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November 11, 2005

Baseball's Odd Couple

Matching Up the Two LA Franchises

by Jon Weisman

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In 2006, the Los Angeles Dodgers were asked to remove themselves from their place of residence; that request came from their fans. Deep down, they knew the fans were right, but they also knew that some day they would return to them. With nowhere else to go, they appeared at the home of their friends, the Los Angeles Angels. Several years earlier, the Angels' fans could have thrown them out, requesting that they never return. Can two local teams share a metropolis without driving each other crazy?

This new version of The Odd Couple isn't really going to air (though similarly strange things happen every day), but the narration taps into a common feeling concerning the direction of Los Angeles' two major league baseball teams.

The Dodgers are the Felix Ungers--well-pedigreed, stylish if you don't mind the occasional ascot, but increasingly oblivious of their own flaws. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as they have come to be known with growing acceptance, were the Oscar Madisons--until they somewhat startlingly cleaned the mustard off their plaid sport coats and became winners.

According to the fictional show's publicity, the upstart Angels, with a purported reliance on character and intangibles, have become role models of Old School thinking. And the venerable Dodgers, with their recent emphasis on statistics, have flunked while going New School. Given the turnover that owner Frank McCourt has initiated in the executive ranks, one could say they flunked with extreme prejudice.

The transformation has national ramifications because of the speculation that the Angels' ascendancy is vindication for traditional baseball methods over what is perceived to be upstart Moneyball ways of thinking. It has also gained a great deal of attention from Southern Californians wondering if, after more than four decades, the Angels have surpassed the Dodgers as the area's bellwether franchise.

Scoping out the two teams, both on and off the field, there's little arguing that in the present moment, the Angels have toppled the Dodgers from their perch. But the bigger issues involve how permanent the Angels' ascendancy is, and whether it has any deeper meaning for baseball.

The first thing to do is step back and realize how recent the Angels' rise is. You might date it back as early as 2002, when they won their first World Series while the Dodgers finished in third place in the National League West. However, the Dodgers did win 92 games in a difficult division that season. Considering the Angels sandwiched their title year with losing seasons in 2001 and 2003, while the Dodgers finished above .500 all three years, the Angels' primacy could be considered a blip.

In 2004, the Dodgers and Angels were on-field equals. Despite morphing philosophies on the fly with the hiring of Paul DePodesta as general manager that February, the Dodgers won one more regular season game and one more postseason game than Anaheim. Both teams' farm systems were also flourishing. Ranked 25th by Baseball America in 2001, the Angels' system rose to No. 3 in 2004. The Dodgers went from No. 28 to No. 2.

Off the field, the Dodgers continued to hold the advantage over the Angels as 2004 ended. The Dodgers sold approximately 110,000 more tickets that season. The value of the franchise, thanks in large part to the Dodger Stadium property, remained substantially higher than that of the Angels.

On television, the Dodgers clearly reigned. In December 2004, local television station KCAL announced that it would not extend its television broadcast agreement with the Angels beyond 2005, and instead signed an eight-year deal with the Dodgers paying a reported $10 million per year. This was not only a $2 million raise from the Dodgers' previous over-the-air arrangement with KCOP, it was more than double the $4.3 million KCAL paid the Angels in 2004. The Dodgers also signed a 10-year deal averaging an estimated $34 million per year from Fox Sports for local cable broadcasts, approximately triple the $11.1 million the Angels have been said to have earned from cable in 2004.

The most nagging question for the Dodgers was whether McCourt would invest that extra capital into the team, or whether McCourt would pocket the money to help finance his debt-heavy purchase of the team. In 2001, the Dodger player payroll was at least twice as much as the Angels' (though no one would argue that the Dodger payroll was spent efficiently). By 2004, the Dodgers had pared it to about $91 million, while the Angels leapfrogged into the $100 million neighborhood. The fact that Arte Moreno--who purchased the Angels 8 1/2 months before McCourt bought the Dodgers--signed Guerrero before the 2004 season amid reports that McCourt needed to conserve cash to gain approval for his purchase of the team was perhaps a warning sign of things to come for the Dodgers.

