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Era of westward woe appears on the wane

Used to be that baseball’s sun rose — and set — in the East.

The Yankees annually dominated the winter free-agent market and whatever table scraps were left were scooped up by the Red Sox or Phillies. What happened in the wilderness beyond the Rocky Mountains generally was considered inconsequential.

But that’s all changed this year. With the signing of Albert Pujols, the top free-agent slugger, and C.J. Wilson, the top free-agent pitcher, the Angels may now be baseball’s best team. They’re certainly the most talked-about.

But their division rivals in Texas — winners of the last two American League pennants, the only team other than the Yankees to win at least two in a row in the three-division era — aren’t far behind after spending $112 million to land Japanese import Yu Darvish.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have the National League’s best pitcher in Clayton Kershaw and the league’s most-valuable-player runner-up in outfielder Matt Kemp. More important, they also have new hope after being sold to a group headlined by former Lakers superstar Magic Johnson in a $2.15-billion deal, the most expensive in international sports history.

And that’s not all that’s new. This season will also see the introduction of a new playoff system and a new stadium — and name — for the former Florida Marlins.

One of the people responsible for baseball’s westward tilt is a former Mets fan and journeyman reliever from Jersey City, N.J., named Jerry Dipoto. Two months into his job as general manager of the Angels, Dipoto lured Pujols away from St. Louis — the Gateway to the West — and took Wilson away from the Rangers, making the Angels the sexy pick to win the World Series.

As for transforming the entire region, he says that’s been going on for a while — even if few had noticed.

“I hope the sun is rising, not setting,” he says. “The West has been good for a while. The NL West as well as the AL. It’s not shocking. Baseball is cyclical.

"[The Rangers] are holding the torch, as it were. And it’s our job to take it back.”

Can the Angels-Rangers rivalry really match Red Sox-Yankees? Angels outfielder Vernon Wells thinks so.

“What they’ve accomplished the last two years, what we did this off-season, it’s going to make for an unbelievable story,” says Wells, whose off-season home is a short drive from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. “The plan for both teams is to make this a truly memorable season for both of us.”

But teammate Torii Hunter has his doubts that the rivalry will fully hold the nation’s attention.

“It’s going to take them awhile to realize the West Coast is on the rise,” he says. “When people see Rangers-Angels on TV, the intensity of the rivalry . . . could catch fire. But the next day . . . while we’re playing, trust me, half the world is asleep.”

In that case they’re going to miss a lot — and not just in the AL West. Four of the five teams in the balanced NL West have won at least one division title in the past six seasons, and the lone exception, the Colorado Rockies, made it to the 2007 World Series as a wild card. And two years ago the Giants won their first World Series since moving to San Francisco in 1958, thanks in part to Tim Lincecum, who has won two of the 10 Cy Young Awards claimed by NL West pitchers in the last 13 seasons.

“It’s always interesting for us. The division is underrated in a lot of ways,” says Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti. “This division has always got great flexibility to it. And great unpredictably.”

But baseball still will be hard-pressed to match the excitement of last year’s playoff race, when four teams were in contention for the final two postseason spots on the last day — and two of those teams were eliminated in extra innings. The addition this season of a second wild-card team in each league, which broadens the postseason field to 10 teams, should help by keeping more cities in contention deeper into the season.

“The wild card has usually been a three- or four-team race. Now it may be a six- or seven-team race,” Colletti says. “Those games in September are going to have so much more meaning for so many more different cities than just those teams that have traditionally been in the division hunt or the wild-card hunt.

“There’s going to a be a lot of other factors that go into it.”

Some of these factors will necessarily change the way Colletti, Dipoto and other general managers do their jobs. In the past the midseason trade deadline has given contending teams an opportunity to plunder less-fortunate rivals, as when the Angels traded for Dan Haren in 2010 or when the Dodgers got Manny Ramirez two years earlier.

“If someone’s on top, that means someone else is on the bottom gathering acorns, so to speak,” Dipoto says.

Look for more teams to be gathering than unloading acorns this summer. Over the last 16 years it’s taken an average of 91 wins to become a wild-card team, but if the new format had been in place in those seasons, a second wild card could have qualified with as few as 84 wins.

“There should be less sellers,” Colletti says. “There should be more franchises that believe they have a chance as July turns into August and even as August turns into September.”

And speaking of buyers and sellers, the once-moribund Marlins, who had a payroll of $57 million last year, committed more than three times that much to sign free agents Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle, and another $10 million to bring in the loquacious Ozzie Guillen as manager.

The team is counting on additional revenue streams from its new 36,000-seat, $634-million retractable-roof stadium, which was paid for largely by South Florida taxpayers. In exchange for the nearly $480-million largesse, the team is changing its name to the Miami Marlins.

But that may be the only thanks the city gets since the three new superstars signed contracts that are heavily back-loaded and include no protection against a trade — for either the players or the fans, who are still smoldering from previous fire sales.

kevin. baxter@latimes.com

Time staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.


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