Only by the grace of the woebegone AL Central could a team that lost 93 games last year, has gone 22-33 in its last 55 games and outscored its opponents this season by exactly two runs consider itself a division title contender. But look over there, shopping the aisles of the trade market as a most unlikely buyer, and you'll find the Cleveland Indians, the accidental contender.
Are they any good? Who knows? "I'm trying to figure that out," joked GM Chris Antonetti. But they start today just one game out of first place, which means Antonetti is obligated to try to add to his team.
"We realize that people have limited expectations for us, but we are in the race," Antonetti said. "I'm appreciative of that opportunity and we will do what we can do. We don't view there to be any untouchables at the major league level or the minor league level. We have to be open-minded."
Trade Deadline Week can be as dangerous as it is exciting for surprise contenders. The 2010 Padres, for instance, traded young players to get veterans Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick last July, but still fell two games short of the playoffs when their young pitching wore down. The risk was worth it because an unexpected window opened for the Padres.
This season we have three teams that rank as shockers to be buyers this time of year: Cleveland, Arizona and Pittsburgh, all of whom lost at least 93 games last year and, according to coolstandings.com, began the year with respective percentages of reaching the postseason of 12.9, 8.7 and 2.1. Those percentages have since climbed to 30.1, 36.3 and 26.6, respectively.
Turnarounds in the wild card era are more common than you might think. For five straight years and 15 of the 16 wild card seasons the playoffs have included at least one team that posted a losing record the previous season. Truth is, the Los Angeles Angels and Milwaukee Brewers represent the best chances to keep the Cinderella streak going.
But the Indians, Diamondbacks and Pirates have hung around long enough to dream. Only five teams in the wild card era reached the playoffs the year after losing 93 or more games: the 1998, 2003 and 2007 Cubs, the 1999 Diamondbacks and the 2008 Rays. Can any of these three join them? Here are their needs and their chances, listed in likelihood of making the postseason.
What They Need: Arizona really needs a shortstop to replace injured Stephen Drew. Angel Berroa, signed off the roster of the Bridgeport Bluefish, is just another non-answer in a mix with Willie Bloomquist, Geoff Blum and Cody Ransom. Who's next, Alex Cintron?
Truthfully, GM Kevin Towers doesn't have many good options at the position, and if he can stabilize the position defensively that will count as a win. Arizona ranks third in runs and first in home runs.
Cubs first baseman Carlos Peña could be a tempting rental, but Towers, a firm believer in bullpens, is more likely to strengthen his relief corps, which entered this week ranked 11th in the league. Power arms such as Jason Frasor, Kyle Farnsworth and Koji Uehara would be good fits.
Why They Can Hang In: In case you and Prince Fielder didn't get the memo, Justin Upton has arrived as a major impact player. It's still mind-boggling why MLB didn't lobby Fielder to put Upton in the All-Star Game Home Run Derby in his home park. But Upton, who turns 24 next month, is red hot when it counts. In his past 50 games he has hit .361/.433/.607 and -- get this -- overall has hit .395 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
The Diamondbacks also have better starting pitching than you think, thanks to Ian Kennedy (11-3) and Daniel Hudson (10-6). Only the Phillies have received more innings from their starting pitchers than Arizona, and only three rotations have walked fewer batters.
The Schedule Factor: Care for a cupcake -- or two dozen or so? Starting tonight, the Diamondbacks play 42 percent of their remaining schedule against the Dodgers and Padres (25 out of 60). But there is one obvious trap awaiting them: a 10-game trip to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington smack in the middle of August. Arizona is 7-9 thus far in Eastern cities.
What They Need: The Indians are averaging 3.6 runs over the past two months while hitting .235. Rookie third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall is learning on the job. Shin-Soo Choo is not due back until late August -- and then the range of motion in his injured thumb bears watching -- and Grady Sizemore probably won't be back until a week after that. Cleveland needs a bat to keep them afloat in the meantime. Kosuke Fukudome can be had from the Cubs -- who are reluctant to deal anybody signed beyond this year -- but a righthanded bat for the outfield, such as Ryan Ludwick, might be a better fit. Then again, with young outfielders such as Colby Rasmus, Hunter Pence and B.J. Upton drawing interest on the market -- though at steep prices -- Cleveland should be knocking on those doors, too.
Why They Can Hang In: "There are no perfect teams in our division," Antonetti said. "There is an opportunity for any of four teams to take hold. It's hard to say one team stands above the others."
After a 30-15 start filled with great fortune, Cleveland went 22-33. Pushing upper 80 wins will be difficult, but if nobody gets hot in their division, the Indians can stay in the race.
Oh, and that measly +2 run differential? It's the best in the AL Central.
The Schedule Factor: August starts with what could be a defining trip: seven games in Boston and Texas. If they can survive that, the Indians benefit from 31 of their final 50 games against division rivals Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota.
What They Need: The Pirates, 13th in runs in the league, need offense and a veteran presence who knows the road map through the race. Carlos Peña, Jason Giambi, Michael Cuddyer and Ty Wigginton fit the need.
Injuries to Jose Tabata and Alex Presley have increased the need for a bat. Manager Clint Hurdle has to figure out the top of the order; his No. 2 hitters -- all nine of them - have a .285 OBP.
Why They Can Hang In: The quickest, cheapest way to improve is to catch the ball, and the Pirates have played superb defense -- and they need it with their pitching. The Pittsburgh rotation has the worst strikeout rate in the league and has thrown fewer innings than every rotation but the Cubs. Truthfully, the Pirates walk a very thin line given their lack of power at the plate and on the mound.
The Schedule Factor: The bad news for Pittsburgh is that it can play the Cubs and Astros only 13 more times. Pittsburgh is 15-6 against those two teams and a more Pirate-like 38-41 against everybody else. Indeed, the Pirates have only 15 wins this year against teams .500 or better; only the Astros (13) have fewer among NL teams.
The stretch run will be brutally tough for the Pirates. Twenty-three of their final 33 road games are against winning teams (Braves, Phillies, Giants, Brewers, Cardinals and Diamondbacks). Ten of their final 13 games are on the road, all of them out of the Eastern time zone.