Baseball has a new great rivalry: Angels-Rangers. Get ready for Rally Monkeys and antlers, SoCal sunshine and hot Texas nights, Sciosc and Wash, Pujols and Darvish.
"It's going to be fun," Angels rightfielder Torii Hunter says of what will be an epic clash between AL West titans Texas and L.A. "We were the kings, then they took the crown away. We're looking forward to getting it back."
This winter the two West powers spent a combined $500 million on free agents, and left the rest of the division in the dust. While Seattle and Oakland are loading up on young talent and building for the future, Texas and Los Angeles are built to win now --- you could argue that no two teams in baseball have more at stake in 2012. A year after their Game 6 nightmare, the Rangers don't want to become baseball's Buffalo Bills. The high-rolling Angels are clearly all in. In Arlington and Anaheim, it's World Series or bust.
WINTER GRADE: A-
Bankrolled by a massive new $3 billion TV deal, owner Arte Moreno shocked the world and shelled out $300 million to land the best hitter (Albert Pujols) and the best pitcher (C.J. Wilson) on the free agent market. The Angels also traded for Chris Iannetta to add catching depth and added reliever Latroy Hawkins to what should be a very good bullpen.
KEY QUESTION: Yes, the pitching will be great --- but will they score enough runs?
Even with The Machine in the heart of the order, the Angels still need more pop from old vets Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells. They also need Howie Kendrick to build off a promising season. ("I've always said: he's going to win a batting title one year -- I think this is it," a scout says of the second baseman.) The Angels will get a boost during the season with the call-up of uber-prospect Mike Trout, who'll add some much-needed youth, energy and athleticism to the lineup. The Angels were a poor offensive team last year (10th in the AL in runs and 11th in OBP), and now they've finished in the bottom half of the league in runs for two straight years. If the offense starts to click, watch out.
X-FACTOR: Kendrys Morales
He hasn't played in a major league game since May 29, 2010, but the Cuban star returned this spring and will be the team's DH and Guy Hitting Behind Pujols. The Angels are hoping that the 28-year-old can be the masher he was in 2009, when he belted 34 home runs in his first full season in the majors. Based on what they've seen recently, Angels coaches, as well as rival scouts, are optimistic that will be.
"Great, great pitching -- I'd take the Angels' staff over Tampa's as the best in the AL because of the track records. [Jered] Weaver and [Dan] Haren are horses, [Ervin] Santana's going to have a breakout season, and I'll take C.J. Wilson as my No. 4 any day. But I still have questions about the offense around Pujols. Torii Hunter's getting old, Vernon Wells might be done. They struggled to score runs last year, and if no one steps up around Pujols, they'll struggle again."
WINTER GRADE: B+
First there was the fire sale: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey and Craig Breslow, gone. Then, the jaw-dropping signing of a Cuban star (Yoenis Cespedes, to a four year, $36 million deal). Yes, it was a strange winter in Oakland. But GM Billy Beane restocked his thin system and added the kind of impact offensive player he typically can't afford (and attract) in the free agent market. They're not going to be playing meaningful games in July --- but they're better positioned for the future.
KEY QUESTION: Will Bud Selig finally let the A's move to San Jose?
The A's will be dangling in limbo until they're allowed to get out of the Coliseum. Will that be 2015? 2016? No one knows. In the meantime, there will be a lot of losing and more unloading of talent. Jarrod Parker, acquired in the Cahill deal, is a future front of the rotation starter, but he'll start the year in Triple-A. The A's are instead counting on Brandon McCarthy, who's eager to prove that his breakout 2011 was no fluke, to anchor the rotation. They're also counting on Coco Crisp to be the team's No. 3 hitter. Enough said.
X-FACTOR: Yoenis Cespedes
Yes, the Cuban star impressed this spring, and yes, he clobbered a two-run home run in the A's second game of the season in Japan. But we still have no idea how his athleticism and physical skills will translate to the big leagues. Some scouts believe he has 20-20 potential and is a future All-Star. Some think that teams will expose his long swing with a steady diet of breaking balls, and he'll be in Triple-A by June. At the very least the YouTube sensation will make the A's worth watching.
"I liked what they did this winter, trading away their pitchers. Their system was thin, so I liked that they were aggressive in acquiring talent. And I think they made a brilliant gamble with Cespedes. This guy is a tremendous athlete with great raw power."
WINTER GRADE: B-
It was the gutsiest deal of the winter: GM Jack Zduriencik traded a future ace (Michael Pineda) to the Yankees in a deal for a player who probably will spend the bulk of his career at DH (Jesus Montero). Don't forget about "the other guy" in the trade, Hector Noesi, who's likely to start the year in the rotation and "could be this year's Ivan Nova," says Yankees GM Brian Cashman. Zduriencik also signed 30-year-old Japanese righthander Hisashi Iwakuma, the 2008 Pacific League MVP who will start the year in the M's bullpen.
KEY QUESTION: Are Hultzen, Paxton, and Walker the next Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine?
The Mariners were willing to part ways with a pitcher as nasty as Pineda in large part because of the wealth of talented young arms they have in their system. One scout this spring compared the trio of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijaun Walker to the Braves' troika of future Hall of Famers that helped Atlanta dominate the NL East during the 1990s and early 2000s. All three pitching prospects will start the year in the minors --- their development might be the key to the future of the franchise. Hultzen --- the No. 2 overall pick in last year's amateur draft --- will probably be the first of the phenoms in The Show this season, but the 19-year-old Walker, who was dazzling this spring, has the most upside.
X-FACTOR: Erasmo Ramirez
The overlooked 21-year-old righthander from Nicaragua was so impressive in camp that he won a bullpen job. Don't be surprised if Ramirez moves to the rotation and is starting games at Safeco by mid-summer and emerges as this year's Pineda.
"This team has no chance this year and probably next year, but as ugly as it's going to be at times this year in a division with two superpowers, they're on the right track. I really love their pitching. They remind me of the Rays when they were starting to build it all up."
WINTER GRADE: A-
After the heartbreak of last October's World Series loss, they flirted with the idea of adding Prince Fielder to the already stacked lineup, but (wisely) took a pass. They spent $111.7 million on the most intriguing pitcher on the planet, Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. They signed 37-year-old Joe Nathan, who is replacing rotation-bound Neftali Feliz as the team's closer, to a two-year, $14.5 million deal. They were the AL's most complete team the last two years -- and now they're better.
KEY QUESTION: Can the Rangers' rotation go toe-to-toe with the Angels' starting staff?
Every one of Darvish's start will be an Event. There are Texas-sized expectations for aspiring weatherman and October breakout Derek Holland. Feliz, who's becoming more confident with his slider and curveball, is making the challenging transition from reliever to starter, but clearly has the stuff to be an elite starter. Yes, there are question marks at the top of Texas' rotation -- but there's also some serious upside. We know that the Rangers will score plenty of runs. What we don't know is just how good this rotation will be. If Darvish, Holland and Feliz pitch to their potential, they'll be every bit as good as the Angels' vaunted starting staff.
X-FACTOR: Mike Olt
He's one of Texas' top prospects, a power hitting third baseman who led the Arizona Fall League in home runs. He made his debut at first this spring, and will be seeing time at the position to start the year at Double-A Frisco. If Mitch Moreland's struggles continue, don't be surprised to see Olt manning first base and launching bombs in Arlington as soon as this summer.
"They're better than they were last year, with a true ace in the rotation now, and Feliz in the rotation, where he belongs. Matt Harrison has looked outstanding this spring. He's going to surprise a lot of people. As a whole, I've been really impressed by their pitching. You know they're going to hit."