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MLB 2013 preview: Financial clout powers Los Angeles clubs

The Dodgers and Angels bank on TV income to eclipse Yankees and Red Sox as big spenders, Gregg Patton writes from Los Angeles.

Matt Kemp of the LA Dodgers, left, and Albert Pujols of the Angels are in the top salary brackets of their teams. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
Matt Kemp of the LA Dodgers, left, and Albert Pujols of the Angels are in the top salary brackets of their teams. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

For more than a year, the Los Angeles Angels and the Los Angeles Dodgers have been engaged in an unofficial, off-the-field competition: to see who could write the biggest pay cheques.

For most of the past decade, that was the domain of rich, East Coast franchises like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies - who collectively won five World Series in the Oughties.

With the Major League Baseball season starting today, it remains to be seen if on-field success follows the money to southern California. Clearly the pressure is on both the Angels and Dodgers, neither of whom reached the play-offs the past three years but already are spending what is expected to be billions of dollars from anticipated television deals in the sprawling LA market.

Where most people see sport, ownership sees a bottom line.

"You look at every business, you are going to make an investment," Arte Moreno, the Angels owner, Arte Moreno told CNBC. "We're trying to make a championship run at the end. So what is going to give us the best opportunity to compete at the highest level?"

His answer was signing the most attractive free agents. The Angels landed Albert Pujols before the 2012 season, giving the slugging first baseman US$240 million (Dh881.5m) over 10 years. They also hooked the best pitcher available, the left-hander CJ Wilson, for five years and $77m.

After failing to make the play-offs a year ago, Moreno upped his investment this past winter, again luring the best hitter available.

The outfielder Josh Hamilton came to the Angels, from the Texas Rangers, their American League West rivals, for $125m over five years. Moves like that have sent the Angels 2013 players payroll spiralling to the $153m range.

Pocket change to the Dodgers. They expect to pay their players $230m this season, a baseball record. Only the Yankees previously exceeded the $200m threshold before, doing it regularly this past decade.

The Dodgers' new ownership group, Guggenheim Partners, with the former LA Lakers basketball great Magic Johnson as its public face, opened the bank immediately, last year.

Mid-season trades brought them the shortstop Hanley Ramirez from the Miami Marlins, as well as the first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, outfielder Carl Crawford and the pitcher Josh Beckett from Boston, all of whom had multiyear contracts ranging from $15m to $22m per year.

MLB 2013: Read our guide to the teams in the National League and the American League

All of those salary commitments came on the heels of an eight-year, $160m deal signed by their home-grown star, the outfielder Matt Kemp.

Then, in the winter, the Dodgers snatched the free agent pitcher Zack Greinke away from the Angels, for $147m over six years, a record contract, at the time, for a right-handed pitcher.

They also outbid other teams for the Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin, paying a player untested in America $36m over six years.

It was a welcome shock for Dodg ers fans, whose team went into the 2012 season with a $93m wage bill.

If Moreno was subtle in expressing his rising expectations, Johnson was not.

"We want to go the World Series," Johnson told the Los Angeles Times last winter. "If we don't accomplish that, it's not a good season for us."

When Johnson visited the team's spring training site in Arizona a few weeks ago and addressed the media, he dialed down those remarks, but not by much.

"This city is about expectations," he said of LA. "Come on, now. You've got to embrace that."

Don Mattingly, the Dodgers manager, was all aboard that train Friday night, as the LA teams met in the annual Freeway Series, the last tune-up games before the real season begins.

"These players have been around long enough to know the money that's being spent," Mattingly said. "It's happened fast, but we're good with it. We're not going to run away from high expectations. Now we just play the games."

In the other dugout, Mike Scioscia, the Angels manager, tried to downplay the urgency that comes with sky-high payrolls.

"We've had high expectations of ourselves every year," said Scioscia, who enters his 14th season leading the club. "They haven't gotten any higher because of the star power that's come over the last few years."

So nothing is different because of the money?

He conceded: "We have a chance to be better than we have the last few years."

Not that expensive players guarantee anything. Of the past 12 World Series champions, only six were among that season's top 10 in spending on players.

Last year, only five of 10 play-off teams were from the top 10 spenders. The low-budget Oakland Athletics, of Moneyball fame, spent $60m and won the American League West over the well-funded Angels and Rangers.

But, of course, everyone would rather have money to spend on players than not.

Said Mattingly of his well-compensated line-up: "It's a lot better having high expectations with a club you feel has a real good chance to win."

Win or lose, the new California gold rush is on.

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