As Arte Moreno prepares to sell the Angels, he leaves behind a complicated legacy

Arte Moreno

Four weeks ago, the Los Angeles Angels‘ baseball operations department had come to a consensus: The team had reached an ideal window to trade Shohei Ohtani. The greatest two-way player in baseball history will be eligible for free agency in the fall of 2023, so some other teams communicated to the Angels that they would be open to trades — and willing to include their very best prospects. The view around the industry was that the ensuing bidding might’ve netted a return that would be similar to what the Washington Nationals got for Juan Soto. Maybe more, because Ohtani would’ve filled lineup and rotation holes for two pennant races before his free agency.

In the end, though, despite his department’s suggestion, general manager Perry Minasian didn’t bother wasting everyone’s time. Word quickly reached the interested parties that Arte Moreno, the Angels’ owner, wouldn’t sign off on any Ohtani deal. No one was surprised.

It was an example of Moreno single-handedly steering his team, again — and probably in the wrong direction, again. And maybe for the last time, because the Angels announced Tuesday afternoon that Moreno is open to offers to sell the team, including a statement from the owner that read, “Now is the time.”

“He’s had enough,” said one of Moreno’s peers after the Angels’ news broke. “I think he’s gotten frustrated with the stadium situation, he’s not a big fan of [commissioner] Rob [Manfred] and he’s got a s—ty team that’s going to be bad for a long time.”

Moreno has long been known as a demanding boss, which is not unusual in private industry. But in this era of analytics, in which most owners are comfortable deferring to baseball operations departments, Moreno has been an outlier in how often he shoved his front-office professionals out of the way and made his own deals.

He would intermittently shuttle staffers into his version of a penalty box, to the degree that job titles really didn’t matter; what mattered was how much sway the managers and general managers had in that moment with Moreno. The notion of a chain of command has been little more than theory within the Angels organization, which has made it difficult for Moreno’s team to keep up with baseball’s more data-driven teams.

Moreno took control of the Angels in 2003, fresh off a World Series win, and for years, his title-winning manager Mike Scioscia was perceived by peers to have more practical power than any other in baseball, more than former Angels GM Tony Reagins too. But over time, as the Angels’ struggles continued, Scioscia’s influence waned, and he retired in 2018. By then, Billy Eppler was the GM; he convinced Ohtani to sign with the Angels and reduced the payroll mess, but his teams never reached the postseason. Against Eppler’s suggestions, Moreno insisted upon the hiring of former Angels coach Joe Maddon following the 2019 season to replace Scioscia. Maddon briefly held the throne of most powerful employee, and Eppler was gone before the 2020 season was up. Earlier this year, after Maddon fell out of favor, supplanted as the favorite by Minasian, Maddon was fired and replaced by Phil Nevin. Now, the presumption among executives is that in the face of the 2022 disaster, even Minasian might be on double secret probation.

Early on, the Angels were riding high off their title, and the team made the playoffs repeatedly — in five out of Moreno’s first six years in charge. It might be that this success fueled unjustified confidence in his own abilities. Like a lot of billionaires before him, Moreno seemed to believe he knew more about building a baseball team than the folks he hired. But the strengths that made him an extraordinary success before he bought the Angels became a weakness once he stepped into a sport that has become increasingly competitive.

In a way that others have a weakness for ice cream, Moreno loves hitters; his forte is in marketing, and he has long conveyed to staffers that offense sells tickets. This is how it came to be that Albert Pujols wound up with the Angels on a 10-year, $240 million deal, how Josh Hamilton signed a $125 million, five-year contract, how Justin Upton inked a five-year, $106 million deal, how Anthony Rendon received a staggering $245 million whopper.

That’s $716 million for four sluggers who, according to Fangraphs, have totaled 14.2 WAR to date (with Rendon still part of the Angels’ roster). That’s slightly more than Trea Turner has generated in just 2021 and 2022.

Repeatedly, Moreno dropped these bad deals on his franchise — then wondered why his front offices couldn’t work around that mess and construct a competitive roster with a top-heavy payroll.

All of the Angels’ recent struggles — one playoff series since 2009, an American League Division Series sweep — could change now under new ownership, assuming that Moreno follows through with the sale of team. There is quiet relief in a lot of the corners of the sport over the possibility that the Angels will have new ownership — just as there was when Frank McCourt was forced to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Guggenheim Group, when the Wilpons sold the New York Mets to Steve Cohen. Many executives believe that the Angels have not come close to exploiting the potential of their market. “Because that place might be the best to work in in baseball,” one official said. “The weather is perfect. The conditions are perfect. You can live on the beach. Nobody bothers them. The fans are good.”

The Angels’ lack of postseason success has come despite fielding Mike Trout, the game’s preeminent player, for the past decade, and Ohtani, a historical superstar, for the past five seasons. Moreno also is regarded as increasingly out of step with other owners; in the prior labor negotiation, he was viewed as one of the most ardent labor hawks by his peers, along with the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Ken Kendrick and Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox.

Moving forward, Moreno’s greatest contribution to the Angels might be in how his track record will tee up the next owner as a success, by comparison — although it won’t be easy. The team’s desperate need for improved infrastructure continues, and the incoming owner will have to immediately make a decision about Ohtani.

If the Angels trade Ohtani this winter, they will likely receive markedly less for him than they would have last month — and will lose out on millions in international marketing and revenue that a global superstar brings. If the new owner surrenders in the contract negotiations and gives him what would probably be a record deal, then the organization will again have to work around a top-heavy payroll, with the trio of Trout, Rendon and Ohtani likely making about $120 million annually.

That’s a problem that some billionaire will certainly gladly take on. But as Moreno leaves Anaheim, it’s one that he could never solve — and, more problematically, would never fully empower others to attack.

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