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A tale of two Decembers

12/9/2011

A year ago, I flew from back from the winter meetings, Orlando to LAX, seated next to a high-ranking member of the Angels' scouting department.

The fellow, Gary Sutherland, greeted me and then proceeded to spend most of the next five hours asleep. It had been a trying few days for the Angels' brass, who built their entire strategy around landing fleet left fielder Carl Crawford. When that fell through, the Angels -- feeling bereft of an adequate left fielder and a difference-maker in their lineup -- overreacted.

They traded for Vernon Wells. We won't revisit how that worked out. We mention it only to contrast Winter 2011 with Winter 2010.

A year ago, people wondered if the Angels even mattered. Now, Arte Moreno is the king of Southern California baseball, at least until -- if? -- the Dodgers re-exert their dominance of the market.

Moreno's sense of timing was dubious in the past -- he bought the team eight months after its first World Series -- but it was impeccable in the past few days. With the Dodgers in limbo and a $3 billion funnel about to open up from a new TV deal with Fox, everything came together for Moreno's big strike. Even the stage was perfect: the final day of the winter meetings, all eyes on the Angels.

You can poke holes in the Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson signings for baseball reasons. Maybe Pujols is too old to warrant a 10-year commitment. Maybe Wilson is too untested as a starter to deserve $77.5 million. But from the business and publicity perspectives, Thursday's moves look pinpoint.

Think casual baseball fans around Southern California are talking about the Aaron Harang deal this morning? The Angels will be the spotlight franchise on Saturday, when Pujols dons an Angels jersey under the big hats; in a couple of months, when spring training camps open in Arizona; and two months after that, on Opening Day. They'll be smothered with coverage when they visit New York in their first trip of the year.

No matter what happens next season -- whether they're another Imploding Super Team (a la the Boston Red Sox) or they bulldoze into the World Series, it will be newsworthy. The Angels will get about 600 free commercials -- every time Pujols bats -- next season. With C.J. Wilson coupled with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, the Angels have the best rotation in the American League to go with a middle of the order that actually gets an opposing pitcher's attention.

The franchise's rebirth has been mercurial. In September, they were a team with a bloated payroll and an aging core playing in a division with the American League's new model franchise, the Texas Rangers.

Moreno had a sense the TV deal was getting close, because he has negotiated it himself at times. With that in mind, he turned over his entire front office, sacking general manager Tony Reagins -- whose reputation within the game seemed to diminish by the week -- and replacing him with an eager, energetic, well-rounded new GM, Jerry Dipoto. He gave Dipoto the clearance to hire a small army of assistants, analysts and scouts.

That just put the proper pieces in place for Moreno's big moves. As usual, the Angels moved as stealthily as any team in the game.

Of course, until next October arrives, the Angels are still just a team trying to snap a two-year playoff drought. They haven't done anything meaningful yet. Three winters ago, Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik was the toast of baseball after he signed Chone Figgins and Cliff Lee. The 2010 Mariners lost 101 games. A year ago, Terry Francona was still a bright, personable guy with two World Series rings, not a manager who people say lost control of his team.

If the Angels win another World Series, this time with Pujols as their first baseman, you can begin to make the argument they're the premier franchise in the area. But until then, they're still the upstarts, trying hard to get everyone's attention. The trick is to hold it.