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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."