01/23/12 10:00 AM EST
Rangers, Angels to collide in heated-up rivalry
AL West powers raise stakes in head-to-head clash for AL West
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
Following a highly competitive offseason, that has all changed.
The two clubs will embark on a season that could signal the start of a long-standing tug-of-war in the American League West.
The rivalry reached a fever pitch during the offseason, in the comfort of air-conditioned offices and through the art of savvy business. The Angels and new general manager Jerry Dipoto -- seeking a surge after back-to-back playoff absences -- struck gold on Dec. 8, spending nearly $330 million to sign the best hitter of this era, Albert Pujols, and steal former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson. Then came the Rangers -- eager to maintain their standing as back-to-back division and league champs -- committing more than $110 million to pluck the heralded Yu Darvish out of Japan.
A direct answer to the moves their AL West foes made? Maybe. But a team coming off two straight World Series appearances would never admit that.
"Our goal this offseason was to get better," Rangers GM Jon Daniels simply said. "We had a plan and we followed through with it. We know the Angels are a good organization with outstanding people. We were just focused on what we were trying to do."
And rightfully so, it's the Angels who feel they need to catch up.
For a while, the AL West belonged to them. They won the World Series in 2002, made five playoff appearances from 2004-09 and watched as the Rangers went 10 years without a postseason berth. But the past two seasons, the Angels went a combined 16-22 against the Rangers (including 7-12 in 2011) and finished 10 games behind them in the standings each season.
"Obviously, they've done very well for themselves," Dipoto said of the Rangers. "They're the two-time defending AL champs, and we understand that we're in a division that has the two-time defending best team in the American League. Our job is to go in there as a team and compete with that club, night in and night out, even on the days we're not playing them."
The Angels will get their shots, 19 times in all in 2012.
May 11-13 in Arlington
June 1-3 in Anaheim
July 20-22 in Anaheim
July 30-Aug. 2 in Arlington
Sept. 18-20 in Anaheim
Sept. 28-30 in Arlington, in the final series of the regular season
Who knows where the two clubs will stand by that point, but we can be almost certain that when that time comes, this rivalry will have given us everything we've anticipated.
Darvish vs. Pujols.
Wilson vs. his former team.
Mike Napoli vs. the team that basically gave up on him a year ago, only to see him re-emerge in Texas.
Prince Fielder vs. Jered Weaver? Hey, you never know.
"I think we're pretty even right now, I'd say," Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos said. "It's just a matter of going out and proving that we can go out and play with them. They've proven that they can beat them the last couple of years, and now we've got Pujols and C.J. Wilson. I think we just have to go out and prove that we're just as good as them."
It all will give the AL West more national intrigue than ever. There is no doubt plenty of Rangers-Angels matchups will make their way to national television.
"It's cool, man, because here in the West, we get left out, whether it's the Rangers or the Angels," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said. "We kind of get left out because of the beasts of the East."
In releasing its partial schedule recently, ESPN announced the May 13 Rangers-Angels game will be its Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, and there should be plenty more where that came from.
Intrigue aside, though, skipper Ron Washington says the Rangers "aren't worried about the Angels," adding, "We're only worried about ourselves. We're only concerned with the Texas Rangers and being as good as we can be."
Just look at their lineup. Nelson Cruz (average of 28 homers and 80 RBIs the past three years) and Napoli (.320 average with a 1.046 OPS in 113 games last season) could make up the bottom third in a very potent batting order.
The Rangers ranked third in the Majors in runs scored last season, and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue, especially if they add Fielder to the mix.
The question comes with their pitching staff, with new closer Joe Nathan not far removed from Tommy John surgery, Neftali Feliz making the move from the ninth inning to the rotation, Darvish making the move from Japan to Texas, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland taking on bigger roles and Wilson now in SoCal.
By adding Wilson to a staff that already included Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, the Angels can expect greatness from their rotation.
The issues they face boil down to two questions:
No. 1: Can Jordan Walden take the next step? In other words, can he improve on a 4.35 September ERA to help an Angels bullpen that was tied for the AL lead in blown saves last season?
No. 2: Is there enough protection for Pujols? With Hunter aging, Vernon Wells coming off a down year, Kendrys Morales having missed the past 1 1/2 seasons with a broken left ankle and Mark Trumbo -- recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot -- trying to learn third base, that's still up in the air.
But there's no question the Angels have the pieces to match up with the Rangers, and there should be little question that for the first time since the Washington Senators moved to Texas prior to the 1972 season, the Rangers and Angels actually have something going here.
Sure, these two teams have been close at the top before. But in 2004, when the Angels finished three games ahead of the Rangers, it was the Athletics they had to beat in the final weekend to get in the playoffs. In 1986, when the Angels finished five games ahead of Texas, the Rangers were a young team that overachieved. And in 1979, when the Angels won the division with a three-game lead over Kansas City and a five-game lead over Texas, the Rangers were playing catch-up for most of the second half.
Perhaps this season they'll have a race that resembles that of 1998. That year, the two were tied heading into the second-to-last series. Then the Rangers swept the Angels in Anaheim to put a stamp on the only true head-to-head divisional battle between them.
Since then, the two haven't really been on the same page -- until now. Now, they're seemingly on a collision course.
"The Angels are good," Washington admitted.
But, as Hunter said, "Just because we signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson doesn't mean that we're the champs. [The Rangers] are the champs. We have to take the crown away."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. T.R. Sullivan contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.