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Did Moreno Mastermind

The Pujols Deal?

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Arte Moreno, owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Might It Be Possible That The Owner Of The Los Angeles Angels Passed On Free Agents In A Half Decade Gamble To Land ‘The Machine’?

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 13, 2012 — We are in the midst of the abyss. The World Series ended ages ago, all of the major free agents have found homes, and Spring Training will not kick off for another couple of weeks. So, it sounds like the perfect time to throw out an entertaining, mysterious — and possibly false — baseball conspiracy theory to tide us over until the game returns in the spring.

Today's theory revolves around Angels owner and Tucson native Arte Moreno. More specifically, the theory centers on the belief that Moreno played one of the greatest hands of proverbial poker over the last several seasons in order to enhance his team's chances of acquiring free agent of the decade Albert Pujols.

In my opinion, the Angels’ achievement of reeling in Pujols has as much to do with Moreno's business acumen as it does with his wallet. Sure, the Angels offered the superstar slugger a monstrous deal (10 years, $240 million plus incentives). However, through an artful and devious scheme, Moreno was also able to hide his team's viability as a Pujols suitor, thus removing an element of competition for the first baseman that could have driven up the price even higher.

Let's take a look at recent history. After shelling out cash for bona fide stars Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter in the seasons following Moreno's acquisition of the team in 2003, the owner began to show a reticence to spend big on free agents in the past few years.

Exhibit A: Mark Teixeira. In 2007, Moreno seemed to continue the trend he set a year earlier with the Hunter signing when he made his first blockbuster trade as the Angels owner. Moreno allowed new GM Tony Reagins to organize a deadline trade with the Atlanta Braves for Teixeira, a slick-fielding power hitter. The Angels got what looked like a killer deal at the time, giving up only the sure-handed and light-hitting Casey Kotchman and minor league pitcher Stephen Marek.

Not much to scoff at there. No big set up for the free agent market of 2011-2012, right?

Wrong.

Moreno did not begin to set up his plan until the offseason, when the Angels failed to lock up Teixeira with a long-term contract. Instead, the 28-year-old switch hitter took an enormous 8-year, $180 million contract with the Yankees.

When Moreno and Reagins failed to come to terms with Teixeira and agent Scott Boras, the mid-season acquisition turned out to be an expensive short-term rental. Instead of employing one of the game's best first basemen in his prime, the Angels lost an adequate first baseman and a prospect for two months of service from Tex.

The press and baseball community widely derided the Angels for their inability to reel in Teixeira. The organization, which finally seemed to dismantle the perception that it would not spend big time money on free agents, was right back where it started.

And the perceived incompetency of the front office did not stop there.

The most notable screw-up following the Teixeira deal took place last year when the Angels failed to sign premier left fielder Carl Crawford in the offseason. By all accounts, Los Angeles was the perfect destination for Crawford. He was a good friend of Hunter, the Angels wanted him, and the team had money to spend.

And then the star free agent up and signed with the Boston Red Sox amid reports that the Angels offer wasn’t competitive.

And if that wasn't bad enough, the Angels tried to make up for the missed opportunity by making one of the worst trades in recent memory. The team traded slugging catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera for the bloated contract of aging star Vernon Wells.

Wells batted .218 with a .248 on-base percentage last season in Anaheim.

All Napoli did was have a career year for the rival Texas Rangers, a team that acquired the catcher in another offseason trade. Napoli jacked 30 homeruns (five better than Wells) and batted .320 for the division rival and eventual American League champs.

Throughout all of these deals, the Angels saw their position in baseball fall. They continually failed to advance far in the playoffs and missed the postseason altogether last year.

The Wells deal, which probably cost Reagins his job, just seemed like the latest in a long line of disastrous baseball moves made by the Angels of late.

But was it? Was the Teixeira fiasco and the train wreck that followed really just a mistake made by an inept, conservative front office? Or was Arte Moreno making a series of moves that would make the Angels a surprise player for Albert Pujols.

Some evidence points to the latter. For instance, after several years of questionable personnel moves and free agent failures, the Angels swooped in from under the radar in late-2011 and signed Pujols. The deal, which coincided with a large deal for pitcher CJ Wilson, came right on the cusp of a new television deal between the Angels and Fox Sports that will pay the club around $3 billion over 20 years, according to the LA Times.

Additionally, the deal comes a year after Moreno opted out of the old television contract in order to negotiate a new one. The new, more lucrative deal provided the money for the Pujols and Wilson signings.

Perhaps Moreno was just biding his time. Every one in the baseball world knew when Pujols would hit the open market. It is not ludicrous to suggest that Moreno, who knew that he would have the ability to free up money via the television deal, would have been planning this for the past several years.

After all, the guy is a shrewd businessman. His personal history is littered with tales of personal success. He sold his company, Outdoor Systems in 1998 for $8 billion, which gave him the wealth he needed to eventually buy the Angels.

Instead of going after subpar free agents (both Teixeira and Crawford have shown decline in recent years), Moreno saved his cash for the player that is considered one of the best in recent memory.

Maybe Moreno set the whole thing up.

By positioning the Angels as a subpar landing spot for free agents, Moreno allowed the team's offer to fly under the radar. Several GMs expressed their surprise at the team's deftness and guile following the announcement of the signing at the Winter Meetings.

In keeping the offer low-key, Moreno was able to avoid a bidding war. If other teams knew the level of the Angels interest, they could bid the team up to force the Angels to pay a higher premium.

A team like the Rangers, who had an interest but not a realistic shot at signing Pujols, could have made a higher public offer in order to complicate the Angels negotiations.

Moreno is very aware of this tactic after dealing with notorious agent and jerk Scott Boras on the Teixeira and Crawford deals. After seeing Boras use the Angels as leverage to raise the contract offers from other teams, Moreno was most likely eager to avoid another similar scenario involving Pujols and his representation (which does not include Boras).

This could also explain why the Angels made an all out push for Pujols while ignoring fellow all-star first baseman and free agent Prince Fielder, a Boras client, altogether.

In the end, Moreno is too deft a businessman for me to believe that it took him this long to figure out the whole front office thing. A more likely scenario characterizes Moreno as a clever owner and businessman who waited until the perfect moment to strike.

Arte Moreno might have just had the shrewdness and vision to conjure up the perfect storm that allowed the Angels to snag one of baseball's most iconic sluggers.

Wayne Schutsky lives in Phoenix, Ariz. Follow him @ThemanofLetters.
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