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Western Promises

How TV money and front-office smarts are turning the AL West into baseball's new power

The race is on for Masahiro Tanaka, the 25-year-old Japanese pitcher who figures to command $100 million or more on the free-agent market later this month. The big, bad Yankees will likely bid heavily if they dispense with the idea of staying under the $189 million luxury-tax limit. The Dodgers plan to go all out to get Tanaka, outbidding fellow hopefuls and making it rain again if they must. It’s easy to believe, since the Yankees and Dodgers play in baseball’s two biggest markets and are the sport’s two marquee franchises, at least by financial measures.

More surprising: Three of the other top candidates to land Tanaka hail from the same division, one that hasn’t traditionally produced economic powerhouses, much less World Series titles. While the latest buzz says Tanaka has narrowed down his list of true suitors to the Angels, Dodgers, and Yankees, the Mariners and Rangers are also reportedly attempting to secure the righty’s services. Wherever Tanaka signs, the fact that 60 percent of American League West teams look like viable threats to land by far the best player left on the market, and one of the most hotly pursued in years, underscores the financial boom these teams have experienced.

Baseball’s balance of power has started to shift, and it’s swinging toward the AL West.

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The change began in 2011, when the Rangers inked a 20-year, $3 billion TV deal with Fox Sports Southwest.1 Until 2010, the Rangers had suffered through a painful existence. In 1972 and 1973, their first two seasons in Texas, they lost 205 games. Though they eventually got better, the Rangers failed to make the playoffs for 24 years. They peaked in the late ’90s, winning three division titles in four years behind Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, and, at the tail end, Rafael Palmeiro. Then another dry spell hit, with the Rangers missing the playoffs for 10 consecutive years, including eight straight last-place or next-to-last-place finishes. Then-GM John Hart’s fevered attempts to keep the late-’90s fun going with monster contracts didn’t work: The Rangers’ core group of players got old, and Chan Ho Park’s megadeal (among others) was a disaster. The $252 million Doug Melvin paid to Alex Rodriguez produced MVP-caliber numbers, but not winning seasons.

Jon Daniels, Hart’s apprentice, started to change all that when he took over as GM in 2005. If Daniels’s plans to dismantle the roster and rebuild from the ground up wasn’t immediately obvious, the blockbuster trade that sent Mark Teixeira to the Braves for five premium prospects in 2007 cleared things up. Though Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and the since-departed Jarrod Saltalamacchia don’t look quite as thrilling now as they did seven years ago (or even three years ago), the trade did restock a Rangers farm system that continued to get better in the ensuing years. Trading Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton, converting C.J. Wilson from a closer into an excellent starter, and stealing players like Mike Napoli and Colby Lewis for next to nothing further helped Texas emerge as a contender again. The Rangers reached the World Series in 2010 and 2011, losing both times, then earned a third playoff berth in 2012. Their 2013 quest fell just short, in Game 163.

The Rangers remain a formidable threat thanks to Daniels, assistant GM Thad Levine, and the rest of the front office’s ability to evaluate where the team stands, then make moves to fit the situation. Some GMs know how to trade veteran stars for quality prospects; others excel at making huge moves and spending hundreds of millions of the owner’s money. The Rangers have mastered both avenues. They’ve made trades involving superstars like Teixeira, Cliff Lee, and Prince Fielder while continuing to churn out dynamic young players. Jurickson Profar’s development, for one, allowed the Rangers to address a major need by moving Ian Kinsler for lefty-swinging slugger Fielder. Fielder, of course, figures to replace the pop the Rangers lost when Hamilton left after the 2012 season. These Rangers never stay down for long.

What really makes the Rangers terrifying, though, is the combination of those smarts with the team’s cash. Texas probably wouldn’t have signed Yu Darvish, who’s now one of the five best pitchers in the AL, without the TV money windfall. Nor would the Rangers have made last month’s $130 million splurge on Shin-Soo Choo. And it’s tough to imagine them having a crack at Tanaka — or Ubaldo Jimenez, or Ervin Santana, or Matt Garza, or a high-priced pitcher potentially available via trade — if Fox Sports Southwest hadn’t waltzed into the team complex firing a money cannon.

