Astros bring welcome change to AL West
Rivalry, balance among advantages of five-team division
Since 1994, the American League West has been baseball's only foursome. Come 2013, the division will become a party of five, adding the Houston Astros in an interleague move that puts all six divisions at five teams apiece.
For many on the teams awaiting the Astros' arrival year after next, the move is one that makes sense on a lot of levels. For one thing, already the sport's only division that includes a two-hour time difference between teams, at least the AL West will have more balance adding another team from the Central Time Zone.
The two-time defending division champion Rangers will gain an in-state division rival, one that ostensibly will make travel and varied game times a little less of a concern for Texas while the West Coast teams -- the Angels, A's and Mariners -- conceivably could take on both Texas teams in one trip.
"From our perspective, having them in our division, I like it, because it gives us another team in our time zone and we're at a disadvantage in our division that way because so many of our games start at 9 o'clock and it hurts our TV ratings," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "I think that if both teams are competitive in a given year, I think it will create a good rivalry within the state. I think there are a lot of pluses from our perspective about it."
Added Rangers infielder Michael Young: "For the players, it will be nice to finally have convenient travel for at least one division team."
The Rangers and Astros already have been competing annually in the Lone Star Series, with the Rangers holding a 37-29 edge in those Interleague matchups. The rest of the teams have scant experience against Houston, with the Mariners going 3-6, the A's going 5-1 and the Angels going 3-3 against the Astros since Interleague Play began in 1997.
For Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak, formerly of the Rangers, the prospect of having more of an opportunity to hit at Minute Maid Park is a good thing.
"I like the idea of playing in Houston a little more often," said Smoak, who played with the Rangers there shortly before being dealt in the July 2010 Cliff Lee deal. "The ball flies everywhere there, that's all I remember. It's the total opposite of Safeco Field."
Overall, it's a move that A's manager Bob Melvin says won't take long to take hold, once the Astros and their new division -- and league -- brethren spend some time together in 2013.
"Certainly, it makes sense, as far as the number of teams and the number of divisions," Melvin said. "You build up rivalries and you feel like you belong in a certain spot, but sometimes those things change. I remember in Milwaukee, when they went from the American League to the National League."
Indeed, Melvin was an assistant to the general manager for the Brewers in 1998 and bench coach the next year, so he saw such a transition first-hand.
"It's a different feeling, but once you play a year, you get used to it," Melvin said.
The AL West has proven to be one of the more competitive divisions over the course of the last 18 years, with the Rangers and Angels each claiming five division titles, the A's four and the Mariners three. (The Rangers finished with the best record in the strike-shortened '94 season.)
Adding the Astros to the AL West will change certain basic elements of how the division will play out and create a need for ongoing Interleague Play with the two 15-team leagues, but there's a lot it doesn't alter.
"I don't think it changes how we go about building the club to compete in our division," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "But I'm interested to see what the impact is on Interleague Play, how many more games we'll play with NL rules and whether we need to factor that into how we put the roster together."
Of course, the simplest way to look at it for the current AL West teams is that there soon will be four teams to conquer to claim the division title, instead of just three.
"The percentages, your chance at winning the division, goes down. But I, for one, think it should be fair," Melvin said. "I agree with the decision to even out our division."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Greg Johns, Jane Lee and T.R. Sullivan contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.