Riding an eight game winning streak with all eight wins coming on the road, the Texas Rangers have taken the largest division lead in baseball (3.5 games) over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL West. They hold the fourth best record in all of baseball.
Still, the division seems like it will come down to the last week of the season with a two team race between the Rangers and Angels. The Angels have won the AL West crown in five of the last six season. Texas still has to overcome some demons of their past if they want to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
This division no longer looks as mediocre as it did 30-40 games into this season because of the hot play by both the Rangers and Angels lately. I expect the team that wins this race to make some serious noise in the playoffs.
Let's run down the parts of the division race that will decide who wins the division when we reach October.
The starting rotation used to be the strength of the Angels and the main weakness of the Rangers. However, that disparity in staff ERA that we have become so accustom to seems to be leveling out this season.
The starting rotation's ERA for both teams is nearly identical to this point in the season. The Angels have posted a 4.24 starting staff ERA while the Rangers linger a hundredth behind at 4.25.
Finally, pitching has arrived in Texas. Possibly the best off-season signing for any team this year was Colby Lewis joining the Rangers rotation. Coming back from a two year stint in Japan, Lewis is 7-4 with a 3.07 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 90 strikeouts in 93.2 innings. He is leading the solid, but not spectacular Rangers rotation.
CJ Wilson is looking fine in the second spot in the rotation with a 3.41 ERA and near career low 1.23 WHIP. Past him, Texas has had some injury concerns with Derek Holland and poor performances from Rich Harden and Scott Feldman. However, the depth in the minor league system and at the major league level have allowed the Rangers to weather that storm.
Looking ahead, the Rangers seem to have a fairly solid rotation of Lewis, Wilson, Feldman, Hunter and Holland/Harden. If they can all perform to their talent level, the Rangers could be sporting a top 3-5 rotation in the AL.
The Angels have also got some disappointing efforts from their rotation. Apart from Jered Weaver, who looks like a bonafide ace, and Ervin Santana, no other member of the Angels starting staff has posted an ERA under 4.45. This is a far cry from past seasons, which had rotations headed up by John Lackey and Bartolo Colon.
The Angels rotation has stayed completely in tact from the beginning of the season with just one spot start from Matt Palmer thrown into the mix. The main issue here is performance. They need Scott Kazmir, Joel Pineiro and Joe Saunders to pitch more successfully, like they have in recent seasons.
Whichever team finds themselves with better bounce back performances from the back of their rotation will probably find themselves with a division championship when October rolls around.
We all know about the terrible injury to Kendry Morales that has hurt the Angels offense dramatically. Erick Aybar also went down with a awkward looking leg injury about a week ago and has yet to return to the lineup.
Losing those two key members of their lineup for an extended period of time can't be good for LAA's offensive production of the future. However, they don't seem fazed by it right now. The Angels are currently playing their best baseball of the year, even with those two key injuries they have sustained on offense.
The other side of the coin is a completely different story. As stated earlier, each member of the Angels rotation has made each one of their starts except for one late spot start from Matt Palmer. The whole rotation can't stay this healthy all year, can it?
Coming into the season, injury risk was a big concern for the Rangers. The biggest concern, Rich Harden, has been very healthy this year, but his performance has left a lot to be desired.
Other players like Nelson Cruz (two DL trips already), Josh Hamilton (only one healthy year out of three big league seasons), Vladimir Guerrero (can his old body hold up?) and Ian Kinsler (bum ankle) have serious injury concerns as the season moves along.
The Rangers bullpen has also been fairly overused this season, especially near the back end where the power arms are located. Could we see a couple of them fizzle out at the end of the season?
This is a very key aspect of the division race. The Texas Rangers are in a ridiculously soft spot of their schedule right now, as they only face one team above .500 (the Angels) all the way until the All-Star Break.
The script flips after the break because they will face a stretch where they play 23 out of 42 games on the road. This includes 19 games against division rivals and 19 games against the top three teams in the AL East and the two best teams in the AL Central.
The Rangers obviously have to face some very tough teams in August and September and also play a lot on the road at the end of the year (20 of last 32 games are on the road). They must pick up their play in that time if they want to earn the division title.
The Angels have a lengthy 12-game home stand coming up next, including nine tough games against Texas, Los Angeles and Colorado.
Opposite of the Rangers final stretch of games, the Angels will finish the year easily against well under .500 teams in September, except for match-ups with Tampa Bay and crucial head-to-head match-ups with the Rangers.
Besides the starting rotation, this is probably the biggest factor that will decide the race. The Rangers and Angels have only played twice this season (Rangers lead series, 2-0), so they have an astonishing 17 head-to-head games left.
When these two teams duke it out, all bets are off. They will be playing a lot of key games around the trade deadline and late in September.
Those games will be some of the best games in all of baseball to watch at any time during this season. These two teams don't like each other at all. With a playoff spot on the line, expect the intensity to be ramped up to an all-time high.
Which team will be able to make the right move when the trade deadline rolls around?
The Angels will probably be in the market for a starting pitcher to help the front of their rotation because of the poor performances from Kazmir and Saunders.
Another position they will be looking to help out is first base. Mike Napoli is filling in at the moment. However, if LAA could go out and pick up someone like Paul Konerko for the stretch run, the race for the title could be flipped on it's head.
The Rangers are currently bankrupt and owned by the MLB. However, it is looking more and more likely that the sale will be done by the trade deadline. Boy, would that help the Rangers out a ton.
The organization is currently ranked as having one of the best minor league systems in all of baseball, so the ammo to make a big time trade is certainly there.
The big name pitchers on the market like Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee and possibly Dan Haren each have a shot at landing in Texas when the trade deadline passes. A trade of that magnitude would represent a huge shift in the balance of power in not just the AL West, but the entire AL.
This race is going to be a really fun one to watch, especially with all of the key head-to-head match-ups that we will see late in the season (seven games between the two teams in September and October).
It's hard to tell who will win the division as we currently see the two teams constructed right now. After the trade deadline, there will be a much clearer view on how this race will play out.
As evidenced by past Angels teams, you can never count LA out of the division race. However, this Texas team seems just a little bit different from the ones that have trotted out there the last 10 years without winning a division title.
I can't wait to see how this plays out!
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