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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."
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.