For the first time since the late George Steinbrenner was in vintage ax-wielding mode, firing front-office staffers on Christmas Eve and implementing 364 days of hell on those whose jobs he spared, the New York Yankees took a low-key approach to free agency this past winter.
Same with the Boston Red Sox, whose turbulent offseason dwelled more on management changes than the acquisition of star players.
As the sport’s resident superpowers were taking a breather from an annual arms-race quest to supplement talent with still more talent, the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers flexed their muscles in an impressive display of fiscal fitness.
The Angels signed former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, who for the past decade reigned as the best overall baseball player on the planet, to a 10-year contract worth $240 million. Adding Pujols and his 30-plus home-run potential transformed a decent lineup into a dangerous one, but owner Arturo Moreno wasn’t done. He submitted a free-agent offer that former Texas starter C.J. Wilson couldn’t refuse: $77.5 million over five years.
Wilson was seen as the best pitcher available in free agency, but the quirky left-hander will rank no higher than No. 3 on a stellar Angels staff anchored by right-handers Jered Weaver and Dan Haren.
The Rangers’ response to Moreno’s pilfering of their ace was swift and precise. They put up $51.7 million for right to negotiate a contract with Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish, and then invested another $60 million to persuade Darvish to bring his vast repertoire of swing-and-miss pitches to Arlington, Texas.
Before the Rangers won the bidding contest for Darvish, they spent $14.5 million to obtain free-agent reliever Joe Nathan. While it wasn’t a “gotcha!” transaction – Nathan, 37, saved only 14 games last season after recuperating from elbow surgery – the former All-Star solidifies a bullpen that has donated closer Neftali Perez to the starting rotation.
Two years ago this spring, the Rangers filed for bankruptcy. Thanks to an ownership group fronted by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan – and fortified by the deep pockets of Texas oilmen Ray Davis and Bob Simpson – the franchise that was broke in 2010 is going for broke in an attempt to win a third straight pennant in 2012.
And, yet, if the Angels turn out to be as good as they look on paper, the Rangers will have to settle for finishing second-best in the American League West, home of baseball’s newest and most intriguing rivalry.
In terms of top-to-bottom depth, the AL East remains in a class by itself. Four of its five teams finished at least .500 last season, sustaining a trend: Since 1997, the division has sent 11 of the league’s 15 wild-card teams to the playoffs. As long as the Yankees and Red Sox are inclined to support payrolls well into nine figures, the East will be a beast.
But it wasn’t merely a coincidence that Pujols ended up in California, nor was it a coincidence that Darvish ended up in Texas. The teams that have upgraded the AL West into elite status are relying on wisdom long held by the Yankees and Red Sox: You’ve got to pay to stock a roster with proven talent, and the best way to pay is from local television contracts.
In 2003, when Moreno purchased the Angels from The Walt Disney Co., the team ranked No. 26 out of 30 MLB teams in media revenue. How was it possible for a franchise steeped in America’s second-largest media market and owned by one of its biggest media companies to rank 26th out of 30? Moreno wondered, too.
So he worked out a 20-year TV deal with Fox Sports, worth $3 billion, allowing the Angels to spend about $100 million more per season on their payroll.
Upon landing Pujols, Moreno appeared at a sort of civic pep rally in Anaheim, Calif., and said: “Thank you, Fox, and Merry Christmas.”
Texas’ ability to compensate free agents also can be explained by a TV deal with Fox. Scheduled to begin in 2015, it’s worth $1.6 billion through 2035.
Deep in the hearts of Texans, football never will be supplanted.
Still, before Ryan’s group rescued the franchise from the hopelessly in-over-his-head stewardship of Tom Hicks, the Rangers were regarded as sleeping giants. Dallas-Fort Worth is the fourth-largest TV market in the U.S. – largest for any market with a single baseball team – and there are just so many spring-football practices viewers can tolerate.
Get used to the Rangers, with cash to burn, competing with the Angels for AL West supremacy. It’ll happen every summer, from here to eternity.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Oakland A’s are doomed for a 20-year stretch in the cellar. General manager Billy Beane recently signed a contract extension, as did club president Michael Crowley. Beane and Crowley are committed to the long haul in anticipation the commissioner’s office will allow the inevitable: a team relocated in San Jose, where the A’s finally escape the armpit that is their stadium.
Houston’s Astros, in the meantime, change leagues next year, expanding the AL West into a five-team division. The Astros figure to hit the ground as the “Lastros,” but Houston is a Top 10 TV market, and new owner Jim Crane didn’t invest $680 million in the franchise because he just needed a hobby.
As for the Mariners?
General manager Jack Zduriencik is adhering to the traditional process of rebuilding, assembling a 40-man roster that finds prospects grinding it out with projects.
The goal is to win the AL West for the first time since 2001, and that goal – reasonably achievable within two years – is legitimate.
But it’s getting crowded at the top, and it’ll be crowded for a while.