Angels find economic playing field has changed

On The Angels

The e-mails have poured in, their theme personified by Craig Dunkin of Los Angeles, who wrote: “I know I’m not the only panicky Angels fan who has written to you . . . but what the heck are they doing?”

Jim Bishop asked, “Is there some sort of cap on Angels spending? Or is [General Manager] Tony Reagins simply swinging and missing?”

And when news broke last week that the Angels’ top two pitching targets, John Lackey and Roy Halladay, would be heading to Boston and Philadelphia, respectively, Joshua Bonwell wondered, “Did Bill Stoneman bust through the walls like the Kool-Aid man, stage a coup and reassume control of the GM position?”

These are troubling times for Angels fans used to seeing their team outbid others.

This was the club that secured 2004 American League most valuable player Vladimir Guerrero, current center fielder Torii Hunter and former pitcher Kelvim Escobar with high bids, that locked up 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon by adding a fourth year to their offer when no other team would.

But in a December to not remember, Lackey, the Angels’ ace, signed a five-year, $82.5-million deal with the Red Sox, third baseman and leadoff batter Chone Figgins signed a four-year, $36-million deal with Seattle that includes a vesting option for a fifth year, and reliever Darren Oliver signed a one-year, $3.5-million deal with Texas that includes a vesting option for a second year.

The Angels did sign designated hitter Hideki Matsui to a one-year, $6-million deal, and the veteran slugger should be an upgrade over the aging and injury-prone Guerrero.

But in talks with Lackey, Figgins and Oliver, the Angels were outbid by teams willing to go one more year on each.

Wary of elbow injuries that sidelined Lackey at the start of 2008 and 2009, the Angels did not want to go more than four years on the 31-year-old.

And concerned about Figgins’ age (32 in January), his .172 batting average and .223 on-base percentage in 35 career postseason games, the Angels did not want to go more than three years on him.

The Angels actually offered Oliver more guaranteed money for one year, but the Rangers’ vesting option swayed the 39-year-old left-hander.

The defections leave voids at the front of the rotation, top of the order and middle of the bullpen, and many with the idea that the Angels, winners of five of the last six division titles, won’t be AL West favorites.

Many fans are left to wonder, what in the name of Arte Moreno is going on?

“We’re trying to conduct business in an objective manner,” Reagins said. “We looked at the value we placed on any particular player, and when other clubs exceeded that value, we looked at alternatives.”

The Angels GM said he wasn’t “working under any budgetary constraints,” but acknowledged he was trying to keep the 2010 payroll “similar” to this year’s -- about $113 million.

With raises to players on multiyear contracts and projected raises to eight arbitration-eligible players, the Angels already had about $101 million committed to 2010, not counting Lackey, Figgins and Oliver, so they had only about $12 million to play with this winter, half of which went to Matsui.

The Angels have spent lavishly on free agents since Moreno bought the club in 2003, but the owner’s resources -- much to the surprise of fans who thought he was the West Coast version of George Steinbrenner -- are not limitless.

For the first time in three years, the Angels lost money in 2009, and though the losses are not believed to be exorbitant, the economic downturn has affected the club.

An already lean front office cut costs by laying off three employees this winter. Longtime broadcasters Rex Hudler and Steve Physioc were let go.

And though the Angels will still have a big-market payroll in 2010, they are now operating more like baseball’s conservative small-market clubs.

“Seasons change, players change, times change,” Reagins said. “We have to look at the long-term future of our organization. We project four or five years down the road. I think it’s smart to operate that way, and our results have been very positive.”

But where does that leave the Angels? The offense, despite the loss of Figgins, still looks deep. Maicer Izturis and the speedy Erick Abyar can lead off, and Bobby Abreu, Hunter, Kendry Morales, Matsui, Juan Rivera, Howie Kendrick and Mike Napoli should provide decent pop.

Rookie third baseman Brandon Wood also has the potential to add power, and catcher Jeff Mathis showed with his productive postseason that he has more in his bat.

The rotation, with Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir, Ervin Santana and Matt Palmer, looks competitive but lacks the front-of-the-rotation hammer most World Series contenders have.

The bullpen should be helped by the return of veteran set-up man Scot Shields, who missed most of 2009 because of left-knee surgery, and the continued development of right-handers Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger, who are coming off fine rookie seasons.

But the Angels appear one dominant starter and one late-inning reliever away from being championship-caliber.

Reagins, who confirmed interest in former Detroit closer Fernando Rodney, said his list of relief targets “is pretty deep,” somewhat rebutting a report that Rodney had agreed to a two-year, $11-million deal with the Angels.

“We don’t believe we’re done building this team,” Reagins said, “but we feel good about where this team is now.”

But some fans now see the Mariners, who signed Figgins and traded for Cliff Lee, as division favorites.

“We value our fans’ opinions,” Reagins said, “but we feel very strongly that we will put a contending team on the field again, a team that will be in a position to go to the World Series.”