Sixty-nine Angels gathered Saturday at Tempe Diablo Stadium for their first full-squad workout of 2017.
Unseasonable rain pounding the Phoenix area nixed that. But, in a rare instance of public comment, their owner, Arte Moreno expressed excitement about the Angels’ chances this season.
He said he believed the team had improved from its 88 losses in 2016.
“We’re gonna try to win,” Moreno said. “We still have some economic flexibility this year. We’ll sort of watch and see what is on the market that may help us in the short term. We feel like we’re gonna be competitive and need to stay healthy.”
Their competitiveness will depend, he noted, on the other American League West teams. He said he expected Houston to be better and Texas to have trouble repeating its 36-11 record in one-run games.
Moreno had declined The Times’ repeated requests for an interview for more than one year, sometimes citing his displeasure with the coverage’s accuracy. After conducting his first news conference in 16 months Saturday, he agreed to a conversation.
Moreno described the process by which he signed off giving infielder Luis Valbuena a two-year, $15-million contract late in the off-season, when he had already surpassed his planned budget.
General Manager Billy Eppler called to say he had gotten Valbuena down from his longer, pricier asking price, and noted the importance of acquiring depth to back up Albert Pujols and Yunel Escobar. Moreno gave his OK after considering Pujols’ December foot surgery and the four sidelining injuries Escobar suffered last season.
“I don’t sit here and just say, go get this player, or I’m gonna sign this player, or whatever,” Moreno said, referencing the reported manner of the signings of Pujols and Josh Hamilton. “The press makes it sound like I’m doing that. I’ve never done it that way, because being an owner, managing businesses, if you don’t believe in the people there, right or wrong, you’re never gonna have a good business.”
Fourteen years ago, Moreno purchased the Angels for $180 million. Last March, Forbes estimated the franchise to be worth $1.34 billion. Noting that he had no debt on the team, Moreno guessed that he gave himself the smallest salary of all major league owners.
The budget constraints he described were based on simple economics: expenditures as a percentage of overall revenue. The last two seasons, the club’s payroll has exceeded the target percentage and cut into profit.
“Really, the last couple of years, we were, economically, trying to push the ceiling,” Moreno said. “We try to run the franchise with no debt, so long-term we’re not ever in the situation where we have to walk in and say, ‘We need to move players. We really looked hard at ’16 and ’17 and felt that we start to open up more economic flexibility in ’17 and ’18.”
Moreno revealed at the news conference that his team will continue to play at Angel Stadium for the next 13 seasons, necessitating improvements to the 51-year-old facility. But, he claimed, the media have opted against reporting on the team’s investment of more than $40 million of “straight capital” into the stadium under his watch.
“We did not want our fans to come to a ballpark that was falling apart,” he said. “We communicate with the fans. The fans are pretty comfortable about how clean it is and what we try to accomplish.”
For superstar center fielder Mike Trout, most of Saturday was encouraging, save for the showers. He met with reporters for the first time, and walked through the clubhouse introducing himself to his many new teammates. He believes the team was improved around him. And he came to Arizona prepared with a goal for 2017, as has become his tradition.
“Stolen bases, I’d like to maybe try to get 40,” Trout said, something he managed in 2012. “You work hard in spring and you set your goals high and see if you can reach them.”
Also on Saturday, longtime Angels pitcher Jered Weaver agreed to a one-year, $3-million deal with San Diego. Trout said he spoke to Weaver several times over the off-season and was going to miss his competitiveness and companionship.
“When I got here, he was here,” Trout said. “And now coming into this clubhouse and locker room, it’s quiet, it’s different not seeing Weaver when you walk in.”
More changes are afoot. Trout has dated his fiancee, Jessica Cox, since high school, but for the first time she is joining him for spring training and the season. Their new miniature American Eskimo, Juno, is here, too.
“It’s gonna be different,” he said.
Asked about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s recent comments that fans of the Philadelphia Eagles are “generally awful, angry people,” Trout, a devout Eagles fan, laughed. “I think he’s a Cowboys fan, right?” he said. “Yeah, I’m sorry to hear that.” …Trout was asked to play for the United States in this year’s World Baseball Classic, but said he made a “personal decision” not to participate but would not elaborate.