In a span of four days over the past week, the Texas Rangers signed one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball while the Houston Astros lost one. Just like that, the cavernous gap between the poor, pitiful, bottom-feeding team from Arlington and the World Series champions closed just a bit.

For the second straight off-season, the Rangers are accumulating talent at a head-spinning rate. So far, they’ve not just upgraded their roster, but they’ve also hired one of the great managers in baseball history, along with an accomplished team builder for the front office. Did we mention the new pitching coach? He’s also among the game’s finest.

If you’ve dreamed of a baseball summer in which the two Texas teams slug it out for a division championship all season long and then play for something more—say, a World Series berth in October—this has been a good week.

No sooner had the Rangers announced a five-year, $185 million contract with free-agent right-hander Jacob deGrom than the Astros learned that their ace, Justin Verlander, the 2022 American League Cy Young Award winner, had bolted Houston to sign a two-year, $86 million deal with the New York Mets. DeGrom is the best pitcher in the game when he’s healthy, with back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019 to prove it. He hasn’t been healthy for portions of the past two seasons, but the Rangers are confident he’ll be at the top of his game in 2023.

“We mean business right now,” new Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said this week when asked what message deGrom’s signing should send to the rest of MLB. That signing was sandwiched between two other significant acquisitions—veteran pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Andrew Heaney—that will upgrade what had been one of baseball’s worst pitching staffs. Next season, with a veteran rotation of deGrom, Martín Pérez, Jon Gray, Odorizzi, and Heaney, plus two of baseball’s top pitching prospects in Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, the second and third overall picks in the 2021 and 2022 drafts, respectively, the Rangers are in a better position to challenge Houston’s AL West dominance than they’ve been in years.

Perhaps more important than a one-way rivalry with the Astros is the message these deals send to long-suffering Rangers fans, who’ve watched their team average 92 losses over the past five full seasons. Starting pitching has been the team’s weakest point, with the Rangers finishing twenty-fifth, twenty-eighth, twenty-fifth, twenty-ninth, and seventeenth out of thirty Major League teams in earned run average over those years. In that same stretch, Astros starters have been second, fifth, third, first, and sixth.

It’s standard practice for baseball fans to complain about team owners who won’t spend what it takes to keep up with deep-pocketed glamour teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Rangers ownership has let its supporters know that it will spend pretty much whatever it takes to make the franchise competitive again. No team has ever thrown around cash the way the Rangers have in the past two off-seasons. Texas has made almost $800 million in financial commitments to acquire five free agents: shortstop Corey Seager, second baseman Marcus Semien, and pitchers Gray, Heaney, and deGrom. The Rangers took on another $12.5 million in salary obligations by trading for Odorizzi.

Rangers general manager Chris Young, now in complete control after the ousting of his mentor, Jon Daniels, this summer, also shelled out some more of the bosses’ money to lure manager Bochy out of retirement. He won the World Series three times over a five-season stretch with the San Francisco Giants last decade. Only 23 managers have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Bochy is a lock to join them whenever he’s done. Young also hired former Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who constructed the rosters that took Kansas City to the 2014 and 2015 World Series, to serve as an adviser in Arlington. Those changes, plus a rebuilt farm system flush with talent, suggest that the Rangers could be closing the gap between them and the Astros—and quickly. 

“I hate losing,” Young said when the deGrom signing was announced, “but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s [team owner] Ray Davis. . . . Our organization is tired of losing, and our fans are tired of losing.” The Rangers had hoped a new era of winning would begin two years ago, when they moved to their new ballpark, Globe Life Field. Problem is, the team remained lousy, and fans stayed home. The Rangers lost 94 games this season and drew just over two million fans per season, the franchise’s third-lowest attendance in the last three decades.

Two million fans isn’t even bad for a 94-loss team, and that speaks volumes about the passion North Texans have for their baseball team. Randy Galloway, the retired columnist and talk show host in Dallas–Fort Worth, long maintained that the area had the best baseball fans in the country, because they continued to show up in big numbers despite a history of losing.

The Rangers didn’t make the playoffs until 1996, their twenty-fifth season in Arlington. It would be another fourteen years before they actually won a playoff series, when the team made its first World Series appearance in 2010. They were swept by Bochy’s Giants that year, and then they reached the Series again the following season, only to fall short in a heartbreaking game-seven loss in St. Louis. Otherwise, the franchise’s greatest contribution to baseball history was the introduction of the gooey, soggy, Cheez Whiz–y ballpark nachos that debuted in Arlington in 1976 and have become staples of baseball-fan diets across the nation.

Even with the Rangers’ recent off-season spending sprees, baseball fans in North Texas may have trouble envisioning the team finishing ahead of the Astros, who remain formidable despite losing Verlander, in 2023. But Houston is playing Jenga with its roster as key players continue to leave for bigger paydays elsewhere. The Astros hope that a surplus of quality pitching will overcome Verlander’s departure, but at some point, they’re likely to pay a price for continually allowing talent to walk.

Could Verlander be the straw that eventually breaks Houston’s back? His contribution to the franchise’s transformation cannot be overstated. Teammates fed off Verlander’s competitive fire, and the veteran ace’s meticulous preparation served as an example for all the young starters who’ve found success with the Astros in recent seasons.

But with an annual payroll that appeared to be creeping toward $200 million in 2023, Astros owner Jim Crane chose to make some tough decisions about whom to keep and whom to let go. When Verlander asked for $43 million a season, Crane passed. “It got to a number that we couldn’t match,” he told the Houston Chronicle this week. “Would have been nice to have him. We had a good relationship. We just couldn’t get to that number.” 

The Astros have now lost star free agents in each of the last three off-seasons—first outfielder George Springer, then shortstop Carlos Correa, and now Verlander—and they’ve yet to suffer for it on the field. So even though it’d be foolish to start betting on the Astros’ demise, Texas baseball fans waiting on an in-state rivalry finally have a sliver of hope that the Rangers could make next year’s AL West race much more uncomfortable for the defending MLB champs.