Before the season started, most experts predicted that the Angels would run away with the AL West when they got fully healthy.
A funny thing happened up to this point.
The race in the West is closer than expected. We are going to breakdown the Angels, Rangers and M's seasons and what they have to do to win the division. It's fair to say that the AL Wild Card will come from the East, so this could be the best race come September. Here are the three contenders:
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels are currently in first place, as expected, but not in the way that most people would think. Their offense has been solid.
The Angels lead the majors in team batting average at .284, and are among the leaders in stolen bases. Their aggressive and direct style on offense puts pressure on opposing defenses.
Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales and Chone Figgins have stepped up their games and carried this offense despite all the injuries suffered. Speaking of injuries, the pitching staff has taken an utter beating through unfortunate events (Adenhart's car wreck) and nagging things that won't go away (Lackey, Santana, Escobar, etc).
If the Angels are to run away with this division, their rotation has to get healthy and the bullpen has to dramatically improve to help support the offense.
The Rangers are not shy about relying on the long ball. They are tied for first with the Yankees in homers. The downfall of the offense is they can't get on base consistently (.317 OBP, Tied for fifth lowest in the Majors) and they strike out at a rate that could power most windmills.
So what keeps them so close to the Angels?
It's simple, their pitching has been dramatically better than last year (a full run better than 2008). The staff's downfall could be that they have to pitch for contact, striking batters out at a dismal rate (only 488 as a team overall, only the Nats and Pirates have less).
The bullpen has been solid, but not lights out. If the Rangers are to surpass the Angels, they have to get on base at a much higher rate. They don't have the best offense, defense or pitching among the three teams.
Let's be honest, If you were to tell me that the M's would be four games over .500 at the break, I would tell you that you're insane.
How in the world are the M's only four games back going into tonight's game? They have loads and loads of pitching that came out of nowhere. The M's have three of the top five starters in the division. Felix Hernandez is flying under the radar, sort of, for the AL Cy Young behind Grienke and Halladay (assuming he stays in the AL).
Jarrod Washburn is pitching his best ball since his World Series days. If Erik Bedard can stay healthy, they do have a solid playoff rotation in line, all things considered.
What keeps them around the .500 mark? Their lack of offensive power and patience. Russell Branyan is having a career year and Ichiro is the second best contact hitter this season (Mauer).
The rest of the roster is comprised of question marks.
The bullpen has been highly dependable in the back half around possible comeback player of the year David Aardsma. If they are to make a run at the Rangers and Angels, their offense has to step up dramatically.
They have the best staff by far in the division right now, but possess the worst offense of the three teams.
The AL West race should come down to the wire, because I believe that the Angels won't shake their injury bug and the other two teams are scrappy and won't back down from the big bad Halos.
Grab your popcorn. This should be a hell of a show.