Nonetheless, the Dodgers could feel fairly secure about their place in Los Angeles at the end of 2004. They could look at the attempts by the Angels to change their name from Anaheim Angels to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as annoying, but hardly a significant worry.

So, what difference does a year make? You know that answer from a quick glance at the standings and the line that escorted-from-the-premises Dodger personnel have been forming at Box Brothers. Using 22 players who were with the team in 2004, Moreno's 2005 Angels won 95 games and a 2005 American League West division title and beat the Yankees in a postseason series. Within a month of season's end, the Angels extended the contract of manager Mike Scioscia through 2009 and were offered a cable broadcast contract from Fox Sports reported by the Los Angeles Times to be "comparable" to that of the Dodgers.

Using 18 players who wore a Dodger uniform in 2005, McCourt's 2005 Dodgers won 71 games, fired their manager and then their general manager (the equivalent of washing the food off their dinner plates before tossing the plates in the garbage) along with more public relations personnel (bringing the total of top executives fired by McCourt to 11, according to the Times). With teams like perennial doormat Tampa Bay out-wooing general manager candidates, with Boston at least feeding off a winning season while searching for its future (or once-and-future) GM, the Dodgers positioned themselves as your one-stop laughing, giggling, snickering stock of baseball. In contrast, the Angels' biggest problem appears to be the ongoing effort to convince sabermetric skeptics that Darin Erstad is a proper first baseman.

At this moment, the Dodgers are the only major league team without a manager or general manager, making the task of turning the Angels' civic supremacy into another blip that much more difficult. Here's a chart of where the two teams' rosters essentially stand at the outset of the 2005-06 offseason. If you can imagine a category, "Areas Needing Improvement," you'll find more checkmarks in the Dodger column.


Pos       2006 Angels   2005 WARP     2006 Dodgers   2005 WARP
C         J. Molina        2.8        Navarro*          1.6
1B        Erstad           3.8        Choi              2.0
2B        Kennedy          4.5        Kent              7.4
3B        McPherson        1.0        Aybar*            1.1
SS        Cabrera          4.1        C. Izturis**      2.4
LF        Anderson         1.9        Bradley           3.8
CF        Figgins          5.9        Drew              4.3
RF        Guerrero         7.8        Cruz              3.7
B1        Rivera           1.7        Werth             3.1
B2        Finley           1.1        A. Perez          2.0
B3        Kotchman*        1.1        Robles*           1.9
B4        Davanon          1.0        Repko*            1.5
B5        M. Izturis*      0.7        Ledee             1.2
B6        Mathis*          0.0        Phillips          0.4
SP1       Colon            7.2        Lowe              5.2
SP2       Lackey           6.1        Penny             4.7
SP3       Santana*         2.8        O. Perez          2.0
SP4       Escobar          2.1        Houlton           1.7
SP5       Saunders*        0.0        Jackson*          0.0
R1        Rodriguez        6.2        Gagne             1.2
R2        Shields          6.1        Sanchez           3.4
R3        Donnelly         2.6        Brazoban          1.9
R4        Yan              1.1        Osoria*           0.7
R5        Gregg*           0.9        Broxton*          0.0
R6        Peralta*         0.8        Kuo*              0.0
          Total            73.3       Total            57.2

* played in minors for part of 2005
** could start season on disabled list

Chances are good that the Angels will grab more wins (and in turn, fans) in 2006. The Angels have fewer question marks, thanks to a roster full of solid-to-exceptional veterans and their own outstanding list of prospects. Though the question marks could multiply like rabbits with Guerrero, Francisco Rodriguez and Bartolo Colon susceptible to injuries, 2006 remains a year the Angels could increase their advantage in Los Angeles, given the chaos enveloping their neighbors.

