Angels are expected to shop the free-agent market in the off-season
Arte Moreno has been in stealth mode since the All-Star break, his appearances in Angel Stadium and availability to the media fading with his team’s playoff hopes.
But Torii Hunter has spoken to the Angels owner several times recently and has a handle on how Moreno feels about the club.
“Arte is [ticked off],” Hunter said. “And when he’s [ticked off], great things happen.”
The Angels will not be in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, closing the season with Sunday’s 6-2 win over the Texas Rangers, and if they are to avoid a similar ending in 2011, Moreno will have to put his money where his malevolence is.
Some first-class upgrades are available in free agency this winter, the most attractive being Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford, but they will be expensive.
Moreno is not expected to go all George Steinbrenner in the market, but there are indications he is willing to bump the payroll from its current $121 million to the $135-million range or beyond.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to add an important piece, and we don’t necessarily have to [clear payroll] to do it,” General Manager Tony Reagins said. “We will improve the club and put ourselves in a position to win long term. That is for certain.”
Heavy bidding for the speedy Crawford, who would fill huge voids at the top of the Angels order and in left field, could push his price tag to the $20-million-per-year range.
Philadelphia outfielder Jayson Werth, Boston third baseman Adrian Beltre, Washington slugger Adam Dunn and Boston catcher Victor Martinez are other attractive, expensive options.
Any of the five, combined with the return of first baseman Kendry Morales, whose season-ending broken leg May 29 torpedoed the team’s playoff hopes, would push the Angels right back into the playoff picture.
“Losing Kendry was a big, big blow — some of us probably lost some confidence when he went down,” Hunter said. “Getting him back will be like acquiring another player. But we also need someone at the top of the lineup to get on base, stir the pot a bit.”
The Angels thought Erick Aybar would do that, but the shortstop regressed badly from a strong 2009 (.312, .353 on-base) season, batting .253 with a .306 on-base percentage and getting dropped from the leadoff spot in early August.
Aybar was just one reason the offense sputtered, finishing ninth in the American League in runs (681), 12th in average (.248), 13th in on-base percentage (.311) and 12th in average with runners in scoring position (.242).
Hunter (.281, 23 home runs, 90 runs batted in) was solid, but every other Angel regular had below- or well-below-average years, and third baseman Brandon Wood (.146) was a disaster.
Throw in some shoddy defense, especially in the corner outfield spots, and shaky relief work, and it added up to the Angels’ first losing season since 2003 and an end of their three-year reign as AL West champions.
“We had more guys who struggled overall, and that led to fewer opportunities with guys in scoring position,” Manager Mike Scioscia had. “We were really miserable in setting the table, and when we got opportunities, we didn’t capitalize. That trend has to reverse.”
Crawford, who hit .307 with 19 homers, 90 RBIs, 109 runs and 47 stolen bases for the Rays, would help.
Hunter began recruiting Crawford during the All-Star game, making sure the two had lockers next to each other, and that process will continue after the World Series.
“I’m a friend of his, but I just have to advise him about free agency and the right way to go,” Hunter said. “For me, Anaheim is the right way to go. It’s sunny, we get 40,000 fans a game, we have soft turf.”
Hunter takes his role as recruiting coordinator seriously, but his track record isn’t good. He wooed Mark Teixeira two winters ago, and Teixeira spurned a huge Angels offer to sign a $180-million deal with the New York Yankees.
“Those Yankees pay you to change your mind,” Hunter said. “What can you do?”
Moreno’s money will speak volumes, but will there be enough of it to address the team’s needs?
With the July trade for pitcher Dan Haren, the Angels have nine players under contract next season — plus the money they still owe Gary Matthews Jr. — for $92 million.
Nine arbitration-eligible players will cost between $20 million and $25 million, so the 2011 payroll could approach $115 million before any additions.
The team will probably look to trim some $13 million in payroll by trading catcher Mike Napoli, whose 26 homers would attract interest, outfielder Juan Rivera and infielder Maicer Izturis.
That would allow them to add an impact bat and a veteran reliever as insurance if Fernando Rodney, who inspired little confidence in his closing abilities in September, struggles.
The Angels have a superb rotation with Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Haren and Joel Pineiro, and with some key additions, they could be in position to win a championship, something Hunter, 35, has never done.
“My clock is ticking, for real,” Hunter said. “I want to win. I didn’t come here for stats, for money. I know Arte and Tony want to win a World Series. That’s why I came here, because I can feel it. Those guys want it.”