NASHVILLE — As September turned into October, and as the playoffs went on without the Angels, the big, bold letters remained painted on the outfield wall at Angel Stadium.
3 Million Fans. 10 Straight Years.
That streak appears in serious jeopardy. It has been 10 years since the Angels won the World Series, three years since they made the playoffs.
Their attendance last season dropped to its lowest level in nine years, clearing the 3-million mark by just 62,000 fans, even after the addition of Albert Pujols and the emergence of Mike Trout. They are discounting tickets already, with 10-game packs available for as low as $50. Of every eight home games, one comes against the Houston Astros.
The Angels did nothing inspiring at the winter meetings. Jerry Dipoto, the general manager, met with reporters on his way out of town and summarized his four days here like this: “We have plugged holes in a quality way.”
Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson should help the bullpen, although each is coming off surgery.
Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson should eat some innings. But, for a team that needed two starters to come back with Blanton and Hanson stirs memories of 2001, when the Angels needed two starters and got Pat Rapp and Ismael Valdes.
That was before the one and only World Series in franchise history, and before Arte Moreno bought the team and ushered in an unprecedented era of excellence.
For an Anaheim team, the likes of Rapp and Valdes were what fans expected. For a Los Angeles team, not so much.
Of course, the Angels were the darlings of the winter meetings last year, when Dipoto and agents stealthily hijacked hotel service elevators to keep the Pujols negotiations quiet.
This winter? “We did not have to travel the service elevators,” Dipoto said.
The winners of the December headlines are not necessarily the winners of the World Series.
John Carpino, the Angels’ president, said he projects the team will top 3 million in attendance again, with plenty of good news to sell: a rookie of the year in Trout, a dynamic hitter in Pujols, a 20-game winner in Jered Weaver, All-Stars in C.J. Wilson and Mark Trumbo, upgrades to a bullpen that was the weak link last season.
Carpino also said the payroll decline — from about $159 million last season to about $142 million next season — did not mean the Angels were handcuffed by the large contracts of Pujols, Wilson and Vernon Wells.
Moreno went above and beyond for Pujols last winter, but even the most lucrative of television contracts would not provide the Angels with the cash to sign a $100-million player every winter.
“There are ebbs and flows to yearly payroll figures,” Carpino said. “It is not a cut in payroll. Our payroll is north of $140 million. Our 2013 club is a very good team and will contend.”
The team might be better, but the American League West might be too. The Oakland Athletics, the defending champions, boast a terrific young rotation and five-tool outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The Seattle Mariners have ace Felix Hernandez and an emerging cast of power arms, with the possibility of signing slugger Josh Hamilton away from the Texas Rangers. And the Rangers, with perhaps more talent in their organization than any team in the game, may yet swipe Zack Greinke from the Angels.
The more the Angels win, the higher the expectations among the fan base. After their success in the early years under Moreno conditioned fans to expect the playoffs and hope for the World Series, the last three years have resulted in second place once, third place twice.
Moreno is not satisfied. Neither are the fans.
But the Angels are not selling sizzle this winter. They are selling faith and hope.