PEORIA, AZ - MARCH 07: Starting pitcher Yu Darvish #11 of the Texas Rangers pitches against the San Diego Padres during the spring training game at Peoria Stadium on March 7, 2012 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The talk of baseball heading into the 2012 season, around these parts anyway, is the ever-budding, even more intense rivalry between the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels as they battle it out for the AL West title, and probably the AL pennant.
It's obvious the Angels improved their team since last season, and the season before. After having a stranglehold on the AL West for much of the 2000s, the Rangers took control in 2010 by running away with the division. Then last season, they won again without too much concern, though the Angels made it closer.
In the off-season, the Angels were the big free-agent splash team in baseball, signing arguably the greatest right-handed slugger of all time in Albert Pujols and went out and snagged Rangers ace C.J. Wilson away from the Rangers, who didn't put up much of a fight for the polarizing clubhouse figure.
Of course, the Rangers made a huge splash by winning the bidding process to negotiate with Japanese sensation Yu Darvish and signed him to a deal. He'll be the Rangers' starter on Monday against the Seattle Mariners.
So the question is, after all the changes, who's better? And did the Rangers make themselves better like the Angels did? At this point, I think the answers are Rangers and no. Doesn't make sense, you say? Just wait.
The Rangers lost C.J. Wilson. Love him or hate him, and yes, he failed in the postseason, but he threw up a 2.94 ERA last season as the Rangers' staff ace, throwing in Rangers Ballpark where so many pitchers struggle. In case you're curious, that was the best ERA for a Rangers pitcher since Nolan Ryan. Now, Wilson is 31 years old, and Darvish is not even in his prime yet, so the swap made pretty good sense considering the Rangers felt Wilson had hit his ceiling. But Darvish has not done a thing at the big-league level, and that's a straight swap.
The next point of concern is at the catcher position. The Angels struggled mightily behind the plate last season after cutting bait with Mike Napoli (more on him in a second) but they brought in an on-base machine in Chris Iannetta, who will be a huge upgrade at catcher for the Angels.
The Rangers, of course, got Napoli last season and there wasn't a better hitter in the game over the second half of the season. In fact, Napoli was nothing more than a part-time player until he caught fire after the all-star break and hit .380 over the second half before nearly earning World Series MVP honors despite being on the losing end. He was simply phenomenal, at the plate and behind it. It's not reasonable to expect a similar season from Napoli in 2012. He finished last season at .320 after having a previous career-high average of .273. Don't expect him to hit .300 this season, which is OK considering he hits No. 7 in the Rangers' stacked lineup assuming everyone is healthy.
Next is the Neftali Feliz factor. While Feliz wasn't quite as good in 2011 as he was in his Rookie of the Year campaign of 2010, he was still a better-than-average closer. He had 32 saves with a 2.74 ERA. Not bad at all. Now, he's the Rangers' No. 5 starter and is still working to develop his secondary pitches. He could be a great starter, but there's plenty of reason to believe it won't be this season. That leaves the closing duties to Joe Nathan, a 37-year-old veteran who is a few years removed from Tommy John surgery, missed all of 2010 and came back last season to struggle early on before converting his last 11 save attempts with the Minnesota Twins. Can Nathan find his old self and be a stud closer the Rangers need him to be? It's a valid question.
So, with all that being said, the Rangers' lineup and their bullpen compared the Angels' is enough of an advantage to put them over the top. The Angels definitely have the nod in starting rotation, but the Rangers are much deeper. An injury to an Angels' starter could be devastating, while the Rangers have Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando waiting in the wings.
The Rangers should win their third straight AL West title, but if they don't, they'll still be in the playoffs with MLB's new Wild Card rule, but it's going to be a fun season of battling with 19 games between the two teams. Buckle up, folks.