Get ready for a 2012 season with J.J. Cale's "After Midnight" as the theme song. On many nights, the best baseball will be played in the Pacific time zone, with the Rangers, Angels, Diamondbacks, Giants and Dodgers creating must-see TV after much of the country has gone to bed.
With Yu Darvish expected to sign with the Rangers and Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson already with the Angels, the American League West should give us the type of power struggle we have been used to in the AL East during the wild-card era. The punch-counterpunch approach that general managers Jon Daniels of the Rangers and Jerry Dipoto of the Angels have taken in building their respective rosters underscores a significant change to the baseball landscape.
While teams in the East continue to spend money, the balance of power has shifted to the West in both leagues. The Yankees beat the Phillies in the 2009 World Series, and the year before that the Phillies beat the Rays. That seemed a normal order of things, given baseball's East-to-West pattern of spending. But three of the last four pennant winners have been from the West, and there's no doubting the seriousness of the competition out there.
Wild-card route: We still don't know if baseball is going to have one or two wild cards in each league next season -- the longer this goes without an announcement, the more it looks like the expanded format won't be used until 2013 -- but we can say this: Teams from the American League East better win the division if they want to get into the playoffs.
Finishing second in the AL East has gotten the Red Sox (seven wild-card appearances), Yankees (four), Rays and Orioles into the playoffs 13 of 17 tries in the wild-card era, which began in 1995. But after quiet, seemingly content offseasons in terms of roster activity, the Yankees and Red Sox have allowed themselves to become surprisingly less relevant.
Both teams are still dangerous, of course. But they don't have the balance of starting pitching and serious lineups that make the Rangers and Angels the teams to beat in 2012. For that matter, the Tigers appear stronger than the Red Sox and Yankees, and the Rays have so many young stars -- including Rookie of the Year favorite Matt Moore, who recently signed a five-year, $14 million contract with only 17 days big-league service time -- that you could rank the Red Sox and Yankees fifth and sixth in the AL, in whichever order you prefer.
Talent shift: There are still a lot of moves to be made this offseason, of course. Prince Fielder is still on the market, as are many quality free-agent pitchers such as Hiroki Kuroda, Joe Saunders and Edwin Jackson.
But there has been a decidedly western migration pattern, led by Pujols' $254 million deal with the Angels and the Rangers' winning of the rights to sign Darvish. In terms of significant players, the AL West and National League West stand alone in adding more talent than they've lost thus far.
AL West teams have added Wilson (Angels), Joe Nathan (Rangers), LaTroy Hawkins (Angels), Chris Iannetta (Angels) and George Sherrill (Mariners) in addition to the two big guys. NL West teams have added Trevor Cahill (Diamondbacks), Michael Cuddyer (Rockies), Jason Kubel (Diamondbacks), Chris Capuano (Dodgers), Huston Street (Padres), Melky Cabrera (Giants), Ramon Hernandez (Rockies), Edinson Volquez (Padres) and Tyler Chatwood (Angels).
NL West fireworks: The NL West could be even more entertaining than the AL West.
The Diamondbacks seem determined to repeat the division title they won behind the new management team of GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson, trading for Cahill and signing Kubel to play left field even though incumbent Gerardo Parra won a Gold Glove last season. The Diamondbacks have a deep rotation with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Cahill and Josh Collmenter, with 2011 first-round pick Trevor Bauer expected to come fast.
A healthy Buster Posey should restore the Giants' threat as they still have the collection of power pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Brian Wilson) that carried them to the World Series championship in 2010. And the Dodgers are coming off a season in which they sported the Cy Young Award winner (Clayton Kershaw) and almost had the MVP (Matt Kemp). GM Ned Colletti has added more parts than anyone this offseason so the franchise should be stronger once the ongoing sale is completed.
Hold your applause: The Rangers are thrilled to have won the Darvish bidding, submitting a $51.7 million offer that is believed to have been significantly more than the runner-up Blue Jays. But understand they still have to come to terms with Darvish.
