MLB: Are the Rangers or Indians the AL Team to Beat?

Cleveland’s trade for Andrew Miller makes the Indians possibly the one AL team to beat. | Jason Miller/Getty Images

When MLB teams and fans sorted through a hectic trade season, they found the top two American League teams significantly stronger than they were a few weeks earlier. In the case of Cleveland, a failed attempt at Jonathan Lucroy ended with a successful bid for Andrew Miller. As for Texas, the front office abandoned its pursuit of an elite starting pitcher to add Lucroy, Carlos Beltran, and relief help.

Barring injury, one of these two clubs will be the AL team to beat this year as both consolidate power in their respective divisions. Whether the Rangers’ relentless offense or the Indians’ incomparable rotation is what vanquishes opponents remain to be seen, but these clubs are legitimate contenders for the World Series title, which is more than the rest of the AL competition can boast.

The Rangers’ advantage

For all the statistical oddities you can find in a baseball season, the Rangers’ 62-44 record against the club’s 54-52 Pythagorean won-loss is one of the more surprising numbers of 2016. You can credit the club’s incredibly clutch performance in one-run games (23-7) for the discrepancy, but there is something odd about a team that has outscored opponents by just nine runs after 106 games yet is 18 games over .500.

The club’s very hot streak earlier in the year was powered by a blistering offense and elite defense, but since then both have cooled off compared to the best in the league. In fact, Texas was not in the top 10 in offense, defense, starting pitching, or bullpen (per WAR) through August 1. You might say the team’s energy — its young legs and knack for winning ballgames — has been the thing setting it apart from the AL West and the rest of baseball.

The Rangers lineup got even more dangerous with Beltran and Lucroy aboard. | Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

Before we say X-factors don’t win championships, we should point out the 2015 Royals were not among the elite in offensive production or starting pitching. What that team had was a lockdown bullpen, superb defense, and a knack for putting the ball in play. They rode those attributes all the way to a World Series title, besting the Mets rotation along the way.

The 2016 Rangers have some similarities in the club’s athleticism and youthful core. With Beltran and Lucroy hitting somewhere in the middle of the order, the lineup will be merciless, featuring the type of power the Royals could not boast last season. Lucroy will bring his framing skills to an at-times thin rotation, so the pitching staff should get a bump as well from the trade. (Beltran, who has minimal range in the outfield at this point, slots in best as a DH.)

Despite how improbable it sounds, the Texas offense has thrived on certain hitters getting hot as others slumped, and the formula has worked for most of the season. The back end of the bullpen has locked down a high percentage of saves as well, meaning the leads stick on this club.  However, below the quartet doing the heavy lifting for the club, the pen was shaky at best. GM Jon Daniels’ acquisition of Jeremy Jeffress (2.22 ERA in 44.2 IP) in the Lucroy trade should help.

Where we saw this team having its edge in October was in the one-two punch of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Only in late July and a few other weeks were these two in the rotation together, but they appear ready to make the stretch run in Texas. Teams have won the World Series with less in the rotation (see: the 2009 Yankees) but this club would have a tough test facing Cleveland down the road.

A great Indians team improved

Corey Kluber fronts an Indians rotation that is MLB’s deepest. | Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

There is no mystery about the Indians’ secret to success. The club’s rotation sports the lowest FIP in the American League and the five starters sit right behind Francisco Lindor in the top six in WAR on the club. Terry Francona would probably feel comfortable starting any of these five in any game in a postseason series, and you have to think Cleveland has an edge over every team it will see in the American League this postseason.

Certainly the rotations of Texas, Boston, and Baltimore do not compare. If there were one team that might match up well against the Indians, it would be Toronto, which has a combination of powerful offensive weapons and several starters who can dominate opposing lineups. As we detailed around the All-Star Break, the Indians offense is more than capable of driving in runs and ranked sixth in points on the board (fourth in offensive WAR) through August 2.

Bullpen depth was certainly a weakness prior to the deadline, and Andrew Miller won’t solve every issue in the Cleveland pen, but he should come close, given the ability of the starters to go deep in games. At this point, the Indians have to feel comfortable in every aspect of the game as the club enters the final third of the season with a five-game lead in the loss column over second-place Detroit, which was on a six-game winning streak at press time.

While you would feel more comfortable with Lucroy and Miller on board, the pen and rotation are more than enough to power this team through the playoffs with the talented young core scoring runs and making plays in the field. We like the Indians’ chances to go deep in the playoffs and bring a second title to Cleveland in less than a year. After all that waiting, no one could hold it against them.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.