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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.