Cliff Lee May Have Put AL West on Ice

Going into the season, the Texas Rangers were in turmoil. The team’s owner was bankrupt, the slow roll towards an auction was set in motion and adding salary did not seem to be an option. Most preseason indicators had the Los Angeles Angels winning the AL West — six division titles in a row will earn you some respect.

Perhaps everyone should have noticed what a nice, young core the Rangers had put together — Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, among others.

Now, those same turmoil-laden Rangers have better than a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs.

Seems the only question left is: Can this be sustained?

Though the Rangers’ rotation had given up the fourth-fewest runs in 2009, there was a sense they couldn’t repeat that success. The 2009 starters were third-worst in the American League in both FIP (4.71) and strikeouts per nine (5.67). There were areas of concern among the individual pitchers: Scott Feldman hasn’t struck out five batters per nine innings for his career (the major league average has been close to seven recently), Rich Harden hasn’t stayed healthy his entire career, C.J. Wilson was coming out of the bullpen, Colby Lewis was coming from Japan — and the fifth spot was a crapshoot.

In 2010, the strikeouts are up (6.84 per nine), and the recent addition of Cliff Lee seems to have added an ace to a generally competent group of starters.

Wilson and Lewis in particular have stepped up to provide stability and a strong core. With five legitimate pitches, perhaps Wilson was always suited to starting. His velocity and strikeout rate have dipped in the move from the pen to the rotation, but his groundball rate is superb. Lewis discovered his control and his slider in Japan, and on the backs of those two developments has evolved into a strong No. 2 for the Rangers.

It’s still offense that drives this Rangers team. Their batters feature the league’s fifth-best wOBA and have scored the fourth-most runs in the American League. Beyond the streaking young position players mentioned previously, Vladimir Guerrero found the fountain of youth, Josh Hamilton recovered from his injuries and Michael Young is showing the second-best isolated power of his career.

Of their regulars, only Andrus, Julio Borbon and Jorge Cantu are below average offensively. Two of those guys play premium defensive positions well, which has kept their overall value in the positive all year. It’s a balanced team.

Their schedule is pretty favorable too: They’re 10-3 against the Seattle Mariners this year and have six left against them, while their final 43 games are against teams with an average winning percentage of .484.

In comparison, the Angels have a tough road to climb. If the Rangers slumped and played a game under .500 baseball from here on out (25-26), the Angels would have to go 33-18, or a .647 winning percentage. Not only is that a 105-win pace, but the Angels’ opponents from here on out will also feature an average record of .498.

Rest-of-schedule particularities aside, the Rangers have scored 33 more runs than the Angels and given up 83 fewer. They have a significant lead in wOBA (.334 to .317, where .324 is average) and are neck-and-neck in FIP (4.24 to 4.23, where 4.14 is average). They own an eight-game lead, just acquired a veteran ace and all the depth they need, and have 25 games left at home, where they play at a .631 pace.

Yeah, these guys look like a lock.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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