12/08/11 4:49 PM EST
Arte's Angels usher in bold new era
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
A division ridiculed for years as not only the smallest but the weakest of the six in Major League Baseball has suddenly taken on the physique of Mr. Universe.
Nobody, not even the AL East titans, will be kicking any sand in the faces of the Angels and Rangers anymore.
Here come Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and let's not forget LaTroy Hawkins, the dependable setup man. They give the Angels seemingly everything they had been lacking in one fell swoop by owner Arte Moreno and his new general manager, Jerry Dipoto, at an epic Winter Meetings.
Angels sign Pujols, Wilson
While the Marlins were stealing the early thunder with multiple signings, the Angels finished with lightning and thunderclaps of their own.
Pujols and Wilson agreeing to deals for a combined $330 million, or thereabouts, on the same day? This had a couple of baseball guys with totally different perspectives, in different time zones, invoking the same names: George Steinbrenner and the Bronx Bombers.
"They talk a lot about the Yankees," Reds manager Dusty Baker said from his home in the Sacramento, Calif., area, "and now the Angels, looking at what they've done over the last six, seven years, are kind of like the Yankees of the West.
"They go out and get guys."
The Angels have made a number of big-ticket acquisitions in the past five years -- Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, Gary Matthews Jr., Bobby Abreu, Brian Fuentes -- but nothing like these. Nothing even close.
This truly was straight out of the prime of "The Boss," Steinbrenner.
"This commitment shows Arte Moreno is a guy who wants to succeed," Wells said. "He bought this team because he wanted to win. When you talk of owners who want to win, you always think of George Steinbrenner.
"Arte has put himself on that same platform."
Though he has invested large sums of money in his franchise, Moreno also has been frustrated at times by those who got away -- notably first baseman Mark Teixeira following the 2008 season after he'd been acquired at midseason from Atlanta.
That one clearly upset Moreno, more so than falling short in his efforts to land CC Sabathia, Adrian Beltre and Carl Crawford, to name a few targets who landed elsewhere.
With larger media streams coming down the road, and with the likelihood of the rival Dodgers muscling up with new ownership up the freeway, Moreno clearly decided that the time was now to strike -- with mega-force.
It is conceivable that Angel Stadium will turn into Fenway Park West, with sellouts running consecutively for seasons, if not for days.
It is hard to imagine a more entertaining baseball operation than the one at the hands of manager Mike Scioscia in 2012.
"This gives us a great chance to compete and win," right fielder and clubhouse leader Hunter said after learning of the two signings while doing his morning workout at his home in nearby Prosper, Texas. "Texas is the champion. You have to give the Rangers their respect. They can play the game.
"We can't be like LeBron [James] did, the one, two, three [championships]. This is baseball. You can get slapped in the face any time. Look at the Yankees. For a long time they had the best numbers and didn't win."
That's Torii Hunter, the diplomat. Torii Hunter the optimist couldn't stop beaming.
"This is the piece we've been looking for," he said. "I've been looking for this my whole career. When Barry Bonds was playing, I said I'd love to hit in a lineup with him. [Pujols] is him -- best hitter, best to play the game. This gives us a good chance to win."
Hunter was equally elated over the news of Wilson coming onboard. This news arrived a few minutes after a couple of his training partners, including his good buddy Hawkins, had told him about Pujols, and he "just fell over" while working with weights.
The thought of slotting Wilson, an All-Star lefty, in the middle of a rotation with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Jerome Williams had Hunter doing handstands.
"Weaver, Haren, C.J., Santana and Jerome, Brad Mills, whoever it's going to be -- that starting rotation is one of the best in the game," Hunter said. "It's like Philly last year."
The Rangers' major advantage over the Angels -- a lineup loaded with threats from top to bottom -- appears to have vanished in Hunter's mind.
The assets are plentiful: the speed and versatility of Peter Bourjos, Erick Aybar and Howard Kendrick; the power of Pujols, Hunter, Wells, Mark Trumbo and, potentially, Kendrys Morales; Abreu, Maicer Izturis and Alberto Callaspo slashing line drives; and new catcher Chris Iannetta getting on base.
Suddenly, the Angels are in Texas' league offensively.
"The division just got significantly better," Thad Levine, the Rangers' assistant general manager, said. "A team we have tremendous respect for and has been our main competition just got better. The challenge in the American League West just got bigger. But we feel our team is up for the challenge."
Hunter, entering the final installment of his five-year contract, is so enthused that he was talking about accepting considerably reduced dollars to hang around for more of this excitement.
"I can be a utility guy or play third," Hunter said, grinning. "I want to win. It's all I care about.
"I want to come back and end my career here, whether it's two or three years from now. And it won't be about money. When you get an owner like Arte, you don't want to leave. You want to win."
There are more moves that might be made, using new chips created by these moves. The player certain to draw intense attention in trade discussions is Trumbo, who finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting and led the club in homers (29) and RBIs (87).
Trumbo has a big future and star qualities. He can play the outfield, but there's a crowd there. His position is first, but the Angels are as deep as the Pacific Ocean there now with Pujols, Morales and one of their prime prospects, C.J. Cron.
And there is that matter of the 10-year no-trade deal Pujols has agreed to autograph.
It's a bold new era in Southern California, and the West looks a little wilder than ever.
Arte Moreno and his Angels are all in.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.