The East is still a beast, and the Central always keeps the heartland humming, but the West -- until proven otherwise -- is the best.
San Francisco is envisioning a third World Series championship in four years. Oakland, across the bay, is intent on proving that its 2012 rags-to-silk rise was no fluke.
Down south, Dodgers and Angels fans are ecstatic over winter moves that created the very real possibility of a first Freeway Series in October. Images of Zack Greinke in a Dodgers rotation with Clayton Kershaw, and Josh Hamilton hitting behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, superstars all, have the faithful buzzing throughout the Southland.
Beyond California's golden borders, Texans are convinced that the restructured Rangers still have the goods to challenge, and Arizonans believe it's just a matter of time before the D-backs' youthful collection of arms take them where the Giants have gone.
Colorado, San Diego, Seattle and new American League West entry Houston understand there is ground to make up as their young talent matures.
The West clearly is in the middle of a renaissance. It is rooted in bold management decisions, new cable-TV riches on the horizon and, crucially, a return to a time when pitching, defense, timely hitting and speed were the decisive elements, not swinging for the upper deck.
Is there any other way to explain the Giants winning another World Series a few months ago after hitting fewer home runs than any team in the Majors?
This dramatic shift westward in Major League Baseball's power structure has been three years in the making, dating back to the winter following a 2009 World Series in which Hideki Matsui and the Yankees lowered the boom on the Phillies in an East showdown.
Since then, the Giants -- featuring a superb rotation and lights-out bullpen -- have put their stamp on two of the past three World Series for the revitalized National League. The West could be working on three in a row if the Rangers had managed to produce that elusive final out in memorable Game 6 of the 2011 World Series in St. Louis.
Since 2010, four of the six Fall Classic teams have come out of the West. The other two have been from the Central divisions. The East has been shut out.
While audacious acquisitions by the Angels and Dodgers has kept Los Angeles at the forefront of the winter dialogue, the champions in San Francisco have been content to keep the winning chemistry intact in pursuit of a repeat. The Giants' neighbors in Oakland, having stepped out of the shadows in the dream season of architect Billy Beane, quietly added another talented member to the cast in center fielder Chris Young, who will be applauded by the young, gifted pitching staff.
"It's going to come down to pitching and defense, and it always does in the postseason," said Oakland's Bob Melvin, the 2012 AL Manager of the Year. "That's how you win games. Good pitching usually will keep the hitting down. We feel like as far as that goes, we're ahead of the game. That's where our strength is, [in] our pitching."
Southern California might be monopolizing the offseason with the mega-deals for Greinke and Hamilton, but the Bay Area is the sports' rightful focal point. The champion Giants and A's are defending division titlists, with Oakland's out-of-nowhere crown ranking among the most stunning in decades.
The balance began to tilt with the 2010 World Series, seized by the Giants at Texas' expense. The Rangers, strengthened by the addition of free agent Adrian Beltre, came achingly close in 2011 before the Cardinals staged their Fall Classic rally for the ages in Game 6 and rode the resulting momentum to the Series title.
In 2012, the West was simply dominant, regular season and postseason alike.
Once again, the Giants owned the Fall Classic with a sweep of the Tigers, bringing manager Bruce Bochy's troupe to 8-1 in World Series games. A calm leader always thinking of the big picture, Bochy clearly knows how to bring a team to peak form when it counts most.
While the Giants were distancing themselves from the heavily fortified Dodgers in the NL West with a 48-28 second half, the AL West was proving to be the best of the six divisions, its .542 overall winning percentage trumping the AL East (.519) and NL East (.514).
Prevailing with a remarkable late kick, Oakland displaced two-time defending division-champion Texas. Third in the AL West, the 89-73 Angels would have won the Central, taken by the eventual league-champion Tigers. Cellar-dwelling Seattle had a better record (75-87) than three Central clubs and two from the East.
The arrival of Houston, bringing balance to the six divisions and two leagues, figures to be of immediate benefit to the four AL West holdovers in winning percentage. If the Astros approach their 29-50 intradivision record of 2012, it will enhance the possibility of as many as three division teams reaching the postseason.
"We know it's a difficult division, maybe the most difficult in baseball," said Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. "But the NL Central is no pushover, with the Reds, Cardinals, Milwaukee. [Astros owner and chairman] Jim Crane said it best: For us to win the World Series, we've got to beat everybody. You play up to your competition."
Like the summer and autumn, the winter has fallen under the spell -- fiscal, not physical -- of West titans. The Dodgers and Angels, sharing Los Angeles in name if not geography, continue to spend freely in anticipation of the influx of cable-TV riches in the billions.
The Dodgers, under Guggenheim Partners CEO Mark Walter, have supplanted the Yankees with the sport's highest payroll. It is currently at $209.6 million, according to Cots Baseball Contracts, and projected by Baseball-Reference.com to reach about $214 million by Opening Day. The Yanks are at $189.45 million, projecting to $206 million.
