Arte Moreno wants no part of Major League Baseball’s growing tank battalion.
No matter how far out of playoff contention his team might be, the Angels owner couldn’t stomach the idea of trading away the bulk of his proven talent for prospects and going into total rebuild mode, even though the strategy worked for baseball’s last two World Series winners, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros.
It’s not in his DNA, and it never will be.
“The reality is, if I have to do that, then I’d get out,” Moreno said Thursday after watching his latest marquee acquisition, Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani, throw his first bullpen session of spring training. “I don’t think it’s fair to the fans.”
Moreno’s comment probably elicited fist bumps in the MLB Players’ Assn. office.
Players and owners have been at odds all winter over who is to blame for the glacially slow-moving free-agent market, the union blaming the rising number of “tanking” teams and baseball blaming agents’ misreading of the market.
Several players, including Dodgers All-Stars Justin Turner and Alex Wood and former Angels closer Huston Street, took to Twitter to argue that fans are cheated when teams do not sign free agents because they’re not trying to win this season.
The union is upset that the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates stripped their roster of talented players without investing back into the team. At least eight other teams — the Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays — do not appear positioned to win this season.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen even floated the possibility of a players’ strike, and agent Brodie Van Wagenen suggested a possible player boycott of spring training.
There is no such strife in Angels camp. Moreno and general manager Billy Eppler spent $178 million during the off-season to add Ohtani, third baseman Zack Cozart and second baseman Ian Kinsler and to extend the contract of left fielder Justin Upton for five years and $106 million.
The Angels are projected to have a 2018 payroll of about $187 million and a luxury-tax payroll, which is based on the average annual value of multi-year deals, of about $175 million, well under the $197-million threshold.
“It’s interesting how teams are going different routes, and I know teams always go through rebuilds,” pitcher Matt Shoemaker said. “I’m fortunate where we are, to see what we’ve done in the offseason and in the past to get us better and do the best we can to go out there and win. I’m thrilled about that.”
Last summer’s decision to push for a wild-card spot and trade for Upton and second baseman Brandon Phillips added about $5 million to the 2017 payroll and, according to Moreno, pushed the Angels into the red for the second consecutive year.
The 2016 season “was the first time we’ve lost money,” said Moreno, who bought the team in 2003. “We had a really good run [of annual operating profits]. But I expect to turn a profit this season. And I expect to draw 3 million fans.”
The team’s biggest attraction, center fielder and two-time American League most valuable player Mike Trout, is entering the fourth year of a six-year, $144.5-million contract that expires after 2020.
Moreno would love for Trout, who is 26 and could command more than $300 million in his next deal, to play his entire career in Anaheim. At what point do the Angels need to start talking to his agent about an extension?
“Let’s put it this way: It’s always in our minds, we’re always thinking about it,” Moreno said. “If you look at long-term plans, you’re always trying to position yourself for something like that. But we have three years. We try not to do anything in an urgent way. We don’t think that’s a good way of doing business.”