David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
When talk first surfaced this past week that Felix Hernandez was working on a $175-million megadeal with the Mariners, the usual East Coast bias kicked in.
How could this be? For years, King Felix had been fitted for pinstripes in the collective imagination of the Yankees' universe. Every visit to New York meant another round of the same questions for Hernandez about someday pitching in the Bronx, along with speculation about when Seattle would have to trade him because of financial concerns.
But with spring training about to begin, if this offseason has taught us anything, it's that the world doesn't revolve around the Yankees anymore. Or Boston.
The real gravitational pull these days is coming from the greater Los Angeles area, where the Dodgers and Angels are waging a turf war with mountains of cash piled high from lucrative television deals.
On Dec. 11, the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke, the most coveted free-agent pitcher on the market, to a six-year, $147-million contract. Two days later, the Angels had a five-year, $125-million deal in place with Josh Hamilton, the most intimidating free-agent slugger available.
It was exactly the type of big-dollar dance that had been going on along the I-95 corridor for decades, when Boston and New York used to battle over the cream of the free-agent crop. Instead, this winter, the two goliaths patched a few holes and sat on the sidelines as division rival Toronto made a 12-player swap and took on more than $145 million in additional payroll.
"I think the landscape is definitely changing," said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who is gradually nudging the payroll upward after two seasons of purging dollars. "The question is how long these changes will afford competitive advantages to these teams."
Alderson has made no secret of his disdain for lengthy contracts, even as the Mets rewarded David Wright with an eight-year, $138-million pact in December. But he acknowledged that there are exceptions to the rule, and Wright, as a lifelong Met and face of the franchise, was worth the cost to keep in Flushing for the duration of his career.
As for the competitive balance in the NL East, merely bringing back Wright, along with some other fine-tuning, isn't likely to dent the armor of favorites such as the Nationals and Braves, with the pitching-rich Phillies still hanging on. The Nats reloaded by taking on another $40 million in salary for 2013, with the biggest-ticket item being a two-year, $28-million deal for Rafael Soriano -- formerly known as the Yankees' replacement for Mariano Rivera.
Soriano's agent, Scott Boras, doesn't need to play the Yankee card as much as he once did. Sure, it's great to drop the Steinbrenner name into any conversation to drive up prices. But with MLB's new national TV contract, the 30 teams will split about $13 billion over eight years starting in 2014. So that means an additional $54 million for each team annually through 2021.
"To be successful, it costs money," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "It just comes with the territory. And it's nice to know our needs can be met."
The Rangers were in bankruptcy as recently as 2010 before a new ownership group, headed by Nolan Ryan, and a new regional TV deal catapulted them to elite status among MLB franchises. After the infusion of cash, Texas reached the World Series in back-to-back seasons, losing both, before dropping the one-game wild-card playoff last year.
In the AL West, the Rangers-Angels rivalry has become like the Yankees-Red Sox clashes of old, with both teams flexing financial muscle in forming deeply talented rosters.
As for this winter back East, the Yankees still added $66 million in 2013 payroll -- including a $15-million team option on Curtis Granderson. It only felt as though they were bystanders because Brian Cashman chose short-term deals rather than the monster contracts of years past, such as the infamous 10-year, $275-million contract for Alex Rodriguez, the eight-year, $180- million contract for Mark Teixeira and the initial seven-year, $161-million deal for CC Sabathia.
That restraint was atypical, especially given that the Yankees failed to reach the World Series the past three years. "That's definitely a surprise," Sabathia said, "given our history."
Does that mean other clubs have closed the gap on the Yankees, who have won one World Series and played in two others since earning a fourth title in five years in 2000? "I guess so," Sabathia said. "You have to look at what other teams did this offseason, the Angels, the Dodgers. It's just part of it. I think we still have the team to go out and compete, to try and win a championship."
So does everyone else. Well, maybe not the Astros, who are looking at a payroll around $20 million for 2013 and will be easy prey for the rest of the AL West.
But even previous lightweights such as the Pirates and Royals stepped up to spend a few bucks this offseason, with Pittsburgh taking Yankees starting catcher Russell Martin on a two-year, $17-million deal.
The booming financial success of MLB as a whole, along with landmark regional TV rights such as the Dodgers' roughly $8-billion deal, means there is more available cash than ever. What happens next is predictable. Yahoo! Sports estimated that Opening Day payrolls will surpass $3 billion for the first time and 14 clubs are expected to clear the $100-million barrier.
"If teams are making money," Alderson said, "they're more likely to spend it."