Sunday, January 02, 2011

Southern California Baseball in Flux

Two years ago, the Angels and the Dodgers were in the playoffs and last year, the Padres surprised the world with a strong summer campaign that died on the last day of the season. But all three teams face huge questions this season in both direction and on the field. The Dodgers, who have long been one of the best franchises in baseball are a soap opera. Arte Moreno gave much hope to Angels' fans with his positive attitude and free wallet but is now expressing shock at the cost of ball players and the team is stagnating. After a run for the Padres, they traded away their best player to the Red Sox and it is expected that its closer will be next. What's next for these teams?

The Dodgers are the most painful for baseball right now. Dodger Blue was a terrific brand and the selling of the Dodgers was so good that for the first time in baseball history, regular attendance figures over three million were routine. Guys like Tommy Lasorda created a perception that Dodger Blue was a mythical quality unique to Los Angeles. And occasionally, the team won the title, which helped.

Now the image of the Dodgers has gained a black eye as the circus of the owner's divorce proceedings became front page news and the fodder for tabloids. And the friction at the top has been made manifest on the field as the Dodgers were forced to go into lame duck mode last year and were easily passed by the Padres and Giants. It seems impossible to separate the results last year from the McCourts, but players ultimately determine how a season goes. Perhaps it was just a bad year and the divorce has nothing to do with it.

The one thing that makes it hard to just think 2010 was a fluke of performance was that Joe Torre walked away. One would have to feel that if the situation was stable and fluid there, Torre would have hung around. It seems very clear from big time writers that MLB is upset at the McCourts and wants them out of baseball. 2011 will be a very interesting season to watch unfold. Don Mattingley is a first time manager (anywhere!) and there is still a core of talent that could come around and challenge for the NL West. A winning season would cover a lot of bad press and bad feelings.

The Angels became one of the best stories in baseball under Arte Moreno. There seemed to be a fresh idea when he bought the team. They lucked into hiring one of the best managers and staff in baseball and spent a decade contending and for one glorious season, won it all. The team, despite its ridiculous name, seemed poised to dislodge the Dodgers for the hearts and minds of southern California baseball fans.

But the Angels made some ghastly mistakes last year. Allowing Chone Figgins to walk was huge (though he tanked in Seattle). The team's talent seemed to dry up overnight and they couldn't get anywhere last year. Everyone thought they would be big players this off season and absolutely nothing has happened. Despite rumors, the Angels added nobody. Buster Olney, among others, has written that Moreno is dismayed by the cost of talent. When did that happen? His early years were broad in his ability to sign a check. Has he fallen in worth during this recession? Or has he just gotten more conservative with age?

All we can say for sure is that they haven't improved their team at all so far. Beltre is still out there but Scott Boras has apparently done a disservice to his player and overvalued him so much that he can't find a job. If that wasn't the case, you would think the Angels would have signed him by now. The Angels certainly need Beltre as the third baseman could make a huge impact on their line up and their defense. But so far? Nothing. Silence. Nada.

As it stands now, the Angels might not even be the second best team in the AL West.

This Fan doesn't get the Padres. Was their season last year so much a surprise that it was unplanned and almost unwanted? That certainly seems to be the case as they have traded their fans' favorite player while he still had time left on a good contract. It's almost like they are saying, "Well, we hope you had fun last year because that's it for a while." How can a team in one of the most beautiful places on earth have one of the smallest payrolls? The military presence there is huge? You can't get any of those people to come to a ball game?

Adrian Gonzalez was certainly a cool deal for Red Sox fans, but what does it say to Padres' fans? The guy was absolutely beloved by the locals there. He was one of them. His story was their feel good story. He was active in that community and everything seemed perfect. He seemed more like a lifetime Padre than Tony Gwynn ever did. But the Padres couldn't get rid of him fast enough.

Perhaps the Fan should give the Padres some more slack. After all, they did really well in what they received for Jake Peavy and some of those guys were part of the division drive last year. Perhaps they have a plan that is bigger than the perception. The results last year seem to deserve some patience and some respect. It just seems more natural that the team would try to build on 2010 and not rebuild all over again. Their season in 2010 at least deserves a delay in judgment until the 2011 season shows what it will show.

Southern California should be the best place on earth for baseball. The large Hispanic population loves baseball and year round playing should allow for a constant influx of talent. But all three teams seem to be stuck a bit in the muck like they all stepped in the tar pits or something. The Dodgers in particular have gone from jewels to zirconium. 2011 will show a lot about where these franchises are going.

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