He may not be as easy to sign as generally has been believed, as he would leave behind cult status in Japan. It's fair to say he will look for more than the $52 million for six years the Red Sox gave Daisuke Matsuzaka five years ago.
"I want to explain to our fans how excited we are to have this opportunity," Daniels said. "But I can't get too in-depth about it because we have an active negotiation that we're about to get into. I can't really touch on the details, too much is behind the scenes at this time, but I certainly look forward to (talking about Darvish) when we can."
On second thought: The White Sox and John Danks reached a compromise that could be beneficial for both sides. But it comes only two weeks after the Sox allowed Mark Buehrle to leave as a free agent, illustrating how little they had come to trust him.
Danks had gone season to season on his contract through the arbitration years, maximizing his value and seemingly gearing toward a trip onto the free-agent market after 2012. But a down season in 2011 hurt his trade value and may have added to his willingness to explore a long-term contract.
The Chicago Tribune and others have reported that Danks and the team agreed to a five-year, $65 million deal Wednesday that will be announced formally after the holidays. It's the biggest contract in the team's history -- supplanting the $62 million commitment that came with the August 2008 waiver claim for Alex Rios -- and comes despite his earned-run average having jumped from 3.18 in 2010 to 4.16 last season, when he worked only 1701/3 innings.
Buehrle had given the White Sox 11 consecutive years of 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings but didn't get an offer before accepting a four-year, $58 million deal with Ozzie Guillen's Marlins. He will be 33 on Opening Day -- and a little more than six years older than Danks -- and the Sox apparently weren't comfortable going beyond two guaranteed years. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf long has talked about not wanting to sign a pitcher beyond three years but bent the rule to give Danks five.
Two years from now, when Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd are gone, it could be looked upon as a key move in keeping the Sox competitive. Or Danks could become a very attractive trade chip next winter, assuming he restores his value. The Sox wouldn't bet on Buehrle to remain effective but are investing in the idea Danks just had a bad year.
The Whispers: Garza prime piece of bait
The Nationals' trade for Gio Gonzalez leaves Matt Garza as the most attractive pitcher believed to be available. The Cubs could find themselves in a great situation with the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays trying to get him. Keep your eye on a three-team deal in which one of those teams uses the Padres to broker a move that sends first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs. ... When the White Sox last traded Gonzalez, they got Nick Swisher, whom they traded a year later for Jeff Marquez and Wilson Betemit. Suffice to say the A's expect to get more lasting value from the Gonzalez trade they made Thursday. Pitchers Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole and Tom Milone all look like big leaguers -- Peacock and Milone could be in the A's rotation to start 2012 -- and catcher Derek Norris soon might make Kurt Suzuki a trade chip. ... Speaking of Garza, the Rays are loving the year-old deal that sent him to the Cubs. Baseball America rates former Cubs farmhands Hak-Ju Lee and Chris Archer as Nos. 2 and 3 in the Rays' system, projecting Lee as their long-term shortstop, ahead of Tim Beckham, who was the first player picked in the 2008 draft. ... The Royals quietly have made a series of nice moves, adding Jonathan Broxton and Jose Mijares to the bullpen and Rafael Betancourt and Yamaico Navarro to the bench. ... The Padres' financial well-being remains a question that troubles some in ownership. Some believe former owner John Moores might wind up back in control if Jeff Moorad can't meet his financial obligations. ... The White Sox have joined the Cubs in having an interest in Cuban center fielder Yoenis Cespedes, who is expected soon to establish residency in the Dominican Republic and hit the free-agent market. They can offer him a welcoming environment, with fellow Cubans Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo on the roster but seem unlikely to challenge the Yankees and other big spenders. ... The Rockies are going to use Michael Cuddyer in right field, with Carlos Gonzalez moving to left. Dexter Fowler, who will play center, recently traveled to Europe with Prince Fielder but told MLB Network Radio that they never talked about Fielder's situation.