Puzzling lack of direction from owner Arte Moreno makes Angels GM role a difficult gig
You could build a team around Mike Trout, the best player in baseball. You could live by the Pacific Ocean. You could run a major-market team fairly free of major-market media scrutiny. You could work for an owner who burns to win and is not shy about spending on players.
On the surface, the job of Angels general manager should be one of the most coveted in baseball. There are only 30 jobs running major league teams. However, among a consensus of major league insiders, the perception of where the Angels job ranks among those 30 jobs is not high.
“To me, I would think it would have to be in the bottom third,” said one of seven people in the industry who spoke with The Times, which granted anonymity so comments could be offered freely.
The widely held belief around the majors is that these are the final days of Billy Eppler’s five-year run as the Angels’ general manager. Eppler inherited a barren farm system, a front office that had not yet embraced analytics, and a manager he did not choose, yet he presented a vision compelling enough that Shohei Ohtani chose to come to Anaheim and Trout chose to stay.
Still, his record is five losing records and an inability to assemble a competitive pitching staff. In this pandemic-shortened season, when more than half the teams will make the playoffs, the Angels almost certainly will not be one of them — despite a roster that includes Trout and Anthony Rendon, arguably two of the five best position players in the American League.
Trout made his debut nine years ago. He has yet to win a postseason game. He has played under three general managers, which leads insiders to wonder how much responsibility might rest with the owner who hired all three for the job.
Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who will become a free agent this fall, has opted out of the last five games of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.
“That’s not the job it should be,” one source said. “It should be a great job. It should be one of the easiest recruitment jobs in the game. Who doesn’t want to live there? To me, it’s one of the best locations in the world. But something is going on there that is cannibalizing what they’re doing.
“They fail every single year when it comes to putting a competitive team on the field. It can’t be just the general manager.”
Arte Moreno bought the Angels in 2003, seven months after the team won its only World Series championship. In his first move, he famously lowered the price of beer at Angel Stadium. More critically, he retained general manager Bill Stoneman and manager Mike Scioscia. In his first winter, Moreno charged into free agency and signed outfielder Vladimir Guerrero — the only player to enter the Hall of Fame wearing an Angels cap — and starting pitcher Bartolo Colon.
“I thought Arte was the best owner in the world when he came in,” one source said.
In Moreno’s first six full seasons as owner, the Angels won the American League West five times, the last time in 2009. That was the same year scouting director Eddie Bane delivered one of the most compelling draft classes of the modern era: Trout, outfielder Randal Grichuk, and pitchers Patrick Corbin, Garrett Richards, and the late Tyler Skaggs.
“When they ran their best, you had ownership, the manager and the general manager all on the same page,” one source said. “It was one and the same.”
As teams establish increasingly collaborative management structures, with the general manager or president of baseball operations at the center of power, the Angels run differently. Two of the three general managers that succeeded Stoneman — Tony Reagins and Jerry Dipoto — never got the chance to hire their own manager.
Dipoto resigned after running into what he believed were irreconcilable differences with Scioscia. Eppler waited out the final three years of Scioscia’s contract and hired Brad Ausmus as his manager, but one year later Moreno hired Joe Maddon.
Moreno developed a close relationship with Trout and his family, and he rewarded Trout with two contract extensions that cost close to half a billion dollars. However, Moreno also directed the unproductive acquisitions of Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Vernon Wells that also cost close to half a billion dollars.
The expenditures have not been as lavish in other areas. The Angels do not employ a president of baseball operations. At the start of this year, according to team media guides, the Angels employed 43 baseball operations staffers, the Dodgers 62.
“In scouting and player development, they have not done a very good job,” one source said. “That amount of investment, on a relative basis, is not that great.”
Said another: “It could be he wants to save money. Or it could be he’s lost confidence in the guy telling him what he needs to spend money on.”
Moreno, through a team spokesman, declined to comment for this story.
Other than Ohtani, whose development took place in Japan, the Angels have not had a player receive a single vote — even a third-place vote — for the AL rookie of the year award since 2014. Bane was fired in 2010. The Angels’ current top prospect, touted outfielder Jo Adell, made his major league debut last month.
“You can talk all you want about Adell,” one source said. “That should happen almost annually, where a guy comes up and impacts your roster. For them, it’s a story when a guy comes up and plays.”
Until this year, when no fans were allowed in the ballpark, the Angels had sold more than 3 million tickets in every year of Moreno’s ownership. Out of loyalty to those fans, Moreno has said, he does not want to tear down the team and rebuild it.
“When you have a constant mandate to win now, it’s hard to be process-driven,” one source said, “to take a longer-term, more stable view.”
The Angels and their fans already have lived that drought, when the late 1980s and much of the 1990s were devoted a constant, veteran-driven, and well-intentioned but ultimately futile effort to “win one for the Cowboy,” founding owner Gene Autry. In 1998, Autry died at 93; a home-grown core led the Angels to the World Series title four years later.
The Anaheim City Council is expected to approve a development deal for the Angel Stadium property, but with a legal cloud hanging over the project.
That source described these Angels as “star-driven” and these Dodgers as “process-driven.” As an example, in the first round of this year’s draft, each team picked a pitcher from Louisville. The Dodgers took the one with the higher ceiling, Bobby Miller. The Angels took the one most polished and most likely to help a pitching-strapped team sooner, Reid Detmers.
“I think pretty highly of Billy Eppler,” one source said. “I think people in the game believe that Billy did this the right way. It feels like Billy tried to bring a process-driven approach there.”
Said another: “You have to have autonomy to do the job. I don’t care where they go: analytics or traditional or whatever. Whoever has it has to have some kind of freedom to do baseball stuff. You can run it like Tampa Bay, or you can run it like the New York Yankees, but somebody has got to run it.”
If the Angels move on from Eppler, the industry consensus is that Moreno would pursue Dave Dombrowski, who won World Series championships with the Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox. Eppler, Dipoto and Reagins all were first-time general managers.
“It’s probably going to take somebody who has been there and done that, being in a president type of role, to really deal with Arte,” one source said. “Somebody like Dave probably can corral him, and he would have good baseball people working with him.
“I love an owner who is interested and engaged. I think that’s important. But you also need their trust.”
In Anaheim, Dombrowski would not inherit the kind of deep farm system he did in Boston, which provided him with four top prospects to trade for Chris Sale and another four for Craig Kimbrel. And, although Dombrowski signed David Price and J.D. Martinez for a combined $327 million in Boston, Moreno first would have to consider the $570 million left on the Trout and Rendon contracts. Moreno might be more willing to spend on lesser players, and this might be the winter to do it.
“Any general manager who takes over this off-season, if Arte gives you the money, there will be contracts. It will be a flooded free agent market. I anticipate a ton of non-tenders,” a source said.
“And, in that regard, maybe Dave Dombrowski would be well positioned, because he knows how to build a big league roster. That’s an area he could exploit with an owner that’s willing to spend. They could sign some major league free agents at depressed prices, because the market is going to be flooded with pretty good veteran players.
“If you’re trying to look at a best-case scenario, that’s theirs.”
The nature of the job — one of 30 in the world — means Moreno would have no shortage of applicants if he lets Eppler go and does not get Dombrowski. The consensus that the job is not an optimal one is not unanimous. That Moreno is a fan first and an investor second could make the job attractive to some executives.
“Half the teams in baseball aren’t as interested in winning a World Series as they are in maintaining a good product on the field and keeping costs down,” one source said.
“Arte has spent money, and he is willing to spend money. He is very tough, but he is very competitive. In any situation, there are challenges you deal with outside of just the issues on the baseball field. You work through them. I think it would be a good job.”
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