DALLAS — All we need is someone to toss out an “evil empire” accusation, and the American League West transformation will be complete.

The West has become the AL East: Two titans, fortified by rich television contracts, at the top; everyone else trying to stay in sight.

In the East, Boston and the New York Yankees, labeled as the “evil empire” by Red Sox executive Larry Lucchino, warily eye each other. Each makes moves with the other in mind.

In the West, it is the defending AL champion Rangers and the challenging Los Angeles Angels. The clubs have combined to win the last five division titles, but that competition was child’s play compared with their frantic arms race that started this month.

By opening day 2012, the Rangers and the Angels probably will have committed more than $500 million on reinforcements. Two consecutive World Series appearances by the Rangers triggered the rapid escalation.

General manager Jon Daniels relates the shift to his youthful affection for the New York Knicks and their NBA “rivalry” with the Chicago Bulls. How could it be a rivalry, Daniels asked himself, if the Bulls always won?

When the Angels finished a combined 50 games ahead of the Rangers in 2007-09, it was not much of a rivalry. Now that the Rangers have finished a combined 20 games ahead of the Angels in the last two seasons on the way to winning the AL pennant, it’s on.

“That’s how it had been with us and Anaheim for the 2000s,” Daniels said. “We weren’t all that relevant in the discussion. Should be a lot more fun now that both clubs are good.”

At the winter meetings, the Angels committed $331.5 million to two players: slugging first baseman Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson. Pujols is the top right-handed power hitter in the game’s history. Wilson led the Rangers in wins with 31 and innings with 427 1/3 during the last two seasons.

“We acquired the best hitter in baseball, and we got one of top left-handers in the game,” said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, who makes his off-season home in Prosper. “We upgraded our team, big-time. It’s a rivalry. The Rangers are king, but we’re in a good position to take that crown away.”

Before the Angels’ moves, the Rangers did not plan on making a strong bid for Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish. That plan changed. The Rangers answered the Angels by bidding $51.7 million to win the exclusive negotiating rights, for 30 days, to Darvish.

Baseball officials expect Darvish to command a deal worth at least $75 million. The Rangers previously committed $14 million to new closer Joe Nathan, whose arrival allows right-hander Neftali Feliz to move into the rotation.

“I really can’t say enough about the support and the vision that ownership showed on this one,” Daniels said of the Darvish bid. “This is above and beyond a normal process, but we feel this is in the best interests of our organization and gives us the best chance to win going forward.”

Neither club is finished.

Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto wants to help a bullpen that tied with Toronto for the AL lead in blown saves with 25 this past season.

The Rangers lurk on the edge of the market for free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder and could jump in during January, just as they did last off-season with third baseman Adrian Beltre.

The Rangers and Angels can think big because of lucrative new local television contracts that put them among the wealthiest clubs in the game. The Angels this month worked out a new deal that will pay them about $115 million annually in rights fees for the next 20 years. The Rangers will get about $80 million annually when their new contract starts in 2014.

Oakland and Seattle receive far less revenue from their local television deals. That is why the West will be the haves (Rangers-Angels) and the woebegone have-nots (Athletics-Mariners) for the foreseeable future.

Like the Red Sox and Yankees, the Rangers and Angels have more financial muscle and ownerships pushing to win. That formula worked for George Steinbrenner and the Yankees, bringing the “evil empire” to life. The next empire is rising in the AL West.


(c)2011 The Dallas Morning News

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