Can the Indians catch the Twins?
Indians officials have about a month to decide whether it’s feasible, and, if so, what the front office is prepared to do about helping the team win its fourth-consecutive division title, something the Indians haven’t done in 20 years, since they won five in a row from 1995-99.
At the start of their three-game series in Baltimore, the Indians, at 16-7 (.696), had the best winning percentage in June in the American League. On June 2 the Indians were 11½ games behind the Twins. Since then the Indians are 15-7 and the Twins 12-11. At the start of play Saturday, the Twins’ lead over the Indians was eight games.
If, a month from now, the front office feels catching and passing the Twins is a longshot, the Indians would likely be either sellers, or stand-patters at the trade deadline. So the team and its decision makers have about a month to sort things out and react accordingly.
At the start of play Saturday, the Twins were 52-29, in first place in the AL Central, eight games ahead of the 44-37 Indians. Both teams have
81 games left in the regular season. FanGraphs gives the Twins a 90.9 percent chance of winning the division, and the Indians a 9.1 percent chance of winning it.
FanGraphs’ projections also give Minnesota a 97.2 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, and the Indians a 52 percent chance. Cleveland is given a 48 percent chance of winning a wild card spot, but only two teams make it as a wild card, and there are currently two teams with higher wild card percentages than the Indians, the lowest of those being Boston’s 64.8 percent.
So on paper, or within algorithms, according to the professional numbers crunchers, the Indians, despite their impressive June record, still have plenty of ground to make up in the race for one of five postseason berths.
Especially when you consider the following.
Minnesota began play Saturday with a .642 winning percentage (52-29) and an eight-game lead over the Indians. If the Twins had a losing record the rest of the way, say 40-41 in their remaining 81 games, they would finish with a record of 92-70. Even if the Twins did that, the Indians would still have to go 49-32 (.605) the rest of the way to get to 93-69 and another division title.
The Indians have had a second-half winning percentage over .600 just four times in this century, most recently in 2017, thanks to their American League-record 22-game winning streak, when they went a ridiculous 55-20 (.733) after the all-star break.
So I’m saying there IS a chance?
Well, the Indians’ schedule does seem to offer some hope. Starting with the series in Baltimore that began Friday, 20 of Cleveland’s next 25 games are against the hapless Orioles, Royals, Tigers and Blue Jays — the teams with the four worst records in the American League.
At the start of play Saturday, the Indians’ combined record against those four teams was 17-7.
Over that same span, from Friday to July 28, the Twins won’t play any games against the teams with the four worst records in the league. Instead, they will play 16 of their 25 games in that stretch against teams with winning records: the Yankees, A’s, Rangers, and Indians, plus seven games against losers, the White Sox and Mets.
So there’s that, and there’s this: the Indians have 13 games left with the Twins this season. If the Indians go 13-0 in those games, you might want to start clearing your October schedule.
If — on the far-more-likely other hand — the Twins refuse to fold, falter, or collapse, the Indians would have to claw their way into the second wild card spot, and even if they made it, the reward: they would be the road team in that best-of-one series, having to beat the Red Sox in Boston or the Rays in Tampa.
But, as they say in the games-playing business, this is why they play the games.
A month from now, even if the Indians remain hot and perhaps shave a few more games off the Twins’ lead, it’s hard to see them going all in as a trade deadline buyer. Because they can’t afford to — literally. The Indians are trying to pare payroll, not add to it.
Ironically, however, the Indians could actually be buyers masquerading as sellers. They could do that by trading two game-changing pitchers, Trevor Bauer and/or Brad Hand, for a couple of desperately-needed young, impact outfield bats, that could improve the Indians’ offense this year, and for the future.
That’s right, the Indians could look like sellers at the trade deadline, but come out smelling like buyers.
Or, they could, at the deadline, do what they seem most likely to do: