Are the New Superpowers Playing Out West?

From 2003 through 2007, the Yankees and Red Sox were the two best teams in Major League Baseball. They averaged 96 wins apiece in the regular season, won all five division titles, three AL pennants, and two championships, playing two classic seven-game ALCS against each other. In 2008, the Rays emerged as contenders in the AL East and the three teams averaged over 93 wins each over the next four seasons, claiming all four Wild Cards and appearing in two more World Series.

The Rangers took over the pennant in 2010 and repeated in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2012 that they firmly established themselves as the preseason team to beat. While the Yankees have the best record in the American League as of this writing, the Rangers are a half game behind and lead the Yankees in pitching WAR and position player WAR. They’re a devastating combination of well-rounded hitters, slick fielders, workhorse starting pitchers, and shutdown relievers.

And they might not be the best team in their own division.

Since calling up Mike Trout on April 28, the Angels are 48-33, four games better than the Rangers. Trout has been by far the best player in baseball since his call-up, and Albert Pujols, who hit .217/.265/.304 in April, has hit .296/.368/.541 since. That cherry-picked batting average and slugging percentage are both below Mark Trumbo’s season numbers.

With these three players leading the way, it’s no surprise the Angels lead the AL in position player WAR. What is surprising is that the starting pitching hasn’t been among the game’s best rotations. Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson have ERAs under three (despite middling FIP numbers), but Dan Haren has battled injuries and ineffectiveness (and a bit of BABiP luck) and Ervin Santana has been plain bad. But after trading for Zack Greinke, it would be hard to argue that the Angels won’t have the best four-man rotation of AL playoff contenders.

In the NL portion of Greinke’s 2012 season, he was the league’s best pitcher, at least from a fielding-independent standpoint. Sure, there may be something beyond bad luck and bad defense behind the .328 BABiP he’s allowed, but his 2.44 FIP is the best in either league. He’s struck out exactly a batter an inning, walked barely two batters per nine, and given up seven homers all season. Returning to the American League won’t make things easier for Greinke, but pitching in front of the league’s second-best defense (per UZR) should. Greinke may not only prove to be the best pitcher on the Angels; he may be the best pitcher in baseball.

With Colby Lewis lost for the season, Yu Darvish walking way too many hitters, and Neftali Feliz out since May, the Rangers’ once vaunted rotation now looks as anonymous as the Astros’ lineup. As great as the hitting and defense are in Arlington, it’s hard to imagine the Rangers feeling confident facing Greinke, Weaver, Wilson, and Haren in a short season when their best four are Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and whatever veteran they can find on the trade market.

That fourth starter won’t likely be Roy Oswalt, who gave up eight earned runs in five-plus innings in a 15-8 walloping at the hands of the Angels tonight. That closes the Rangers’ division lead to four games (over LA and Oakland, somehow), and gives the Angels some hope of avoiding the new Wild Card play-in game. But even if they do have to play in that game, LA of Anaheim can line up aces throughout October, looking like a favorite on paper every time they take the field.

Let’s not sell short the Rangers, who still send Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Napoli to the plate every night, and whose bullpen, fronted by a resurgent Joe Nathan, has been among the best in baseball.

The AL East is still formidable, with all five teams currently above .500 despite the brutal schedules they’ve played. But baseball’s superpowers might be the teams playing in Arlington tonight. And with all the youth on both teams, that might be the case for a while.

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