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What if Arte Moreno had bought the Arizona Diamondbacks?

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Let’s look at a few places where the D-backs’ history might have gone differently

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I’ve always been interested in “alternate history”. That’s where you take a look at how things might have unfolded, if a past event had unfolded differently, or not taken place at all. For example, what if security guard Frank Wills hadn’t noticed duct tape stopping a door from latching shut while doing his rounds on June 17, 1972? Because he was working in the Watergate office building in Washington that night, and his work ethic eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. There’s nothing quite so dramatic in Arizona history. but there are a few points which made me wonder how things might have gone. With SB Nation having a “What if?” week, let’s look at some of those.

Let’s begin with a tipping point in ownership, which appears to have taken place in late 2001, after the team won the World Series. Despite the success, owner Jerry Colangelo was in need of money, having run up a slew of deferred salaries and other debt in his successful pursuit of glory. A minority shareholder and Arizona native, Arte Moreno, had long been involved in baseball ownership, having been part of a group who bought the minor-league Salt Lake Trappers in 1986. But since that point, he had made a vast fortune in billboards. selling his company Outdoor Systems to Infinity Broadcasting for $8 billion in 1998. He saw in the D-backs’ requirement for cash, an opportunity to own a major-league team.

Moreno owned 5.3 percent [of the D-backs] at the time but wanted to buy a majority stake and ultimately run the club. Colangelo thought Moreno’s offer was too low and fought off the possible hostile takeover by rounding up $160 million in new capital from other investors. Fellow shareholders who were at the meeting said when Colanagelo announced he was looking for more money, Moreno pulled out his checkbook and said: “You don’t need those investors. Here’s my money.” Colangelo shot him down in what several witnesses described as an angry and embarrassing confrontation.
Arizona Republic, June 26, 2006

The following November, he sold his interest in the Diamondbacks, but he was far from dropping out of baseball. In May 2003, Moreno bought the Anaheim Angels for $182.5 million from Disney, becoming the first Hispanic owner in MLB history. Much like the Diamondbacks, they were just coming off an unexpected World Series victory the previous season. Neither has been able to repeat their World Series win, or even reach that stage, so it makes for an interesting comparison to track the fortunes of the two teams since that point. There was a lot of initial anecdotal love for Moreno, cutting concession prices and being a “fan’s owner”. But let’s try and stick to more objective measurements.

Team success

The chart below plots the number of wins for the D-backs (in red) and the Angels (in blue) for each season since Moreno took over the latter team in 2003.

You can certainly see why, in the early days of Moreno’s ownership, Arizona fans cast envious eyes over the Californian border. While they went from World Series champions to a sub-.500 record the following year, they then rebounded to post six consecutive winning records from 2004-09, making the playoffs in five of those seasons. The 2010’s have been considerably more of a struggle, without a single post-season game victory to the Angels’ name. From 2003-10, they averaged sixteen wins a year above the D-backs, with a better record every time bar the first. But from 2011-19, that gap shrinks to 1.5 games, and over the past five years, Arizona has 17 more wins in total, despite the Angels having Mike Trout.

Attendance

This is an area where the Angels have clearly kicked the Diamondbacks’ ass consistently. 2003 saw them set a franchise record by more than a quarter million fans. That may in part initially have been due to the World Series success. But they have drawn over three million every season since. The much-mocked change from Anaheim Angels to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005 clearly did more good than harm, helping them tap into one of the largest markets in the country. Early on, he made some moves intended to keep things affordable at the park for fans, and has largely stuck by that. In the 2019 Fan Cost Index, the Angels were 7th-least expensive, much cheaper than the nearby Dodgers, who ranked 24th.

Payroll

Figures for this are always going to be uncertain. For consistency, I’ve taken the ones given on The Baseball Cube, which is one of the few sources which has the information all the way back to 2003.

Outside of the 2003, where they were almost equal, the Angels have consistently out-spent the Diamondbacks, by an average just shy of $50 million per year, though the gap has been narrower in the past couple of seasons. We can’t necessarily say he would have spent the same amount on the Diamondbacks though, because the Angels have significantly higher revenue coming in. According to Forbes, Los Angeles were projected, pre-COVID, to have close to $100 million more than Arizona in 2020 ($377 million vs. $278 million). The Angels may also have spent more, but they haven’t necessarily spent more wisely. The Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton contracts both dwarf our worst deals, at $240m and $125m respectively.

On the Diamondbacks’ side, the team underwent an ownership change after the 2004 season. The “white knights” who rode to Jerry’s rescue with financing to stave off Moreno’s hostile takeover bid, may have ended up turning into a poison pill. But after that point, the team’s finanical situation was undeniably impacted by the quarter-billion dollar in deferred salaries which were part of Colangelo’s legacy.

Conclusions

Moreno has certainly shown a willingness to spend with the Angels, and has had a very good return on his investment there. Forbes valued the franchise at a cool two billion dollars, more than ten times what he paid for it in 2003. But especially over the past decade, that hasn’t translated into enormous success. Re-signing Mike Trout to become a career Angel certainly extends their opportunity to take advantage of him. But Trout has yet to taste even a single victory in the post-season, and if that doesn’t change over the rest of his contract, Moreno’s tenure may be remembered as being one which wasted the best player this generation, in a way far beyond Goldy’s lack of World Series appearances here.