For more than two decades, the West Coast has played the part of Major League Baseball’s strange uncle. You know, the one who is invited to the family reunion but hardly ever gets to sit at the head table.
In the last 22 seasons, only three teams west of the Rockies — the team and the mountain range — have won a World Series. In 17 of those seasons, a team from the Pacific time zone didn’t even advance to the game’s biggest showcase.
However, the tide may be turning.
In the National League, San Francisco has won two of the last three championships and the Dodgers, with the game’s highest payroll and best pitcher in 26-year-old Clayton Kershaw, seem poised to begin a dynasty.
And in the American League, a combination of free-agent spending, smart scouting and at least one enormous gamble has turned the West into arguably the most improved division in baseball.
“The competition got stiffer, no question about that,” says Lloyd McClendon, Seattle’s first-year manager. “It will be a very tough, very competitive division. There are some extremely good arms and some of the biggest names in baseball.”
Some of the most expensive too.
The Angels’ Albert Pujols ended last season with the third-richest contract in professional sports history but begins this season as the third-best paid player in the division. Seattle second baseman Robinson Cano and Texas slugger Prince Fielder will each make $24 million this season; Pujols will make $23 million.
If teammate Mike Trout agrees to a contract extension, Pujols may not even be the best-paid player on his team.
The AL West isn’t just being bought, either. The teams all have improved by following different blueprints.
“There are some differences,” says Oakland Manager Bob Melvin, who won division titles in each of his first two seasons with the Athletics. “Each and every team has its own style, has its own philosophies.”
The frugal A’s, for example, are constantly turning over their pitching staff. This winter they let 18-game winner Bartolo Colon, closer Grant Balfour and reliever Jeremy Blevins go, replacing them with Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson while saving enough money to sign outfielder Coco Crisp for three more seasons.
And while the Texas Rangers spent big on free agents, committing $344 million for first baseman Fielder and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, the Angels avoided big-name free agents for the first time in three years, adding third baseman David Freese and pitcher Tyler Skaggs in trades that cost them slugger Mark Trumbo and speedy outfielder Peter Bourjos.
Even the lowly Houston Astros, coming off three successive 100-loss seasons, should be better thanks to a patient front office and a tireless player development department that has quietly built what is ranked as the second-best farm system in baseball.
“It’s going to be very soon that they’re going to be a power too,” Oakland General Manager Billy Beane says. “We’re sort of holding our breath because they’ve got some great young players coming.”
The Rangers’ Jon Daniels agreed. “They have a very good plan, a tremendous amount of depth,” he says of the Astros. “They’ll be good before people expect.”
The division wild card this season could be the Seattle Mariners, who crossed their fingers, blew on the dice and signed Cano, 31, to a 10-year, $240-million contract to complement a young roster built through the draft.
Five teams, five philosophies.
But in the midst of all the differences, there are some similarities. For example, over the past three winters the Rangers, Mariners and Angels have combined to spend more than $1 billion on free agents. Yet the foundation of all three clubs was built the same way the Astros are building theirs, through the farm system.
“It’s kind of the natural course,” says Daniels, whose team has averaged 92 wins the past two seasons only to finish behind Oakland both times. “Everybody’s got different means. The core of each team, though, is generally similar in that it’s home grown.
“That’s the perfect scenario: You develop your own core, you supplement.”
In Texas, Daniels’ core is a middle infield of Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar. In Anaheim, it’s Trout, the double-play combination of Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick, and ace right-hander Jered Weaver.
In Seattle, where Jack Zduriencik took over as general manager five years ago, the Mariners first tried to win with pitching and defense, tailoring their team to their huge home ballpark. Then they tried to tailor their park to their team, moving the fences at Safeco Park in as much as 17 feet.
That helped Seattle finish second in the majors in homers last year, but the team still lost more than 90 games for the third time in four seasons.
However, Zduriencik has steadfastly stuck to another plan, one that has seen 42 players make their big-league debuts in a Mariners uniform since 2009.
“We really haven’t deviated from what we said we were going to do from the very beginning, and that was build this thing through scouting,” says Zduriencik, who spent nearly a quarter of a century in scouting and player development before becoming a general manager. “But there is always a point in time where you have to add. And when you have the opportunity to add someone like we were able to add this year it doesn’t change your approach. All it does is it just adds to your club.”
Not everyone agrees.
The iconoclastic Beane has gone his own way in Oakland, relying more on advanced metrics and trades than old-time bird-dogging. Which is why just one of the team’s everyday players — Yoenis Cespedes — started his career in the A’s organization. And Cespedes never played a game in the minors after defecting from Cuba.
The constant turnover has helped the A’s keep their payroll low, salary flexibility that could come in handy this year since Oakland will have to replace right-hander Jarrod Parker, who recently underwent Tommy John surgery. Parker had a combined record of 25-16 with a 3.73 earned-run average the last two seasons.
“I don’t necessarily look at how the other teams are built,” says Beane, whose player payroll has topped $70 million just once in his 16 seasons in Oakland. “We’re not really a club that sees a move made and tries to counter it. We just sort of operate in our own little bubble and hope that it’s good enough.”
The Rangers will spend more than that on the top five hitters in their batting order this season.
“It’s all been done a little bit different,” Zduriencik says of the AL West. “You have to work within your own parameters. And in our division our clubs have done a pretty good job of it.”