The last time I spoke to Arte Moreno, he joked that he should fire himself.
More than two years later, he finally did, with the Angels announcing Tuesday that the Moreno family is exploring a possible sale of the team.
As a reward for transforming the former World Series champions into an emblem of mediocrity, Moreno is expected to sell the franchise for more than 10 times what he paid for it. What a country.
Still, better late than never, the timing of Moreno’s announcement giving the Angels a chance to avoid the next humiliating episode to which they were counting down.
They now have a chance to keep Shohei Ohtani beyond next year.
If Moreno is out of the picture, the Angels will have an opportunity to convince the 28-year-old Ohtani to spend the remainder of his prime with them.
The window to do so will be small, but at least it will be open.
Before Moreno threw up the metaphorical white flag, that window looked as if it were shut, everything pointing to Ohtani bolting once he became a free agent after the 2023 season.
That remains the most likely scenario.
The typically reticent two-way player was uncharacteristically frank last September when he said of the Angels: “I like the fans. I like the atmosphere in the organization. But my feelings of wanting to win are stronger.”
Ohtani has said nothing to the contrary since.
There’s no reason for Ohtani to have changed his mind, the Angels on their way to their seventh consecutive losing season. He’s stuck in limbo, the Angels still unlikely to trade him this winter, as the time to extract the maximum return for him was last month.
Retaining baseball’s greatest attraction will require more than an investment in Ohtani, who has a history of prioritizing his baseball ambitions over finances. He came to the major leagues at age 23 in part because he believed it would improve his chances of becoming a Hall of Famer. He was classified as an amateur player as a result, costing him a nine-figure contract.
The team’s next owner will have to sell Ohtani on the Angels’ future, and he or she will likely have minimal time to do so. If the Angels’ sale takes, say, six months like the Dodgers’ did in 2012, the team would stay under Moreno’s control over the winter, eliminating the possibility of sweeping changes before next season.
The new owner could still make a statement before Ohtani is eligible to test the open market. The Dodgers showed how.
The Dodgers didn’t make the playoffs in their first season under Guggenheim Baseball Management, but their owners were quick to establish what they were about. The sale closed a month into the 2012 season. The Dodgers immediately signed Andre Ethier to an $85-million extension and a then-unknown Yasiel Puig to a $42-million deal. They traded for Hanley Ramirez in July. They absorbed more than $260 million in salary obligations when they acquired Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett from the Boston Red Sox in August.
Similar to the Dodgers that year, the Angels wouldn’t necessarily have to reach the postseason to signal a change in culture.
What the new owner would have to do is make the kind of moves that persuade Ohtani he or she is willing to do what Moreno didn’t want to — namely, pay a luxury tax. This will be critical to them winning. With a bare-bone farm system devoid of high-end prospects, the Angels will have to spend their way out of the cellar if they are to compete in, say, 2024 or 2025.
As it is, they will be paying Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon more than $70 million combined. If they extend Ohtani, they could have more than $110 million invested annually in three players.
Considering the inability of Trout and Rendon to stay on the field, constructing a World Series contender will cost the Angels an addition, what, $150 million?
This doesn’t have to be permanent, as shown by the Dodgers, who gradually increased their reliance on their player-development system. The Angels’ next owner would be wise to do this too. Ohtani is certainly smart enough to understand how investing in the minor leagues could improve his own chances of winning a World Series.
Before departing Japan for the major leagues, Ohtani said he wanted to be the No. 1 player in the world. He said viewed a championship as a requirement to realize his ambition.
Suddenly, there’s now a possibility he can do that with the Angels. The chances might be remote, but they’re more than zero, which is what they are with Moreno as owner.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.