Angels shift power balance in AL

Well, that didn’t last long, did it? Cardinals fans barely had a month to enjoy their world championship before the euphoria came to an abrupt end. Tony La Russa’s surprise retirement was one thing, but Albert Pujols’ stunning defection to the Angels underscored how fleeting baseball’s prosperity can be.

Just like that, the Cardinals are down, and for now, so are the Rangers. The Angels and Marlins? They’re living large, even if it seems like they’re printing money in their basements. The Cubs aren’t complaining, either. No longer having to worry about Pujols, Chicago’s path to at least the wild card became significantly easier this week.

And here’s the greatest proof that the industry is now in some alternate universe: The Yankees and Red Sox were practically invisible at the winter meetings, yet record-setting contracts were signed in both leagues. Go figure.

“Never thought I’d see the day,” one executive said with a laugh on Thursday, on his way out of the Hilton Anatole Hotel. “My only question is, where’s the money coming from?”

The curiosity was meant for the Marlins, who bid against themselves to inflate Jose Reyes’ final offer to $106 million over six years. But it’s the Angels who raised eyebrows. Specifically, Arte Moreno set himself up to be devoured by his peers, especially after making a name for himself by bashing the spending habits of the Yankees and Red Sox. Yet, for all his tough talk about financial restraint, Moreno couldn’t resist writing crazy, eleventh-hour checks to both Pujols and C.J. Wilson, radically changing the balance of power in the American League.

The Yankees, for one, are concerned about possibly facing the Angels in the postseason — New York’s rotation, and specifically, its absence of a bona fide No. 2 starter — was reason enough to worry about the Rangers out west. Los Angeles’ sudden $327.5 million makeover will have a ripple effect in the AL East, where the guarantee of a wild-card is suddenly less likely.

For the Bombers, it means needing to win the division, and taking more seriously those September games against the Red Sox. In the past, the two teams have treated the final month as calisthenics for the Division Series — where both were usually headed. Ratcheting up the stakes is just what the rivalry needed, too, especially after Bobby Valentine announced this week, with a smile, “I hate the Yankees.”

The bigger problem, though, belongs to the Rangers, who just lost their best pitcher, Wilson, and according to several sources, don’t figure to respond by chasing Prince Fielder. Texas has had free reign in the West for the last two years; despite still having a better lineup overall, the Rangers’ era of dominance is over.

Now that the Angels have upgraded to what’s arguably the second-best rotation in the American League after Tampa Bay, not only are they a threat to catch and pass the Rangers, they might even be favorites to get to the World Series.

“How can you not like that team, at least for the next two to three years?” is what one rival general manager said of Los Angeles. “I don’t know what Albert is going to hit like when he’s 40, but I wouldn’t want to be the one facing him next year. (The Angels) are going to give other teams headaches.”

Pujols, of course, is at the epicenter of the seismic shift between the leagues. Thing is, no one saw it coming, especially Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, who was smiling and drinking coffee in the Anatole Hotel Thursday morning, convinced he’d concluded a successful campaign to re-sign Pujols.

Just the night before, the slugger had told the Marlins he was declining their offer of a 10-year, $200 million deal — although, according to USA Today, that sum was actually $275 million. Money aside, Pujols was unable to extract a no-trade clause from Miami, prompting him to take one last look at the Cardinals.

There were plenty of reasons for Pujols to re-up, not the least of which were his ties to the community and the uninterrupted run with the only team he’d ever played for. During his 11-year career in St. Louis, Pujols posted the highest OPS (.617) of any active hitter, ranking fourth on the all-time list behind Hall of Famers Babe Ruth (.690), Ted Williams (.634) and Lou Gehrig (.632).

Pujols had made clear he wanted to finish his career at Busch Stadium, and winning the World Series in October seemed to solidify the bond. But then came La Russa’s surprise retirement, followed by the contract negotiation which hadn’t progressed very far since spring training. By the final day of the winter meetings, Pujols was mulling a nine-year, $200 million offer, which he considered beneath his level of performance, especially compared with Alex Rodriguez’s annual salaries.

Pujols has, over time, told friends he considers himself a better hitter than A-Rod, and was always aware of the gap in their earnings. While the Yankees third baseman signed a 10-year, $275 million deal in 2007, Pujols was finishing up a below-market contract that averaged under $15 million per year between 2004-11.

“Albert always wanted to be ‘the man’” in the comparison with A-Rod, said a friend. So when the Angels came calling, offering a whopping $254 million over 10 years, Pujols’ head suddenly swam. How could he not be tempted? How could he leave that much on the table?

The Angels were willing to make him the richest first baseman in history, and even if the deal’s aggregate sum was less than A-Rod’s, at least Pujols would make more per year at the back end.

One more thing: by joining the Angels, Pujols would be playing for Mike Scioscia, a manager whose style and personality would closely resemble La Russa’s. Staying in St. Louis would’ve meant starting over with a neophyte — Mike Matheny, who’s had no managerial experience, anywhere.

Pujols, of course, does come with risks; the Angels only have to look as far as Rodriguez to understand the downside of giving a decade-long commitment to a 31-year-old. In the four years since A-Rod signed his record-setting contract at age 31, he’s undergone two surgeries, played just 498 games and hit only 111 home runs. No one disputes Rodriguez began his decline phase almost immediately after the new deal kicked in.

Pujols is coming off his worst season, a fact which the Angels do not dispute. Angels GM Jerry DiPoto counters that, however, by saying, “Albert still hits like he’s 27.” Hey, what’s the worry, especially since Moreno, flush with cash from a new TV contract with FOX, feels like seizing the day?

Forget the decade, it’s all about winning now.

In that regard, these are indeed the best of times for the Angels.