The Angels moved one big step closer to the dreaded left-field platoon on Wednesday, signing veteran outfielder Daniel Nava to a one-year, $1.375 million deal, with another $500,000 available in incentives. The move came directly on the heels of Rajai Davis agreeing to terms with Cleveland and Justin Ruggiano closing in on a deal with Texas, so there was a brief moment when it seemed to have more to do with the Angels ensuring someone with Nava’s experience was still available as a fallback option than stepping out of the market for Alex Gordon, et al. But then Arte Moreno spoke.
We’ll get to that in a moment.
After the initial news broke, the follow-up tweet from just about every Angels beat writer was an assurance relayed through Billy Eppler that the signing of Nava didn’t preclude the club from making a run at a big-name outfielder — “We are still engaged with conversations with other outfielders,” is a thing he said. And so, for a moment, the signing made sense in that context. Of the three outfielders the Angels have signed to big-league deals this winter—Daniel Nava, Craig Gentry, and Rafael Ortega—only Nava is really guaranteed a spot on the roster. Ortega has at least two option years left, so he can be stashed at Triple-A, while Gentry and his non-guaranteed contract can be let go with just 45 days pay if he’s not placed on the active roster come Opening Day. Neither of them, then, really clog the outfield as you might expect three MLB contracts to do, leaving room for a legitimate upgrade to slide into the starting gig and for Daniel Nava be the fourth outfielder. At worst, the team would maybe have a passable platoon in the corner should Justin Upton and friends elect to play elsewhere.
Except, well … it appears the Angels are not—nor ever really were—attempting to upgrade left field with one the many above-average corner outfielders available this winter. Here it is, from the horse’s mouth:
“If we had a player that we felt was the right guy, we would probably go through it,” [Arte] Moreno said. “Right now, economically, it doesn’t fit. … You really have to look at 2017 and 2018 and beyond.
“When you start looking at seven-year deals, they’re tough. You really stretch the franchise out. If there’s a mistake or injury and it doesn’t work out, it really hinders what you’re trying to accomplish …
“You know, we’re doing the best we can. We really like Greinke and Price … Any of those [outfielders], you’d like to have … but it’s the economics.”
It’s a lot to take in, so before we break it down I’ll give you moment by letting you know that he also said the Angels didn’t even make an offer to Jason Heyward. ……… I KNOW.
Anyway, let’s work from the bottom up. First of all, “It’s the economics” sounds like something Vincent Adultman or Donald Trump might say, followed by a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It’s an incredibly patronizing cop out, and one that belies almost everything we know about both the team and the league right now. Moreno is on the record saying the team turns a profit, he earns at least $120 million annually from the team’s lavish TV deal with Fox Sports West, and he brought in MLB’s fifth-highest revenue ($304 million) in 2014. He is also one of the few owners who doesn’t carry debt on his team, and has said he could afford building a new stadium—a $500M-$600M investment!—without public funds. Meanwhile, league-wide revenue has jumped close to a billion dollars a year since TV deals from desperate regional sports networks started rolling in, from $7.5 billion in 2012 to an estimated $10 billion this year. The idea that Moreno and the Angels, in this current Scrooge-McDuck-money-pool environment, could somehow find themselves in dire financial straits because they signed a single player at market rates, is absolutely absurd.
Even the hand-wringing over the luxury tax is a bunch of hooey, as I laid out on Monday. The Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) penalty the club would pay in 2016 would be minimal in the big scheme of things—a $205 million payroll would result in a tax of *gasp* $2.8 million, or roughly the cost to platoon Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry following sub-replacement seasons. Also, there’s virtually no way the team would go over the threshold again in 2017 because: A) there’s more than $40 million coming off the books from just four players; and B) the luxury tax limit will likely be raised significantly when the CBA is re-negotiated next winter. Moreno would like us to believe the tax threshold might actually drop below $189 million in 2017—he literally said this—which I’m honestly not even sure how to respond to given all the information presented above. Like, is he on the same planet as the rest of us? Does he think the Players Association won’t notice that the tax has acted as a de facto salary cap and depressed wages to the point where they’re lagging behind revenue at a historic rate? It’s going up, just as it’s done every few years for more than a decade.
Back to the Moreno quote. The “if there’s a mistake or injury and it doesn’t work out” bit sounds a whole lot like someone who’s been spurned and become risk averse as a result. (I wonder what could have caused that.) It also describes every contract ever, not just the seven-year ones. If the concern was that the Angels will be saddled with yet another albatross contract to a mid-30’s outfielder, why not at least try offering one or more of those contract opt-outs that are all the rage right now? It hear it worked swimmingly for the Cubs.
Finally, Moreno’s lament about needing to “look at 2017 and 2018 and beyond” is hilarious because it’s clear he hasn’t done that beyond very narrow financial concerns. If he were looking at the left field situation for 2017, for instance, he’d notice immediately that the only even moderately decent left fielder available on the open market will be Colby Rasmus. Congratulations, you’re punting the position again because all the good players signed a year ago. Things look much better in 2018, but now you’ve wasted two prime Mike Trout seasons and perhaps the final halfway decent years Albert Pujols had left by cobbling together positions with spare parts rather than fielding the best team you could buy.
Obviously, there’s no guarantee that any of the Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, or Yoenis Cespedes contracts will work out for their respective clubs. Most free agent deals look pretty terrible down the line. But the apparent inability of Moreno and company differentiate between the skill sets of this group of players versus, say, Josh Hamilton, whom everyone knew was a bad investment, is incredibly disheartening. Upgrading in LF should have been the team’s easiest task this winter, as this was/is probably the best crop of corner outfielders on the market in one winter in years. All the Angels had to do to improve at the position—the second worst position in the AL West in 2015—was sign one of the several average or better players available. They’re signing none, instead seemingly relying on two injury-addled players in their 30’s who put up a 67 OPS+ last season COMBINED.
At present the club sits a little more than $8 million under the tax threshold, meaning even mid-level guys like Gerardo Parra, Denard Span, and Dexter Fowler are now presumably off limits. I suppose that window could re-open if C.J. Wilson or Hector Santiago are traded, but why deal either of them if the return isn’t a legit left fielder? The best-case scenario now is that the club is able to somehow work out a trade for Carlos Gonzalez or Jay Bruce. Otherwise, it’ll be near impossible to look at this portion of the offseason as anything but an abject failure.