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The Angels, like the Rangers, are benefiting from a giant TV deal, one that runs through 2032 and earns the team $150 million per year. The Halos have been ramping up their spending for years now, dating back to when Arte Moreno bought the team in May 2003. He handed Vladimir Guerrero a five-year, $70 million contract just eight months later, and the combination of Moreno’s largesse and the Angels’ farm system’s continued success fueled an impressive run that included five division titles in six seasons from 2004 to 2009. Then, like Hart, Ruben Amaro Jr., and so many other overzealous GMs, L.A.’s Tony Reagins chased the dragon and got burned.

Armed with Moreno’s money and a mandate to keep the good times rolling no matter what, Reagins made one destructive trade after another, shipping a long list of prospects out of town and shackling future payrolls by acquiring outrageously overpriced players like Vernon Wells. Things haven’t gone much better under current GM Jerry Dipoto. He may not have signed Wells, but with the batch of cash garnered from the team’s massive TV deal, Dipoto has made what look to be two gigantic mistakes: the $125 million Josh Hamilton whiff, and the $240 million Albert Pujols Contract of Death.

The good news for the Angels is that Dipoto, like Texas’s Daniels, has found ways to change course and address his team’s weaknesses. While many GMs would’ve balked at trading Mark Trumbo’s big power bat, Dipoto saw a player who made too many outs, was weak defensively, and wasn’t getting any cheaper. So Dipoto flipped Trumbo in a three-team deal with the Diamondbacks and White Sox and addressed his team’s biggest weakness, reeling in two young, talented, and dirt-cheap left-handed starters who have a shot at cracking the rotation in 2014.

The Angels roster still has its share of flaws, but so much went wrong for them last year that it’s easy to predict an impending bounce-back season. Signing Tanaka would go a long way toward making that a reality. Having the best player on the planet certainly doesn’t hurt. Whether or not the Angels contend in 2014, though, Moreno, Dipoto, & Co. will retreat to their top-secret war room to make further plans.

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The Seattle Mariners are the newest addition to the AL West’s Kajillionaires’ Club. Last April, news broke that the M’s had purchased a majority interest in Root Sports Northwest. As a result, the team will now rake in $115 million a year in cable money through 2030. In essence, the Mariners are paying themselves to televise their own games. Writing for the Mariners blog Lookout Landing, Maury Brown ably described the deal’s multiple benefits:

Instead of waiting for 2015 to arrive so they could opt out of their deal that was worth $450 million and see how a potential bidding war would play, or launch their own regional sports network, they decided to purchase what was already there in ROOT Sports NW. This is smart on a number of levels. No start-up costs for an RSN. No fighting with carriers for fees with some new RSN. No over-saturating the market by trying to cram another channel in the listing. In purchasing from DirecTV, ROOT Sports NW is already set. They get in before the bubble bursts. Branding of ROOT Sports NW remains and the only difference is that the Mariners cut out the middleman, and enjoy the profits.

Brown’s post raised two other salient points. First, the Mariners are the rare team that’s debt-free, most notably owing no debt on Safeco Field; that clean balance sheet enabled them to pull off the Root Sports deal rather than hope that the explosion in local TV contracts didn’t wind up being a bubble that burst before they got to cash in. Second, despite the Mariners’ terrific financial health, they hadn’t parlayed that money into the kind of big-ticket acquisitions expected from a team that, you know, actually cares.

That’s changed. Last offseason, the Mariners handed out their biggest contract to date, giving Felix Hernandez a $175 million extension. They topped that this winter, tossing $240 million at Robinson Cano. The Yankees’ $175 million offer to re-sign Cano was arguably below market value, and the acrimony between the two sides might’ve influenced New York’s decision not to go any higher. No matter the reason, though, the fact remains that Cano’s decision to sign with Seattle for $65 million more was, and still is, a real shocker. It’s one thing to have money; it’s another to be willing to spend it — and spend a lot of it. If the Mariners are going to spend at the Rangers’ and Angels’ levels rather than Cleveland’s and Kansas City’s, it’ll change the entire complexion of the AL West.

