The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels played an offseason game of “can you top this?” that used to be reserved for the AL East powers.
Albert Pujols is now swinging for the fences only a few home runs’ distance from Disneyland. Yu Darvish, the Japanese pitcher who throws 97 mph heat and sports orange streaks in his shaggy hair, is a huge sensation deep in the heart of Texas. Prince Fielder is providing much-needed hope to the Motor City.
There’s plenty of optimism in South Florida, too, as the formerly thrifty Marlins transformed into one of baseball’s big spenders. And even the low-budget, rebuilding Oakland Athletics landed a prized Cuban defector.
With more money from revenue-sharing and newfound cable television riches, mid-market teams can splurge with the big clubs.
Neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox made a big-ticket acquisition this winter. Instead, the spending spree spread South and West — and that has plenty more teams liking their chances for 2012. Players are refreshed by the free agent parity.
A power shift, indeed.
Rockies veteran Jason Giambi has been on both sides of the spectrum: starting his career with the A’s and then going to the pressure-packed life in Yankee pinstripes.
“It’s exciting that the game is really bolstering itself. Everybody’s making an effort,” Giambi said. “I really think that everybody feels like they’ve done a nice job in doing it the old fashioned way with some scouting, and they’re on the doorstep of having a phenomenal team. It just shows all the hard work. Instead of just the Yankees or the Red Sox and a few other teams spending money, now everybody’s out there spending money and they think they have a chance to win because they’ve done a nice job.”
Pujols headed West to discover his California gold mine.
The Angels have plans to be back in the playoffs after a two-year absence with the star slugger anchoring the middle of their order — for the next decade. He left the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to sign a $240 million, 10-year contract in L.A.
Fielder also took his swing to the American League, bidding farewell to the Brewers for a $214 million, nine-year deal in Detroit.
Texas and Oakland scooped up the top two foreign players on the market.
The Rangers landed Darvish and took on the Japanese entourage that follows every tiny motion in that over- the-head windup — and spent more than $107 million to do it. What a change from the days when the Red Sox made headlines by signing Daisuke Matsuzaka.
And it was the A’s who signed Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, giving him $36 million over four years and a spot in center field on opening day in Tokyo. That after general manager Billy Beane traded away three top pitchers in recent months.
“I like when guys are shifting all around instead of always going to New York and Boston,” Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. “Before when you talked about Boston and New York, you always knew that their salaries were going to be at the top. I don’t care so much about the salaries being up close to them, but the players. What I like and all baseball enjoys is that Albert Pujols can go somewhere besides New York and Boston, Darvish can sign with Texas.
“I think when you see that happening, it gives all teams a little more hope that they can sign a free agent.”
The Yankees’ final payroll is likely to top $210 million after ending 2011 at $216 million, while the Red Sox are right around $170 million.
Someone like Pujols would have been on the Yankees’ radar from Day 1 of free agency several years ago, but New York and Boston weren’t in the mix this time.
For one thing, neither team needed a first baseman — the position played by Pujols and Fielder — but in late February, the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez to a bargain $1.1 million, one-year contract to be their primary designated hitter against right-handed starters.
That’s practically pocket change for the once free-spending Steinbrenner family. Yet Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has vowed to streamline payroll, hoping to cut 10 percent to get his team down to around $189 million by 2014.
The Marlins did their share of stockpiling for new manager Ozzie Guillen, adding All-Stars Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano and Heath Bell.
“What I think is good for baseball — Miami gets a new stadium, so they’ve got a chance to maybe be a large market,” former Boston manager Terry Francona said. “Seems like to me they should be. Miami should be a hot baseball town. The Nationals are trying to be really relevant. They should be a big-market team. Looks like they want to be. That stuff’s good for baseball. When you start getting more teams wanting to be competitive and be relevant, that’s great.”
Hal Steinbrenner, son of late owner George Steinbrenner, and other regular large contributors to revenue-sharing, might be concerned about the luxury tax that will kick in soon.
Under baseball’s new labor contract, the luxury tax threshold will be at $189 million from 2014-16. By getting under the threshold, the Yankees would be eligible to get some of their revenue-sharing money back.
Whatever the motivating factors, more teams consider themselves in the mix.
Even the Los Angeles Dodgers, after all the turmoil they faced before Magic Johnson & Co. just agreed to purchase the club for a record $2 billion. Next offseason, the boys in blue might just be in the chase for a heralded free agent the way Arte Moreno was in Anaheim.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, a six-time All-Star who spent his entire 14-year playing career with the Yankees, agrees that more parity would be good for the game.
And, by the way, you don’t have feel sorry for his old team.
“It’s not like New York doesn’t have (Mark) Teixeira and A-Rod, (Derek) Jeter,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this story.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.