Howie Kendrick is rumored to be one of the players demanded by Florida in exchange for Miguel Cabrera.
Au · try · ism [aw – tree – iz – uhm] -noun 1. Failure to stick to a long-term plan. 2. Overpaying for aging free agents. 3. Trading one or more top prospects to acquire a famous or well-liked ballplayer. [Origin: 1961-1996]
The Angels head for the winter meetings in Nashville apparently bent on making the same mistakes that inflicted four decades of futility on their long-suffering fans.
Gene Autry, the team’s first owner, was a country singer and serial Western actor who bought the American League’s expansion franchise in Los Angeles scheduled to begin play in 1961. He’d gone to the December 1960 winter meetings in St. Louis intent on acquiring the radio rights from whomever got the franchise, but left town with the franchise in his pocket.
Autry’s public persona kept him popular with Angels fandom while the team failed to achieve any long-term success. He’d invest in "name" players who would attract paying customers even though they were beyond their best years.
After eleven seasons of futility, Autry lured Harry Dalton to Anaheim to build a productive farm system. Dalton had built a powerhouse Baltimore Orioles machine that contended almost every year from the late 1960s and far past his tenure into the early 1980s. After joining the Orioles in 1954, he worked his way up the organizational ladder including a stint as director of the farm system. When GM Lee MacPhail departed in 1965, Dalton succeeded him. During his tenure, the Orioles went to the World Series in 1966, 1969, 1970, and 1971. His first trade was to acquire outfielder Frank Robinson from Cincinnati in exchange for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun. Robinson is now in the Hall of Fame.
Dalton inherited from MacPhail a fertile farm system. In Anaheim, the cupboard was bare, so he methodically went about building the foundation for a productive minor league system. Dalton was patient, but Autry was not, as the parent club suffered through one of the worst eras in its history. After players won the right to take their free agency, Autry redirected his investments from player development into free agent acquisition. The Angels signed "stars" such as Joe Rudi, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor — the latter two former Baltimore Orioles who’d come up in their system under Dalton — but injuries and flops kept the Angels from post-season competition.
So after the 1977 season, Autry fired Dalton and brought in Buzzie Bavasi, a former Dodgers and Padres executive. Bavasi began trading off young talent to acquire "name" players. Some of those trades turned out to be pretty good moves, such as acquiring Rod Carew from the Twins for Brad Havens, Paul Hartzell, Dave Engle and Ken Landreaux. He also signed more free agent "name" players such as Reggie Jackson. While the Angels got close in 1979, 1982 and 1986, they could never get over the hump into the World Series. Meanwhile, as Autry’s money went into "names," the farm system slowly withered. In some years, they had as few as four minor league teams. When the "names" faded by the late 1980s, there was nothing left in the pipeline, and the Angels began a ten-year era of mediocrity.
Autry entered his 80s and the front-office mantra became "Win one for the Cowboy," so more short-sighted decisions led to feel-good trades that swapped young talent for fading "names." In 1982, they traded young outfield prospect Tom Brunansky to the Twins for veteran reliever Doug Corbett. In 1991, they traded young outfield prospect Dante Bichette for veteran outfielder Dave Parker. In 1992, they traded young pitcher Jim Abbott to the Yankees for Russ Springer, Jerry Nielsen and J.T. Snow. In 1996, his best years behind him, the Angels reacquired Abbott for Bill Simas, Andrew Lorraine, John Snyder and McKay Christensen. Fading veterans such as Fernando Valenzuela, Eddie Murray and Cecil Fielder were signed more as marquee attractions than for any substantive contributions they might make.
The Walt Disney Company acquired the Angels franchise in May 1996, but on the baseball side Autry’s people remained. Bill Bavasi, Buzzie’s son, became GM in January 1994 and kept the "country club" atmosphere that prevailed under Autry. Disney was more concerned with keeping the Angels in Anaheim than running the ballclub, so Bavasi was left to his own devices working within budget constraints that were left over from Autry’s last years when his wife was in charge trying to protect the dwindling family assets.
A decade later, Arte Moreno, the Angels’ third owner, heads for the winter meetings in Nashville with new general manager Tony Reagins in tow. Moreno is starting to show signs of Autryism.
Last week, the Angels signed free-agent outfielder Torii Hunter to a five-year $90 million contract. Even Hunter himself said the Angels overpaid, telling the media he would have signed for less.
But the more prominent symptom of Autryism is the apparent willingness to ship off a good chunk of the fertile farm system to Florida for Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Rumors are no more than that, so media reports of specific names should be treated skeptically, but Moreno himself has stated the Angels twice had a deal done with the Marlins, only to have Florida try to raise the ante by taking bids from other teams. The Angels have also reportedly inquired about Twins’ lefty Johan Santana, who can be a free agent after 2008.
The names most prominently mentioned are catcher Jeff Mathis, second baseman Howie Kendrick, third baseman Brandon Wood, pitcher Nick Adenhart, and outfielder Reggie Willits. No one can predict the future (not even the statheads who claim otherwise), and at age 25 next April Cabrera will be poised to enter his prime. But the Angels would be flushing the cream of their crop for one player, hoping that Cabrera doesn’t suffer a freakish injury as did Mo Vaughn in his 1999 Angels debut. Cabrera goes to arbitration this winter and will certainly improve on his 2007 salary of $7.4 million, but the nightmare scenario is that he takes his free agency after 2009 and the Angels will have had nothing but an expensive two-year rental. To keep him will probably require something like a seven-year $150 million package.
Meanwhile, all that young talent will be performing quite cheaply for the Marlins, who used that model to win world championships in 1997 and 2003. And money that the Angels could have invested in scouting and player development will be going to Hunter, Cabrera, and the inevitable contract extension for Vlad Guerrero.
Sure, the Angels will continue to contend for the next few years, and might even win more world titles. But when those aging players retire or no longer produce, there won’t be any talent left in the system because the Angels failed to properly invest in and protect their future. It could be 1987-1994 all over again. As those of us who went to sparsely attended Angels games in that era recall, the fickle fans will move on and the franchise will decline once more into mediocrity.
Media reports claim native Floridians Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis are already part of the Cabrera deal. I hope the fans clamoring for this trade will remember this when they see those two kids representing the National League in All-Star Games for many years to come.
UPDATE 3:45 PM PST — Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated reports the Angels “offered top young hitter Howie Kendrick, young catcher Jeff Mathis, one of two coveted young pitchers — Nick Adenhart or Ervin Santana — plus an additional pitcher prospect described as a "mid-level” talent” for Miguel Cabrera.
That’s not just overkill, that’s Autryism.
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