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AL is in a league of its own when it comes to big spending

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Mets owner Fred Wilpon and COO Jeff Wilpon have been a drag on the NL. (Getty Images)  
Mets owner Fred Wilpon and COO Jeff Wilpon have been a drag on the NL. (Getty Images)  

The National League has won the last two World Series and three of the last four.

The National League has won the last two All-Star Games.

Top contracts given out this winter
American League
  • 1. Albert Pujols, Angels, $240 MM, 10 years
  • 2. Prince Fielder, Tigers, $214 MM, 9 years
  • 3. CC Sabathia, Yankees, $122 MM, 5 years
  • 4. C.J. Wilson, Angels, $77.5 MM, 5 years
  • 5. Yu Darvish, Rangers, $56 MM, 6 years
National League
  • 1. Jose Reyes, Marlins, $106 MM, 6 years
  • 2. Mark Buehrle, Marlins, $58 MM, 4 years
  • 3. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies, $50 MM, 4 years
  • 4. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals, $42 MM, 5 years
  • 5. Tim Lincecum, Giants, $40.5 MM, 2 years

The National League took Roy Halladay away from the American League, along with Zack Greinke and Matt Garza.

The National League has the suddenly free-spending Marlins and the suddenly chic-pick Nationals.

But somehow the National League still isn't closing the gap.

Somehow, when I asked a few baseball people from both the National and American Leagues to list the very best teams in the game, I got a list heavier in AL teams than I would have gotten two or three years back.

The betting website Bovada.lv has six teams at 10-1 or better to win the 2012 World Series. Five of them come from the American League. The Phillies (11-2) are the overall favorite, mostly because the perceived weakness in the NL gives them a clearer path to October.

The two highest-profile free agents -- Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder -- both left the National League this winter to sign with American League teams. The highest-profile international free agent -- Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish -- is headed for the American League.

If you count both the salary and posting fee that the Rangers paid for Darvish, and if you count CC Sabathia's new contract with the Yankees, four AL teams spent at least $110 million to acquire or keep a single player this winter.

Not one National League team did.

In the battle between the leagues, it has been a stunningly one-sided winter.

But why?

Big markets, big problems. A decade ago, the Yankee payroll wasn't much higher than the Mets'. A decade ago, the Dodgers annually spent far more money (and drew far more fans) than the Angels.

Now the Yankees struggle to get their payroll under $200 million, while the Mets won't get as high as $100 million. Now the Angels have outspent the Dodgers eight years in a row, and last year outdrew them over a full season for the first time ever.

With Mets ownership still tied up in its Madoff mess, the gap in New York is only getting bigger. With the Dodgers about to be sold to a mega-rich owner to be determined by April, and Frank McCourt finally on the way out the door, the battle for L.A. should be on.

The recent spending gap between the leagues becomes easier to understand when you remember that the NL teams in the two biggest markets have spent the last year in court. The Dodgers did make a surprise bid for Prince Fielder, but their biggest free-agent outlay this winter was for Chris Capuano (two years, $10 million).

As for the Mets, their biggest winter move was to allow their best player (Jose Reyes) to walk away to the Marlins without any real attempt to keep him.

The two biggest markets have been the two biggest NL messes. And the team in the third-biggest market, the Cubs, is now in full-on rebuilding mode.

The DH difference. Pujols didn't go to the Angels as a designated hitter. Fielder didn't go to the Tigers as a DH, either.

But both the Angels and Tigers could be somewhat more comfortable going long-term on the contract (10 years for Pujols, nine for Fielder) because the DH spot could be available in later years. In fact, when the Dodgers made their surprise bid for Fielder, they structured it so he could opt out after four years, possibly to go to the AL to be a DH.

Another factor, mentioned by one NL executive: Because of the DH, American League teams use their bench much less, and can get away with spending little money on backups. NL teams are more likely to spend on someone whose main job is to pinch-hit.

Keeping up with the. .. The Angels know they need to keep up with the Rangers. The Rangers know they need to keep up with the Angels. The Yankees push the Red Sox, and vice versa. Even the Rays get caught up in it, albeit at their own budget level.

No one in the American League can expect to just slip into the playoffs, so there's pressure to improve -- and pressure to spend.

"I want to win." It doesn't make sense for the Tigers to have three $20 million a year players -- except that owner Mike Ilitch decided that he's more interested in winning than in balancing the books. Big spending is more often than not pushed by aggressive owners, and while Jeffrey Loria in Miami started this winter's spending spree, Ilitch and the Angels' Arte Moreno eventually took it to another level.

What might have been. .. If Victor Martinez hadn't torn up his left knee, the Tigers wouldn't have bid for Fielder, who then likely would have chosen between two NL teams, the Dodgers and Nationals. If the Angels hadn't made their late bid for Pujols, he may have stayed in St. Louis, or possibly could have gone to the Marlins.

In the end, though, both left the NL for the AL. In the end, the NL lost talent this winter, and the AL gained it.

If the gap between the leagues had been narrowing, it went the other way this winter.

If this keeps up, the American League may finally win another World Series.

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