Disorder in the House

Disorder in the house
There’s a flaw in the system
And the fly in the ointment’s gonna bring the whole thing down

The floodgates are open
We’ve let the demons loose
The big guns have spoken
And we’ve fallen for the ruse

Disorder in the House, Warren Zevon

I didn’t see this coming.

When the Twins swept the White Sox in Chicago at the end of July and then started August by winning back-to-back series against the Red Sox and Angels, I thought they were home free. Minnesota was 61-45, 15 games above .500, and leading the American League Central by six games over Chicago. Now, just two agonizing weeks later, the Twins are desperately holding onto a slim two-game lead atop the division. But that’s not even the amazing part — it’s not the White Sox that are right on their tail, it’s the Cleveland Indians.

I was too busy being giddy about what looked like a third straight division title win over the White Sox to even think about the Indians. I mean, the Twins had been fighting back and forth with Chicago all year, just like they did in 2002 and 2003, and they had surged ahead at a key moment, seemingly putting the White Sox out of reach, just like they did in 2002 and 2003.

Then suddenly the Indians were right there — two games back. And if not for a surprisingly excellent start by Terry Mulholland and a three-hit game from Corey Koskie yesterday, the division would be all tied up. To say the Indians snuck up on me would be an understatement. They didn’t even really sneak, they were just sort of there. Like a car that pulls up next to you at a red light without ever being in your rear-view mirror. And now they’re revving their engine, waiting for the light to turn green.

Take a look at just how quickly things have changed in the AL Central …

STANDINGS ON AUGUST 6                               STANDINGS ON AUGUST 16
 
TEAM             W      L     WIN%      GB          TEAM             W      L     WIN%      GB
Minnesota       61     46     .570     ---          Minnesota       64     53     .547     ---
Chicago         54     51     .514     6.0          Cleveland       63     56     .529     2.0
Cleveland       55     54     .505     7.0          Chicago         59     56     .513     4.0

And here’s how the AL Central race has played out for the whole year …


(That graph is courtesy of Mr. Baseball Graphs himself, our own Studes, who is currently featuring the Indians in his “Team Spotlight” over at THT’s team pages.)

Almost since the division’s birth, the Indians were the bullies of the AL Central. From 1995 to 2001, they won six division titles, including five straight from 1995-1999. After the Twins won the World Series in 1991, they had what was essentially a decade of horrible teams. And when they finally got good again in 2001, taking a 56-32 record and five-game division lead into the All-Star break, it was the Indians who came back in the second-half and took the division from them. Then, during that offseason, the Indians began their rebuilding process. Over the next two years, they said goodbye to Jim Thome, Bartolo Colon, Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman, Juan Gonzalez, Dave Burba, Kenny Lofton, Chuck Finley and Charles Nagy, among others.

As the Twins proved that their 2001 season was no fluke by winning the division by 13.5 games over Chicago in 2002, I had it in my head that the Indians were out of the picture until at least 2005 or 2006. When their rebuilding process was finished, I knew they’d be scary because of all the young talent they suddenly had, but I certainly didn’t think they’d be a team to worry about this soon. So when the White Sox went into their annual fade this year and Twins kept chugging right along, I started to think about playoff matchups and postseason rotations and all the other wonderful stuff that Yankees fans start thinking about each April.

On August 5, with the Twins sporting a 14-5 record since the All-Star break and a six-game lead over Chicago with 56 games left to play, I wrote the following about the AL Central race:

[The Twins] are getting very close to running away and hiding from the rest of the American League Central. Now, those of you who have experienced my incredible pessimism in regard to the Twins over the last two years know that I’m the last person in the world to say something like that, but I think it’s true.

A brilliant time for me to get optimistic, huh?

The part that is really scary for Twins fans is the upcoming schedule. The Twins and Indians play 10 more times this year, which means the Twins aren’t going to be able to beat up on other teams to build their lead like they have while defeating the White Sox in the past. If they’re going to win the division again, the Twins are going to have to deal with Cleveland directly, including seven times in the season’s final 10 games.

In addition to that, the Indians are hot, winning 21 of their last 30 games, while the Twins are not, losing eight of their last 11. And, of course, the Indians just took two out of three from the Twins, walloping them by a combined score of 15-3 in the first two games. As if that weren’t enough, the Twins now host a three-game series that starts Tuesday against the Yankees, a team they haven’t won a regular season game against since 2001. Yes, that’s right, 2001. If you count last year’s postseason, the Twins are 1-16 over their last 17 games against New York.

When the Twins and Indians meet again this weekend, this time in Minnesota, there’s a good chance the Indians will have cut the lead to one game and perhaps even tied things up. Just as they did this time around, the Indians will miss Minnesota’s ace, Johan Santana, who is 10-3 with a 1.89 ERA since the end of May and starts Wednesday against New York.

I’ve written recently that I feel the Twins have sort of coasted the last two years, being content to simply be better than the White Sox, rather than building a more powerful team that could not only beat the weak competition in the AL Central, but perhaps have a better shot against the stronger competition in the East and West.

They haven’t upgraded their horrible middle-infield situation in years, Jacque Jones continues to flail away against left-handed pitching, they didn’t add another quality arm to either the rotation or the bullpen, and Justin Morneau wasted away at Triple-A for nearly half the year. In the past two seasons, stuff like that hasn’t hurt them in the division race, but it looks like it might now.

Cleveland is for real and that’s not really a surprise, except for the fact that they’re a year or two early. Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner needed very little time to establish themselves as elite players at their positions, Grady Sizemore has stepped in as the every centerfielder and is hitting .265/.358/.412 in 23 games, Ben Broussard is starting to hit like many thought he could, and they’re getting very good production from veterans (and former Twins) Casey Blake and Matt Lawton.

The pitching staff is still not very good, which is part of the reason why I didn’t think they’d be a factor this year, but the offense is so good — leading all of baseball in runs scored, on-base percentage and doubles — that it doesn’t much matter who’s on the mound. The Indians are early to the AL Central party and I’m not sure if that’s worse for Minnesota right now, with the Twins suddenly struggling to fight them off for a third straight division title, or in the future, when Cleveland’s young players have more experience and the next wave of prospects (Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Aubrey, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Phillips, Andrew Brown) arrive.

After the Indians committed to rebuilding their team, the Twins had a window of opportunity in the AL Central. They’ve certainly taken advantage of it, winning two straight division titles, but partly because of their actions and partly because of Cleveland’s excellent rebuilding effort, the window appears to have closed up a lot sooner than expected. I would guess that this version of the Indians will be the worst they’ll have for several years and that’s bad news for the rest of the division, because if you think the Indians are tough now, wait until they find some pitching to go along with all the bats.

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