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New organizing principle

Special to The Times

The Angels have turned baseball’s proud parity into an American League West parody.

It’s not just that they are running away with the 2008 race, counting magic numbers with a month to go. It’s that they have the look of an organization that can continue to dominate.

Deep where they have to be -- the farm system and owner Arte Moreno’s wallet -- the Angels are headed to their fourth division title in the last five years, their fifth playoff appearance in the last seven, and their sixth straight year of 3 million or more in attendance.

Their dominant run resembles that of the streaking New York Yankees during the second half of the 1990s, but their foundation and composition are even more solid, their payroll certainly more reasonable.

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They are not only winning the West in ’08 but shredding it.

In the process they have forced overhauls of differing degrees in Texas, Oakland and Seattle, recognition and admiration for what the Angels have accomplished as an organization throughout the division, and a hint of bravado when it comes to competing in 2009 and beyond.

“I don’t think any of us in the AL West is conceding the division to the Angels in the future at all,” longtime Seattle Mariners President Chuck Armstrong said, “but I think we all admire the job they’ve done for the franchise, the fans and that region. They’ve set a standard, given us a target to shoot for. We want to beat them, but is it going to take some work? Well, this isn’t Notre Dame loading up on a bunch of patsies and throwing in Michigan and USC to make it look respectable. The schedule is pretty much the same for all of us.”

The ramifications stretch beyond the current standings.

The Mariners recently fired their manager and general manager and remain burdened with multiyear contracts that failed to close the competitive gap.

The Rangers hired Nolan Ryan with broad authority as club president, hoping his Hall of Fame pitching insights can help end the long struggle to build a staff comparable to their long-productive offense.

The Athletics, trying to work through the bureaucratic hurdles that continue to delay a new ballpark in Fremont, are undertaking the biggest makeover of Billy Beane’s career of successful makeovers.

Each of those organizations can take heart in the fact that they’ve been on top before, forcing the admiring Angels to look up with wishful thinking. The Mariners, for example, had the best record in baseball from 2000 through 2003, a four-year span in which the A’s went to the playoffs every year, repeating as division champions as recently as 2006.

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There is no defining blueprint in what can be a cyclical business.

It’s just that the Angels have seemed to create a sustainable design, producing a more convincing environment in that same division the others have led or won at different times in the past.

“Divisions and dominance go in cycles,” Beane said. “That being said, the Angels have become the organization we all thought they could become. They’ve done a phenomenal job, starting at the top, creating a brand name locally and complementing it in the best way possible on the field. They’ve done a great job with the farm system, and they have the resources to pursue premium free agents or trades.

“I mean, do they spend a lot more money than we do? Certainly. Are they spending more than some other people? No. They’re doing it as well as you can do it. They’ve enhanced their product and brand name and reinvested wisely.”

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As much as the Angels are being saluted for possibly producing baseball’s best team and most admired organization, no one has been applauded over the years more than Beane for his frequent reconstructions with limited finances.

Even amid the title run of ’06, however, Beane didn’t like where the A’s were headed “because we didn’t have the farm system we needed and we were getting to a payroll level we couldn’t sustain. It was time to take a breath and start over, to regenerate what we had done 10 years ago, which was to invest in a very young team and add to it when the time was right.”

Beane didn’t take only one breath, he took several, loading up on prospects by trading Nick Swisher, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Mark Kotsay and Rich Harden, among others. The developmental report card may not be in for two or three years. Right now, the A’s are buried in the West, last in the league in almost every offensive category, with all those prospects struggling.

“I don’t like where we are,” Beane said of the current standings, “but I like where we are headed. It’s a work in progress. I mean, there’s no franchise in baseball history which has had to do what we’ve had to do as many times as we’ve had to do it going back to Connie Mack. When you’re with the A’s, you get to a certain level, you sustain success and you start all over. Mack did it in the ‘30s. Charlie Finley did it in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We’ve been here before. It’s the hat we wear.”

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There’s certainly more than one history lesson in Seattle, where the Mariners, in Armstrong’s words, are experiencing the most disappointing of his 23 years as a club executive.

“I don’t think the Angels have anything we can’t catch up to,” he said from the West’s basement, “but after thinking it was going to happen this year I’m not predicting it’s going to happen next year.

“It’s not going to be a quick fix, because we’re going to have to grind through some of these contracts we’ve obligated ourselves to. Our attendance is going to go down in connection with our performance, and as chief operating officer here it’s my job to be fiscally and financially responsible, so you’re not going to see the Mariners go out and commit high dollars to free agents. We want to get back as quickly as we can, but we want to build something that will endure. If you don’t build a strong foundation in a market our size, you’re going to have some volatile swings in your record.”

Volatile? After winning 116 games in 2001 and establishing baseball’s best record over a four-year span through 2003, “we fell off the table in 2004 and we’ve been trying to fight our way back,” Armstrong said.

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There have been bad trades, bad drafts and bad signings.

The Mariners spent a treasure chest on, among others, Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, Carl Everett, Jose Guillen, Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva and Erik Bedard, giving up farm system prize Adam Jones to acquire the latter in a trade with Baltimore. At $118 million, the Mariners this year could become the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games with a payroll of more than $100 million. The fall from the table has claimed managers Lou Piniella, Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove and John McLaren. Jim Riggleman isn’t real secure as interim manager, and a search is underway to replace recently fired general manager Bill Bavasi.

In Texas, Ryan is operating with a patient but careful eye. He has replaced the pitching coach but allowed Manager Ron Washington to continue.

The Rangers are basically out of the division race but still in distant wild-card contention with an offense that leads the majors in runs and a pitching staff that is the worst in the majors, based on earned-run average.

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“I think offensively we can play with anyone, including the Angels, but we fall considerably short after that,” Ryan said.

Hired on the eve of spring training, “I didn’t have a timetable,” Ryan said, “because I wasn’t familiar enough with the organization to formulate one.

“I knew that for several years the Rangers have lacked the stability in their pitching that a championship team requires. I didn’t think the staff would present as big a challenge as it has turned out to be. We’ve had to rush a lot of our young prospects up, and I think that experience will be beneficial. But we’ve also asked them to do some things they weren’t developed enough to do.”

The task, he said, is to create a balance between offense and pitching that will allow the Rangers to be competitive every year.

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“At least I have a reasonable feel of what’s in the organization,” he said, “and how they project. I don’t know what our capability is going to be in the off-season to fill some needs through trades and free agency. We need a closer and we need to strengthen the rotation.

“I think it’s a challenge in today’s game to build a team that’s fighting for a division title every year, but I think the Angels have created the balance in all phases of their ballclub that we want to create here. I can’t predict how long it will take to reach that level, but it’s a formidable challenge in a division where the one team has now started to do it every year.”


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