Henry Kissinger once said “The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision.”
Over the past two years, a new cold war has developed in the A.L. West. The Angels and the Rangers have emerged as the superpowers of the division. With all due respect to Oakland and Seattle, they are secondary players, capable of inflicting damage on the superpowers, but not strong enough to contend on their own.
Like the Cold War superpowers, the Angels and Rangers spent the offseason in a major arms race. The Angels fired the opening shot by signing C. J. Wilson. Wounded, Texas responded by signing the Japanese star Yu Darvish. Like two heavily armed men feeling their way around a room, the Angels and Rangers both believed that the other had a clear vision on how to win the A. L. West, and acted accordingly.
Since last Wednesday, I’ve been asked many times what I think of the Rangers signing Darvish and how I see that affecting the race in the A. L. West. In short, as an Angels fan, I am happy that the Rangers signed Darvish because I believe that it will only make the Angels stronger as they go into the post season in 2012. And, it doesn’t make the Rangers as strong as if they signed Prince Fielder.
How can Darvish make the Angels stronger? Simple. As Andrew Carnegie once said “while the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”
First off, I believe that Darvish will become an above average pitcher for the Rangers—not elite—but above average. He won’t be as good as Wilson was for them, but will be an upgrade nonetheless. I would have wanted the Angels to have signed him had they not signed Wilson. However, I’m not certain he will perform at the elite level as he did in Japan because he will be pitching on shorter rest and in the Texas heat.
So, how does an above average pitcher for the Rangers make the Angels better? Simple. The Angels have been operating under a flawed analysis of how they won the World Series in 2002. The Angels assumed that the goal was to just make the team good enough to win the division and then hope for the best in the post season. They misunderstood the role of playing the season—which is to spend 162 games making the team stronger for the post season—and acted as if all that mattered was just making the team good enough to get there.
For most of the last decade, the A. L. West has not been a strong division. While there have been “competitive” seasons, up until 2009, the Angels could essentially count on winning the division fairly easily. Years that were “competitive” resulted from the weakness of the Angels rather than the strength of their opponents. As a result, they didn’t become hardened as a team like they were in 2002.
As we all recall, in 2002, the Angels fought all season long to keep pace with the Athletics. The Angels had to learn how to win close games and manufacture runs as a team. They had to gel. If you think the Angels have a good shot to win the World Series like they did in 2002, then Bet on the Angels to win it all.
Over the course of that season, many different heroes emerged on the team. Each night, a different player stepped up to make the key play. All those close games fought to keep pace with Oakland forged the 2002 team into hardened warriors capable of beating the best. As a result, the entire team was better prepared to explode in the post season. And, as fans we saw that with their “frenzied hitting” and outbursts from the likes of Adam Kennedy or dramatic homeruns from Spiezio, Glaus, Salmon, Erstad, etc.
However, in the absence of that fierce competition over the course of a season, the Angels teams that emerged over the remainder of the last decade did not have the same competitive spirit as the 2002 team. They looked overmatched in the post season, and often exited in the first round. They were cut down by teams such as the Red Sox, who had been bloodied all season long with their competition with the Yankees and Rays. The Angels were flaccid whereas their opponents were wily because they each faced differing levels of competition over the course of the season.
As a fan, I would rather see my team enter the post season fewer times, as long as they win it all more often. While it was fun seeing the team win the A. L. West for most of the last decade, it wasn’t fun watching them exit the post season early. I want to taste champagne, not settle for an after-taste.
All of this brings me back to Yu Darvish. By signing him, the Rangers improved as a team. However, they did not improve as much as what they lost in Wilson. What they did do, though, is they maintained the higher level of competition that the Angels will face over the course of the season. By winning the division twice in a row, the Angels are the underdogs and will have to go out and prove themselves as a team. This will make them better as a team, much like 2002 did to that team.
More importantly, by signing Darvish, the Rangers were unable to afford Prince Fielder. While Darvish makes the Rangers better, adding Fielder into their lineup would have had a greater impact on their team than Darvish. Fielder would have taken their lineup from being one of the most potent in the game to one of the most potent in history. With that lineup, a mediocre pitcher would have success in their rotation. There would be far less risk for their team because the offense would be less likely to vary and the pitcher that they signed would have been a more known commodity. With Darvish, a lot of their team’s success depends on how well he adjusts to pitching in the A. L. West.
Thanks to the developing Cold War and attendant arms race in the A. L. West, the Angels are going to be a better team long-term. No longer can they take winning the division for granted. For the foreseeable future the Angels will have to fight to win the division. But, in doing so, they will become better. The Angels teams that emerge won’t be one-and-done teams—They will be World Champions!