"Any time you have a payroll that's going to look like ours, people are going to put a lot of pressure on you, a lot of expectations. We've got to be willing to live up to that."
-- Dodgers manager|
"We're going for it now, of course, but we're in it for the long haul," said Magic Johnson, the most visible partner in Guggenheim Baseball Management. "We want the Dodgers to be champions again for years to come. I'm really happy to be part of an organization that is this committed to winning and doing it the right way, with good people."
The Angels, investing a total of $442.5 million the past two winters in Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Hamilton alone, backloaded those deals and are at $126 million for 2013, on their way to an estimated $149 million. That would put them in a virtual tie with the Tigers for third, with the Phillies' payroll expected to reach about $160 million. The Red Sox, thanks largely to the Dodgers taking on the hefty contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in August, are projected to come in at about $145 million.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, given his Yankees roots, is aware of the heightened expectations created by a star-studded cast such as his, led by Matt Kemp, Kershaw, Greinke, Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier.
"Any time you have a payroll that's going to look like ours, people are going to put a lot of pressure on you, a lot of expectations," Mattingly said. "We've got to be willing to live up to that.
"Obviously, the Giants had a great year last year. Watching them play through the playoffs, that was a very special group. I think you always have to have an eye on 'How did they do it? How did all the teams do it [that] end up winning?' They kind of do it with pitching. I think you always start there. You say it every year. You're going to try to build it with pitching.
"We've got to be accountable to play the game the right way, being ready, being prepared, knowing that it's going to be a tough road. And we don't want to be in the situation we were in last year, where we were coming down the stretch having to win every day just hoping for a Wild Card one-game playoff."
Kershaw and Greinke form as dynamic a tandem as the game offers, but an erratic offense was the Dodgers' undoing in 2012. Their 3.34 team ERA was eclipsed only by the Rays' 3.19 and Nationals' 3.33. The Giants, owing in large part to the baffling struggles of Tim Lincecum, came in at 3.68.
A return to form by The Freak would make the Giants all the more imposing, with the lineup returning intact. What we've learned over these past three seasons is that when 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey is healthy, San Francisco wins. He's as valuable as any player in the sport.
After the Dodgers signed Greinke, who was his No. 2 starter behind Jered Weaver, Angels owner Arte Moreno once again shocked insiders with his stealth move on Hamilton. On paper, the slugger gives his new club a lineup without equal.
The Angels also made moves to shore up their bullpen with free agents Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett. A deep relief corps could be essential for a newly designed rotation, with Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton replacing Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. Weaver is due for a Cy Young Award, and Wilson vows to have a more consistent, injury-free second season in Anaheim.
Weakening the Rangers, who also lost Mike Adams and Mike Napoli to free agency and traded Michael Young to the Phillies, had to be part of Moreno's motivation in landing Hamilton.
Pending a big deal -- Justin Upton and Giancarlo Stanton are intriguing names -- the Rangers will have a different look in 2013, sacrificing thunder for lightning. Jurickson Profar might get a chance to show he can be Texas' answer to Trout, and other valued talents, such as Craig Gentry, Mike Olt and Leonys Martin, figure to get a crack at more playing time.
Whatever the lineup eventually looks like, the Rangers will have quality pitching supported by players who know how to win. The cupboard is hardly bare.
The Mariners have added some thump in Kendrys Morales and are looking for more in support of Felix Hernandez and an impressive group of arms.
The NL West has the resources to be just as loaded as the AL West. With one bold move for a booming bat, such as the Marlins' Stanton, the youthful Padres could jump right into the conversation with the big guys.
"I remember when I came over to Arizona, in 2007, and the perception was that the West was very weak," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. "That's obviously not the case now. The Giants have won the World Series [twice in three years]. We've been competitive. The Dodgers, they're obviously very motivated and have great resources to do so. The Padres have certainly turned it around.
"The whole league is obviously very strong. It's challenging every series that you play. But the West is certainly very formidable. We played [well] against the Giants last year. We were 9-9. They beat us the last two games. It's a lot of fun playing against the teams out west. A lot of fun."
Bochy, never one to overreact, is up for the latest challenge.
"I think clubs are really trying to build up their bullpens in particular to improve their pitching staffs, but also their defense -- there's more attention paid to that," Bochy said. "The last thing you want to do is give up more than three outs in an inning. I think really in our division, too, with the bigger ballparks, it just seems like teams have gone more toward pitching and defense. I know that's what we wanted to do, and it's worked well for us.
"Instead of trying to slug it out with the other team, play the game -- and, hopefully, you've got a pitching staff that's going to keep you in the game, give you a chance to win. The more often you do that, chances are the more games you're going to win. I think Atlanta showed that in the '90s, all the success they had when you look at the pitching. They caught the ball and won a lot of ballgames."
The champs are not old and fading. The Giants' marquee players are in their prime. They already own one more World Series title than Bobby Cox's dynastic Braves. If more are on the way, they'll be pressed every step of the way in the Wild, Wild West.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com.