At 6 a.m. last Thursday, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto dialed the operator at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas and asked for a wake-up call. "A wake-up call?" the perplexed operator asked. "Yes," Dipoto responded, "8 a.m."
In only his 41st day on the job, Dipoto had just worked deep into the night to give away $331.5 million in 2½ hours—$148 million more than owner Arte Moreno paid for the franchise eight years ago—to free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Dipoto closed the deal that added Pujols to the Angels' lineup at 3 a.m. Wilson became a member of the rotation at 5:30.
The swiftness and size of the spending was a wake-up call to the entire industry. Three weeks after the heralding of a new collective bargaining agreement designed to enhance competitive balance, the Angels proved literally overnight that nothing separates clubs like boatloads of television money.
Just 12 months earlier Moreno lost out to the deep-pocketed Red Sox in the bidding for 29-year-old outfielder Carl Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and bemoaned, "Seven years on a player is a huge risk financially." Moreno then gave a 10-year contract to Pujols that will pay the first baseman $254 million through age 42. Wilson, who won 16 games for Texas this year and had the AL's seventh-best ERA (2.94), received a five-year deal worth $77.5 million.
December 19, 2011
What changed was the upheaval and inflation that hit the Los Angeles television-rights market. Last spring Moreno reopened his $50 million-per-year local broadcast deal with Fox, and he leveraged the hot demand for live-sports content as well as the network's anxiety about having lost the Lakers and the possibility of losing the Dodgers to Time Warner Cable. Moreno tripled his annual take from Fox (an average of $150 million for 20 years) just as Pujols hit the market. The Angels' $141 million payroll from last season is expected to swell to near the $178 million luxury-tax threshold in 2012.
The TV jackpot instantly turned the Angels into a superpower, not unlike how the Rangers, their AL West rival, went from bankruptcy to extravagance within a year with an $80 million per year broadcast deal that begins in 2015 and included upfront money. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, playing in a small market without such TV riches, were priced out of Pujols, offering the slugger $210 million for nine years to remain the heir to Stan Musial in the line of career Cardinals royalty. The comparison, except for the mythology, falls apart. Musial never had the option to become a free agent or the available riches of regional sports networks. He played so long ago that he took part in more day games than night games and played in only 10 road cities, including just 114 games west of St. Louis.
Now top players are prized for entertainment value as much as playing value, as ratings boosters as much as attendance boosters, and Pujols gives the Angels a panache they sorely lacked. The team was the worst road draw in baseball last season; it ranked next to last in home TV ratings and had no player rank among the top five at any position in All-Star voting. The Angel with the most votes, second baseman Howie Kendrick, ranked 55th overall among AL players.
Los Angeles vice president of communications Tim Mead, who has worked for the franchise since 1980, called the signing and introduction of Pujols—the club invited fans to a gala news conference last Saturday—as "the third- and fourth-most-significant moments in franchise history, behind only the inauguration of the team and the 2002 world championship."
The Angels immediately fielded requests for Pujols from Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, sold 1,000 season-ticket packages and expected games to be rescheduled to allow the maximum allowable appearances on ESPN and Fox telecasts. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year, the Angels are suddenly a powerhouse with Pujols, Wilson, a deep rotation and the promise of outfielder Mike Trout, one of the top young players in baseball. While Pujols has posted declining numbers for three straight years in batting average, slugging and OPS, Dipoto said, "I don't necessarily see it as a clear decline. And if we want to call it a decline going from superhuman to just great, I don't think we've seen the last great days of Albert Pujols."
FISH OF A DIFFERENT COLOR
The newly named, newly outfitted, newly ensconced Miami Marlins proved they are serious, if not profligate, when it comes to spending money. A club that has never spent more than $60 million on payroll dished out $191 million to three free agents: shortstop Jose Reyes, starting pitcher Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell. It tried and failed to dole out much more. The Marlins wanted to be the high bidder on Pujols and Wilson, with owner Jeffrey Loria at one point looking Wilson in the eye and asking, "What will it take to make you a Marlin?" Miami indicated to Wilson that it was prepared to go to $100 million, but Wilson still preferred his hometown team, the Angels, for more than $20 million less.
Buying stability will be much more difficult for one of the most unstable franchises in baseball. Miami stuck firm to its policy of not offering no-trade clauses. Said one agent, "The money is impressive, but there is always a nagging feeling about where they will be in a couple of years? You can't forget what happened to [Carlos] Delgado."
The Marlins signed Delgado to a backloaded four-year deal that began in 2005, the year of their team-record $60 million payroll. They traded him to the Mets after one year while slashing the payroll by three quarters.
With a sleek retractable-roof ballpark and an upgraded roster, Loria is taking his best shot at establishing a loyal fan base. The Marlins have finished last in the NL in attendance six straight years and have drawn two million fans only twice in their 19 years of existence: their inaugural season and their 1997 world championship season. Loria said he expects to draw about 2.8 million in the honeymoon season of 2012, providing the bulk of Miami's new revenue stream. The pressure is on the Marlins, who have had only two 90-win teams, to win enough games to keep fans coming back when the novelty of the park wears off. If not, the Miami Marlins might resemble the Florida Marlins all too soon.
NEW NEW THING
A PITCHER OF IMPORT
Another potential jackpot was arranged last Thursday: the posting of Nippon Pro Baseball ace Yu Darvish (above). Major league teams had until 5 p.m. this Wednesday to submit a bid to win the right to negotiate with the 25-year-old righthander, a 6'5" power pitcher who has posted an ERA below 2.00 for five straight years with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan's Pacific League.
Darvish is younger and has better career statistics (93--38, 1.99 ERA) than Daisuke Matsuzaka did in 2006, when (at age 26, with a 108--60 record and 2.95 ERA) he commanded a $51.1 million posting fee and a $52 million, six-year contract from the Red Sox. Matsuzaka, like many pitchers who jumped from NPB to MLB, quickly broke down. Among the nine Japanese-born pitchers since 1995 who made 40 U.S. starts—not including nonqualified busts such as Kei Igawa and Junichi Tazawa—only the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda (3.45) has posted a career ERA better than 4.24.
Despite that checkered track record, teams such as the Nationals, Yankees, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mariners and Red Sox are interested in Darvish, who may command Matsuzaka money. Said one talent evaluator, "With what you have to pay him, he has to be no worse than a Number 2 starter right away. And he looks like a middle- to top-of-the-rotation starter now. He has the size, strength and age to overcome some of the transition problems."