It’s tough to see the M’s leaping to the top of the division just yet, and even landing Tanaka might not be enough to make that happen in 2014. But they have Hernandez, Cano, and a highly touted crop of infield prospects, and more moves could be on the way if ownership continues to act on its sudden impulse to give a damn. The Mariners could tolerate the slow progress under GM Jack Zduriencik when the team was building backyard forts out of thousand-dollar bills. If things don’t improve soon, though, a new regime will take over, and it will have enough money to bully competitors out of top talent.

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The Astros’ situation is a lot trickier. Houston owner Jim Crane believed he had a deal with Comcast SportsNet Houston that would pay $80 million a year in rights fees and include a 46 percent equity stake in the local cable network. Instead, land mines have filled the 16 months since the network launched, and Comcast hasn’t generated anywhere near enough revenue to pay the Astros what they’re owed. Crane filed suit against former Astros owner Drayton McLane, alleging McLane misrepresented the upside of the Comcast deal when he sold the team to Crane; we’re still waiting for the whole mess to get resolved.2 We can either be optimistic that the Astros will figure it out and/or find another way to land a lucrative TV deal in the fifth-largest metro market in the country, or we can assume the worst.

The Astros’ on-field product could also go two ways. On the one hand, it’s hard to ignore that Houston has lost 106, 107, and 111 games in the past three seasons. Or that there’s not a single superstar on the major league roster. Or that the hope for the future depends largely on the team’s highly touted collection of prospects, to which we say: TINSTAAPP. The recent struggles are largely by design, of course, with the Astros tolerating a few lean years in the hopes of building a sustainable winner. They’re still going up against some formidable division rivals, though, and even an optimistic rebuilding schedule would have the Astros contending around 2016 or later.

The good news is that Houston’s front office is stuffed with bright minds, from GM Jeff Luhnow to a collection of Baseball Prospectus alums big enough to fill 80 rocket science labs. Plus, losing big means collecting some enticing draft picks. George Springer, the no. 11 overall pick in 2011, is a promising young power hitter, and two straight years of drafting first overall gave the Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and big-time pitching prospect Mark Appel. Carlos Rodon looks like a potential top-of-the-rotation starter who could go no. 1 this year, when the Astros will again have the top overall pick.

Houston needs to catch a few breaks along the way, but at the very least the Astros profile as a potential sleeping giant.

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We’ve gone this far without even mentioning the two-time defending AL West champion Oakland A’s. According to Forbes, the A’s ranked 28th in baseball in revenue last season, which is about where they’ve been for years. When the enduring image of your ballpark is technicians cleaning up the latest in a long line of sewer overflows, times are tight.

None of that has made a lick of difference lately for Oakland’s on-field results. By nabbing players like Coco Crisp at heavily discounted prices, using platoons to produce huge results, and exploiting market inefficiencies that no one else knew existed, the A’s have returned to their old ways, knocking off much richer opponents while spending about this much. The A’s have made smart-ass pundits look silly, and there’s a good chance they’ll continue to do so with future doubters.

As if being smarter than nearly every other team isn’t enough, there’s the looming possibility that the A’s could move to a new ballpark in San Jose, which would have a major positive impact on their revenue streams. An A’s team with an extra $50 million a year would be nightmare fuel for opponents.

It would merely be the latest development to strengthen the AL West, though. The AL East has been considered the toughest division in baseball for several years now, fielding über-wealthy teams and formidable underdogs. Over the next few years, however, it will be tough for even the lauded East to match the strength and depth of baseball’s new giant.

Filed Under: MLB, AL West, Baseball, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Oakland A's, Los Angeles Angels, TV Money, AL East

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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