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Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Open door to MLB superpower status

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

The Boston Red Sox were the American League's first true power with six pennants in the AL's first 18 years. Eventually, the New York Yankees replaced them as the enduring dynasty of American sports. And, since 1995, when the strike ended and baseball began to enjoy the influx of local cable television money, the Red Sox and Yankees have been essentially the only two teams in baseball to dominate the playing field, the television ratings, the player payroll structure and the imaginations of free-agent talent craving the biggest stage.

But those two established superpowers open the 2012 season on a subway platform that is suddenly crowded. This year, neither Boston nor New York is a lock to advance to the postseason or make a deep run through October as in recent years, up against the increased American League muscle mass of the Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Texas Rangers and this year's fashionable dark horses, the Toronto Blue Jays. Still, the rest of the league continues to aspire to their status.

Yankees
The Yankees have been the most dominant franchise in baseball history, including in this 1999 ALCS win over the Red Sox.

The Angels and Rangers have three World Series appearances between them in the past decade; and the massive television deals those two franchises have landed from Fox -- worth roughly $3 billion apiece over the next two decades -- suggest a shifting of the landscape toward Arlington and Anaheim even if neither boasts the résumé or history of the old guard in Boston and New York.

But the criteria for becoming a Major League Baseball superpower extend beyond simply being a good team on the upswing. The criteria can be categorized by four questions, each of which must be answered in the affirmative. A team must have a foothold in all four areas.

1. On Opening Day, year in and year out, is the team in the World Series conversation?

Recently, the Rangers have been able to answer this question with a positive, although only for two years. The Angels haven't been to the World Series since 2002 (their only appearance), but they were in the ALCS in 2005 and 2009 and certainly qualify as World Series contenders as they begin this season. The Yankees have defined this category for the past decade and a half. In the post-strike era after 1995, the Yankees have failed to qualify for the playoffs just once. Since John Henry bought the Red Sox in 2002, Boston has been in the playoffs six times and won two World Series titles. The Philadelphia Phillies have made the playoffs in five straight seasons.

From 1991 until 2006, the Atlanta Braves also were in this conversation, as Philadelphia is now. Unlike the Braves of five seasons ago, the Phillies appear to have the financial muscle to maintain relevance as their core group of players ages.

2. Does the team have the long-term resources to be a major force in acquiring players, in the offseason free-agent market and at the trade deadline?

Superpowers don't lose players. They choose which ones to keep and which ones to let go. The Red Sox didn't lose Adrian Beltre or Johnny Damon. They chose to gamble with the free-agent market and lost. Boston, the Yankees and the Phillies are the top three teams in player payroll right now and are consistent threats to make a deal in December and July.

Detroit recently has been involved at a high level, and, as a result, the Tigers have been separating themselves from the rest of their division the past few seasons.

Prince Fielder
The signing of Prince Fielder in January is a sure indication that the Tigers are on the rise.

Other teams have a window for success, but the superpowers endure. The Oakland Athletics made the playoffs in four straight seasons from 2000 to 2003, won 100 games twice, and produced one Cy Young Award winner and two league MVPs, yet were never a superpower. The A's, in fact, were losing every day they won. Each win put them one step closer to losing Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon, Keith Foulke and Jason Giambi. Those last three ended up in Boston and New York; Zito and Tejada signed huge free agent deals with the San Francisco Giants and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively.

For the latter half of the 1990s, the Cleveland Indians were as imposing a team as any, with young talent such as Carlos Baerga, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome. Cleveland soared because of a new ballpark and a sellout streak, but much of the club's revenue was derived from ticket sales. The team's television contract was minuscule. It was only a matter of time before the Indians began to lose players (Ramirez, for example, went to Boston for eight years and $160 million) and games as their players reached free agency.

The Phillies, armed with local TV money, a ballpark less than a decade old and aggressive management, have gone from losers (no team in big league history has lost more games) to a National League power. They've won two pennants and a World Series and acquired players such as Cliff Lee (twice), Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence.

3. Is the franchise part of the players' imagination, a destination they actively seek for reasons beyond just free-agent money?

Between 2003 and 2007, Boston and New York created a universe within a universe. There was the world of Major League Baseball, and there was what happened on Interstate 95. Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson wanted to come to New York. After his defection from Cuba, Jose Contreras would sign only with New York or Boston. Curt Schilling used his leverage not to be traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks but to play for the Red Sox.

Now, Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, says the combination of acquiring Lee at midseason in 2010, twice winning the AL pennant and nourishing a budding reputation as a professional, baseball-driven environment has changed the perception about playing in Texas.

"There are numerous selling points, including no state income tax in Texas," Daniels says. "For the first time, we've had agents call us to see if there was fit for their players. That's never happened. This was supposed to be the place that was too hot to play. Players want to be a part of this. That's the most gratifying sign that we're starting to do things the right way."

Albert Pujols
With Albert Pujols under a long-term contract and big television money flowing in, the Angels are poised to be a power for years to come.

Arte Moreno, the Angels' owner, says part of his free-agent pitch is to sell not only manager Mike Scioscia and the Angels as a top-shelf competitive threat but also the sun and lifestyle in Southern California -- geographical considerations that cannot be duplicated by many other markets.

But, for those two franchises, now comes the hard part of the superpower challenge: creating the big stage. The Red Sox and Yankees have the old-school baseball history, insane fan bases and institutional memory. Plus, they've played the kind of memorable, high-level ball players crave. The Angels have sold 25,000 season-ticket packages for their 45,000-seat stadium, and the Rangers are at 20,000 season ticket packages. But neither AL West team has yet experienced that on-field history, which is why Rangers owner Nolan Ryan sees the past two years as just the foundation.

4. Is the franchise a major player in how the business of baseball is shaped?

The rest of the nation might groan, but Boston and New York move the needle, both internally (the wild card and play-in game) and externally (TV ratings). Little is accomplished in baseball without the input of the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Phillies and the Chicago White Sox. (Note the big-market commonality.) Moreno, despite some political differences, is very close with the commissioner, Bud Selig. Moreno is an influential owner with considerable off-camera influence.

The Rangers' Ryan, meanwhile, is excited that the Houston Astros will soon move to the American League. He believes, rightfully, that the Rangers have been hurt by having 75 percent of their division playing on the West Coast. The East Coast power structure is asleep whenever Texas plays a road game.

In the end, a team is a powerhouse for a reason -- not everyone can be one. The Angels and Rangers, backed by money and stable ownership, are the teams of the moment and are in position to create an enduring baseball rivalry that could surprise the sport. But, as good as they are, Detroit and Tampa Bay, the Angels and the Rangers must create the stage on the field, and that isn't something that can always be done consciously. You need a rival, a perfect storm, and success must be repeated on the field for generations.

Still, it must start somewhere, and a stacked AL in 2012 might just be the place.

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