Still, as quickly as the Dodger dirigible went off course, it could right itself again. Change, in and of itself, is not a sin. In the past four years, USC has had as many quarterbacks as the Dodgers have had general managers--and the Trojans have been doing just fine. Not to defend McCourt's method of doing business, but on the baseball end, amid all the firings, there hasn't been anything particularly wrong with many of the people he has hired or retained. McCourt just never seems to do enough hiring or retaining. (At a minimum, fired general manager Paul DePodesta rid the Dodgers of players who proved mostly expendable in 2005. Nobody knows now, but perhaps history will look back and conclude DePodesta himself met a similar fate.)

That being said, each time you try to reinvent the wheel, you risk blowing it out. So what McCourt needs to do to revive the Dodgers is 1) make a good hire for his next general manager, and if he does, 2) realize that he made a good hire and leave him or her alone. If the Dodgers can emerge from the shredded resumes by making smart transactions, if their highly rated prospects (and make no mistake, this is a much more anticipated bunch than the team has seen in some time) pan out or get traded for real value, everything's cool. Operating in separate leagues, there is plenty of room for two successful teams in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The right offseason transactions could still make or break either team. Neither a losing season nor a winning season is immune from change--the Angels themselves already proved that four times this decade. In contemplating what kind of transactions the teams will make this offseason, we come to the other major question--has an Old School way proven superior for the Angels?

It probably won't shock you that the media has somewhat overblown the philosophical dichotomy between the Dodgers and Angels. Yes, DePodesta traded Paul Lo Duca while Angels GM Bill Stoneman has held on to Erstad, but Stoneman once sent Erstad to the White Sox, only to have then-president Tony Tavares veto the deal. Yes, Scioscia likes to see his guys take risks on the basepaths but former Dodger manager Jim Tracy well, he liked it too, except for the fact that his players weren't very fast. Score that one as a half-difference.

Overall, there are very few players on one team that the other wouldn't value. Under DePodesta, the Dodgers signed all-field, questionable-hitting shortstop Cesar Izturis and quintessential closer Eric Gagne to multiyear contracts. The Dodgers didn't sign Guerrero, but not because they didn't like him for the same reasons the Angels did. The Dodgers have hung on to their prospects about as much as the Angels. Antonio Perez had the speed, as well as the rangy but shaky defensive skills, of being a poor man's Chone Figgins. The Dodger pitcher acquisitions certainly bear no distinct New School aesthetic--no addiction to strikeouts, for example.

Where one might find more significant differences is that the Angels of 2005 took on no obvious injury or chemistry risks. That's obviously not to say those Angels didn't ever get hurt or get snappish with each other, but when the team moved Erstad away from center field in large part to protect his body, when the team suspended and then traded discontented Jose Guillen, the Angels showed they were drawing a line.

Now, with DePodesta fired and McCourt and special advisor Tommy Lasorda all but out of the patience or backbone needed to deal with Milton Bradley, this distinction will probably reduce. The Dodgers might be veering back toward the chemistry mentality--though until a general manager is hired, we won't know how far. So in that sense, the Old School is carrying the day in Los Angeles. And with the chemistry-hyped Chicago White Sox winning the World Series, you can argue that Old School is carrying the day nationwide as well.

But it was only last year that the New School Dodgers were winning their most important game in 16 years. It was only a year ago that New School Boston Red Sox, with temperamental Manny Ramirez as their best player, won the World Series. It's no more a cinch today that the New School has something to learn from the Old School than the reverse was the case a year ago. And in Los Angeles, going Old School won't necessarily solve the Dodgers' problems. After all, when Oscar Madison got tossed out of his house in the first place, he was nothing if not Old School.

A former sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News, Jon Weisman currently writes Dodger Thoughts, his "outlet for dealing psychologically with the Los Angeles Dodgers and baseball." The Angels are his third-favorite major-league team. To contact Jon, click here.

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