher.
Trading Napoli for Wells was poor judgement, but the bigger miscalculation on the Angels’ part was trading Adrian Beltre for Vernon Wells. This may be simplistic reasoning, but if they were willing to pay Vernon Wells $80M but only Beltre $70M, I assume that means they valued Wells higher. That’s right, Tony Reagins would have rather had a declining corner outfielder that never hit very well away from his hitter-friendly home ballpark than a slick-fielding third basemen that actually hit BETTER away from Fenway Park in 2010 (.403 road wOBA; .375 home wOBA). And when you consider the Angels had promising outfielders Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos in the pipeline, it didn’t make sense to create a logjam at a filled position with a mediocre player than use the same resources to fill an area of need with an excellent player.
The Angels were correct to be hesitant to sign Beltre coming off one monster year in Boston, especially on the heels of what appeared to be several disappointing years in Seattle. But his struggles in Seattle were always a little overblown. In addition to Safeco’s extreme pitcher-friendly confines, Beltre had almost literally nobody else in the middle of the order to give him any help. Richie Sexson, the Mariner’s other big free agent signing heading into 2005, went from 4.2 fWAR to -1.5 in two seasons, flaming out of baseball and retiring after a brief stint with the Yankees in 2008 at only 33 years old.
Fact of the matter is, Beltre really wasn’t that bad in Seattle, save 2005, his first year there and maybe one in which he had difficulty adjusting to a new (and also better) league. His batting average was a little ugly, but everything else checked out at rates that were pretty consistent with his career norms. Impressively, he even hit 25 home runs each season from 2006-2008, no easy feat in Seattle; since Beltre left after 2009, the highest home run total for a Mariner is only 19, by the incomparable Miguel Olivo in 2011 and Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Kyle Seager this season.
Another facet of signing Beltre to consider is that, had Beltre donned an Angels cap, they almost assuredly would have held onto Napoli. With Beltre, their big bat in hand, Moreno and gang likely call it a day. Napoli stays in So Cal, and Vernon Wells remains in the Great White North, his deteriorating skills hidden by an offensive ballpark and irrelevant September games.
Let’s fast forward to this season. The Angels are currently on the outside looking in at the playoff picture; if they don’t catch Oakland or Baltimore, it will be the third straight year they’ve missed the playoffs. This, even with spending a fortune in the offseason to acquire Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Beltre is crushing it in Texas and the Rangers may finish with the best record in the AL. Many (including myself) consider them the favorites to win the World Series. It’s hard not to fantasize about Beltre in an Angel uniform, especially when he hits game winning homers off them.
Had the Angels signed him, it’s also likely the Angels don’t sign Pujols. Why? Well, with Beltre and Napoli producing for the 2011 Angels (and not for the 2011 Rangers), the Angels very well may have won the division.** At the very least, they would have been closer than the ten games they finished behind the Rangers, possibly giving the Angels less incentive to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a great, but declining, player.
** Also, Michael Young would have had to play third base for the Rangers. In 2010 at third base, he was worth -11 defensive runs saved. Or promising prospect Mike Olt, a Rangers supplemental first round pick in 2010, could have gotten a look earlier as an everyday third basemen. In just 39 plate appearances this season he’s struggled with a .156/.256/.188 slash. In Olt’s defense, he’s young, still talented (John Sickels ranked him the 38th best prospect in baseball in July), and he would likely be better served playing everyday. The point remains, though: he’s not Adrian Beltre (yet).
For fun, or misery, here’s what I would have projected this year’s Angels lineup to be if they signed Beltre in 2011. Also, for this exercise, you have to pretend Trumbo isn’t the dumpster fire he’s been for the last two months:
Overall, the team’s offensive output may take a bit of a dip because of Pujols’ absence and because we have to account for Beltre’s performance away from Arlington, where his OPS is over 140 points worse. But even then his numbers compare favorably with 2012 Pujols; also, the Angels would have Napoli in the fold. Chris Iannetta’s (a.k.a. Diet Napoli) arrival somewhat mitigates Napoli’s departure — though Napoli is down this season, he has battled injuries and is simply better than Iannetta. Lastly, Wells is gone and not making outs at the plate and derps in the field.
And, holy hell, look at that defense. If any offense is lost at all with Pujols not on the roster, this defense more than makes up for it. The Trout-Bourjos-Hunter trifecta is the best defensive outfield in the game, a huge boon for typical fly ball pitchers like Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana. On the infield, Beltre is arguably the best defensive third basemen in the game. Aybar is Aybar, which is to say, sometimes spectacular and sometimes a knucklehead. Kendrick is usually fine when he’s not screwing up routine plays. Even Trumbo is good at first base; in 2011, he saved the fourth most runs in MLB.
Also, with about $150M saved by not signing Pujols, the Angels could have used the resources to fill other areas of need. Make a bid for Yu Darvish? Sure, why not? Allocate more money towards the bullpen and sign guys that are younger than 78-year old Jason Isringhausen? You got it. Sign Trout to a bajillionty dollar extension? Coming right up! Or, here’s a novel thought: don’t spend the money — save it for a rainy day.
Who knows how long the Angels would have been able to keep pace with the Rangers. The Rangers are undeniably set up better for the future and look like a safe bet to win multiple championships over the next decade. Those two players wouldn’t have hid the fact that Texas is loaded on the farm and flush with cash of their own from a new TV deal. But I can tell you the Angels would also be set up better now and and in the future, with more cash freed because they wouldn’t be owing $250M to a 1B/DH that will be with the team for three presidential elections.***
*** They would also have a 2012 draft pick before #114.
Or Moreno could have said “F*** it” and signed Pujols anyway. In which case, the Angels blow Texas’ doors off, cruise to a couple division titles and, if the pitching holds up, a World Series title. Either way, if you want to blame a specific player or front office member for the disappointing year that was the 2012 Angels, go right ahead. I know I’ll have a few things to say as we enter the dark, vacuous offseason. Just don’t forget that this all could have been avoided. For a GM that was crucified for a silly trade with Toronto, it turns out his worst mistake was whiffing on Beltre.
It’s pretty ironic that many believed the Angels won the 2012 World Series last December after they signed Pujols and C.J. Wilson, when really they lost the 2012 World Series by not signing a free agent just two years prior.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher.