Forget Yankees--Red Sox. For baseball's baddest rivalry, go West. "The beasts of the East have had their day in the sun," says Angels rightfielder Torii Hunter, "but now there are two beasts in the West, too. People might have to stay up a little later now to tune into the Angels-Rangers."
The axis of power in the American League has shifted—the road to the World Series is no longer I-95. That became clear this winter, when it was the Rangers and the Angels who dominated the headlines with their spending: The two rising powers, enriched by monster TV deals, combined to spend nearly $500 million on free agents that included the best hitter in the game (Albert Pujols), the best free-agent pitcher (C.J. Wilson) and the most-hyped Japanese import ever (Yu Darvish). Says Wilson, who defected from Texas to L.A., signing a five-year, $77.5 million deal, "The way these two teams were spending money, it was like New York and Boston over the last 10 years."
When the big spending in Arlington and Anaheim was over, the gap between the AL West's two tiers had widened significantly. Seattle and Oakland, whose combined payroll is less than that of the Angels, began waving the white flag practically before the ink on Pujols's contract dried. Within three weeks, Oakland dealt away starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and All-Star closer Andrew Bailey for prospects. Says A's assistant G.M. David Forst, "The Pujols deal had to shape the way we looked at our club."
Seattle G.M. Jack Zduriencik, meanwhile, was already bracing Mariners fans for a long season in the first week of spring training. "Let's not kid ourselves," he told reporters. "This is going to be a challenging year at the big league level for us."
March 26, 2012
In no other division are the haves and have-nots so neatly cleaved. And no other division is loaded with more intriguing star power. In mid-February, Los Angeles's new $240 million first baseman, Pujols, was working out at a Gold's Gym in Venice, when a tall young man with shaggy orange-tinted hair and a dark goatee walked in. It was Darvish. The two players who will be front and center in this season's most riveting rivalry shook hands and introduced themselves. Recalls Pujols, "He was a very nice man. He said he was looking forward to the battle."
Sitting in his office at the Angels complex in Tempe, Ariz., one spring training morning, Angels G.M. Jerry Dipoto quickly shot down the notion that the division is a two-team race. "We're in no different position from the Mariners and A's in that we're trying to catch the Rangers," he says. "They're the two-time defending [AL West] champs. We all have our work cut out for ourselves."
The addition of Pujols will undoubtedly improve an offense that struggled last season (it ranked 10th in the AL in runs per game, with 4.1), but the strength of the team remains the pitching staff, which led the league in ERA. The Angels were willing to sign Wilson for a hefty sum because they believe that despite the lefthander's age, his best years are ahead of him. "He doesn't have as much mileage on his arm as the typical 31-year-old," Dipoto says of the former closer, who joined the Texas rotation in 2010. "And he's done nothing but improve every year he's been in the big leagues."
It was over a three-hour dinner in November at the swank Soho House in West Hollywood that Dipoto and the Angels made their pitch to Wilson. At one point Dipoto said, "We want to give you the opportunity to beat your old team for the next five years." Wilson goes from being the No. 1 starter in Texas to a rotation where he'll pitch behind righthanders Jered Weaver (second in the AL, with a 2.41 ERA last year) and Dan Haren (11th, at 3.17). Righthander Ervin Santana, who was 14th with a 3.38 ERA, rounds out the top four. Asked in camp if Wilson will be giving Angels hitters scouting reports on the Texas hurlers, third baseman Mark Trumbo smiled and said, "He already has."
To dethrone the Rangers, the Angels will need Pujols to be Pujols (page 46). But Dipoto knows the division will also come down to the rotations. "Ours is proven," says the G.M. "We have four guys in the prime of their careers, four guys who've made All-Star teams in the recent past, four guys who are durable 200-inning pitchers. You don't want to pin too much on them in the way of expectations, but these guys create expectations."
No pitcher in the division faces higher expectations than the Rangers' 25-year-old Japanese sensation. On a cloudless spring training morning in Surprise, Ariz., Darvish arrived for his first bullpen session. It attracted more than 150 media members—more than were at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for Game 1 of the ALDS last October. The session lasted less than two minutes.
The Rangers, who came within one out of winning the franchise's first World Series title last year, won two straight AL pennants without a bona fide ace. Now they believe they have one in Darvish. The 6'5" righthander has, depending on whom you ask, between six and eight pitches, though catcher Luis Martinez swears that during Darvish's first session, "he threw 10 different pitches."
Texas won't concede that the Angels have the better rotation, nor should they—not with Darvish anchoring a staff that includes potential stars in lefthander Derek Holland and righthander Neftali Feliz. The day after a breakout performance in the World Series—he threw 81/3 shutout innings against the Cardinals in Game 4—Holland mugged for Fox cameras during Game 5, doing play-by-play in his Harry Caray impression. The fun didn't stop during the off-season: Holland played Wiffle ball with Dirk Nowitzki before a Mavs game, appeared on a Dallas newscast to deliver the weather (video of him disappearing into the green screen went viral), and grew his hair out into a Joe Dirt--like mullet. The 25-year-old, though, is dead serious about taking the next step as a pitcher. "My attitude is the same as everyone else's," he says, "to do everything we can to finish off what we started last year."
The biggest difference for Texas could be Feliz, who is attempting to follow in Wilson's footsteps and make the transition from the bullpen, where he's been a 30-save closer in each of the last two years. The Rangers' front office had been split over where the righthander belongs, but this spring they committed to making the 23-year-old a starter. "We know how good his stuff is," says Joe Nathan, 37, who signed as a free agent and will be the new closer. "He could step in there and be an elite guy right away."
The Rangers are loaded for the long haul, with one of the deepest minor league systems in the game. The offense, virtually identical to the one that ranked in the top three in the league in every major offensive category in 2011, will again be scary. This may, however, be one of the last runs for the lineup's current core. All indications are that outfielder Josh Hamilton will test the free-agent market after this season ("I don't feel like I owe the Rangers," the 2010 MVP said early in spring training), and DH Michael Young, third baseman Adrian Beltre and rightfielder Nelson Cruz are all 30 or older. "I wouldn't say there's a sense of urgency," says Young, 35, who is starting his 13th season and is the longest-tenured Ranger. "But we are aware that these opportunities to win a championship don't come along every year."
On the\ morning of Dec. 9, Jack Zduriencik had just stepped out of the Rule 5 draft at the winter meetings in Dallas when someone whispered to him, The Angels got Pujols. "Before I can even process that," says the Seattle G.M., "I take two steps and boom, there are 25 cameras on me asking how I feel about Albert Pujols coming to our division. How do I feel? Clearly, I would prefer it if Mr. Pujols were not in our division."
The Mariners and the A's are trying to keep up with the Rangers and the Angels while facing challenges that extend beyond their smaller payrolls. Because the ballparks in Seattle and Oakland have well-deserved reputations for being graveyards for hitters, both organizations struggle to attract impact bats. That's a big reason the Mariners sent 23-year-old righthander Michael Pineda to New York in a deal for 22-year-old catcher-DH Jesus Montero, one of the most highly regarded offensive prospects in the game. "I never thought we'd trade Pineda, but getting that middle-of-the-order bat is a challenge," says Zduriencik, whose team ranked last in the league in runs, average and OPS in 2011. "We felt like it was a deal we had to do."
The A's were also forced to be creative, signing Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal. It was viewed by many as an overpay for a hitter with no major league experience. "We just are having a hard time getting people to play in Oakland, thus the venture into the international market rather than [an attempt] to attract free agents that flat-out don't want to come here," says Forst.
The A's believe the 26-year-old Cespedes can immediately be a middle-of-the-order force for an offense that hasn't had a 30-home-run hitter since 2008. "The power is unquestioned," Forst says of Cespedes. "You can probably count the number of players on one hand with the athleticism and physique of this guy."
Seattle's emergence should come sooner than Oakland's—the Mariners are loaded with young pitching talent that will begin to arrive late this season. The A's are looking ahead to 2015, when they hope to be in a new stadium. (They are negotiating with the commissioner's office for permission to build in San Jose.) "We play in an outdated facility that does not allow us to maximize our revenue," says Forst. "We certainly feel that if Major League Baseball allows us to be in a new facility in the next few years, that very much levels the playing field."
For now, though, the AL West is a two-team race. "No one's overlooking the A's and the Mariners," says Hunter. "But we're chasing the Rangers because they're kings right now. And it's going to be fun trying to take the crown away."
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
ALBERT PUJOLS, ANGELS
He had career lows in batting average, OBP and slugging last year, but concerns over a decline were put to rest after a typically Pujolsian second half (.960 OPS) and otherworldly postseason. The new Angel is still the best hitter in the game and a Gold Glove first baseman.
JERED WEAVER, ANGELS
The Angels' ace keeps getting better: The 29-year-old's ERA and WHIP have improved each of the last four seasons. After he won a career-high 18 games in 2011, the only question entering this season is whether the departure of personal catcher Jeff Mathis will affect him.
JOSH HAMILTON, RANGERS
A year after his 2010 MVP season, Hamilton broke his arm on a headfirst slide and played through a sports hernia. He still fueled Texas's scorching second half, with 17 home runs over the last three months. Texas needs another big year from the Natural before he tests free agency.
ROOKIE TO WATCH
JESUS MONTERO, MARINERS
The kid can rake; the ex-Yankees prospect, who with his quick hands and opposite-field power has been compared with Miguel Cabrera, hit .328 with four HRs in 18 games in the Bronx last year. The question is whether he's a 22-year-old DH or can be a catcher.
STAR ON THE RISE
YU DARVISH, RANGERS
Enough with the comparisons to Daisuke Matsuzaka. The 25-year-old righty is more athletic, bigger and more durable than the last Japanese pitching star to arrive in the majors. Darvish also has a better track record, with a 1.60 ERA and 498 K's in 434 innings over the last two years in Japan.
STAR IN DECLINE
ICHIRO SUZUKI, MARINERS
Seattle is wisely moving the 38-year-old out of the leadoff hole after he posted career lows in average and OBP and fell short of 200 hits for the first time. The 10-time All-Star can still run (he swiped 40 bases in 47 attempts), but his days as a Gold Glove--caliber outfielder are over.
THE PAYOFF PITCH ...
Arte Moreno's spending is rewarded with a title—and Albert Pujols's seamless transition to the AL, the dominance of the rotation and the emergence of outfielder Mike Trout signal more to come.
The Angels are all pitch and no hit as age catches up to Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter and the rest of the veterans in the lineup. The supporting cast around Pujols falls flat, and Texas's rule over the West continues.
Yu Darvish lives up to expectations, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz bloom into stars in the rotation, and the juggernaut offense keeps rolling. The Rangers return to the World Series—and this time seal the deal.
Darvish wilts in the Texas heat. The Feliz-less bullpen struggles. Bad luck hits injury-prone stars Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz. The Angels (and the AL East powers) squeeze the two-time league champs out of a playoff spot.
Oakland hits the jackpot with its two off-season lottery tickets: Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez each hit at least 25 homers. The A's finish over .500 and build momentum for a stadium project in San Jose.
Cespedes struggles to hit major league pitching, and none of the prospects from their winter trades are ready to make an impact. With no move to San Jose imminent, the franchise continues to hang in limbo.
The young pitching arrives sooner than expected. The young core of Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak makes big strides, and the Mariners play meaningful games in the second half for the first time since 2009.
Montero struggles at spacious Safeco Field, and an anemic offense is just as unwatchable as it was last year. Felix Hernandez voices his frustration by asking for a trade, and the Mariners spiral toward a third straight 90-loss season.