Is it over? Why this weekend’s series could be critical to answering that question and shaping Cleveland’s future

Is the AL Central race over?

That’s the big debate among Twins fans and media members. Math is certainly on the side of the “It’s Over” crowd. Baseball-Reference gives the Twins a 97.1% chance of winning the division. FanGraphs is a bit more conservative, projecting the Twins as winning the division 87.2% of the time. It varies a bit based on where you look, but Vegas also sees the Twins as heavy favorites, generally putting them at around -4000 to take the Central. Placing $100 on the Twins to win the division at -4000 would net you a cool $2.50. Yes, two dollars and fifty cents.

On the other side sits the “It’s Not Over” naysayers. Most of these folks still believe the Twins will ultimately emerge victorious, but resist the urge to light victory cigars in mid-July. A lead of 5.5 games, after all, is not insurmountable, and one only needs to look at recent Twins history to find a plethora of examples supporting this claim.

In 2001, the upstart Twins led the division by five games at the All-Star break, before ultimately finishing six back of Cleveland. In 2003, they were 7.5 back at the break, before acquiring Shannon Stewart and going on a second half run, winning the division by four games. In 2006, they stood 11 (!) games back of Detroit and in third place in the Central, and won the division on the season’s final day. In 2009, the Twins were four back at the break, and three back with four games left in the season, and won the division in the epic Game 163 over Detroit. Even the 2010 Twins, who led the division most of the season, were 4.5 back just after the break.

In other words, both sides have valid arguments. Sure, statistically the Twins are big favorites, and one would be a fool to not view them as such. But, in my view, it’s still premature to state that there’s essentially no chance Cleveland can come back, when there are five recent examples just among Twins teams showing a lead this size is not impenetrable.

Cleveland and Minnesota will play 13 times in the second half of the season, and all of them will likely be important. In many ways, though, the series that begins tonight in Cleveland could be the most important, because of the implications it may have on how Cleveland’s decision makers view their team heading into the trade deadline.

The Indians have played at a blistering pace over the past six weeks, going 21-8 to shave six games off the Twins’ lead and vault them into a wild card spot in the American League. Yes, they’ve beaten up on a lot of bad teams. They also took two out of three from both the Twins and Yankees, and won two out of three in Boston a week prior to the start of their torrid stretch. Jose Ramirez, who seemed to fall off a cliff with his offensive production, has shown signs of life at the plate. Mike Clevinger is back. Carlos Carrasco is expected back at some point this season. And Corey Kluber started playing catch last week and could be ready by late-August. In other words, the three-time defending Central champs appear to be hitting their stride and getting healthy at just the right time.

It’s also clear, though, that ownership is looking for reasons to sell. In an effort to slash payroll, they let Michael Brantley and Andrew Miller walk in free agency, traded Yan Gomes, and shopped both Trevor Bauer and Kluber. Even with their recent hot stretch, they’ve reportedly continued to shop Bauer.

With the Indians teetering on the edge of buying and selling, a sweep in either direction could make the decision easy. If Cleveland takes three from the Twins and reduces the lead to 2.5 games, it’s difficult to envision them selling off key pieces, especially with a two week stretch leading into the trade deadline where they play 14 games against Kansas City, Detroit, and Toronto, who are a combined 83 games under .500. With the Twins facing the likes of Oakland and the Yankees in that same stretch, it’s not impossible to envision Cleveland pulling closer, or taking the lead in the division, if they swept the Twins out of the break. They’d have no choice, at that point, but to buy.

On the other hand, a Twins sweep would leave Cleveland 8.5 games back, and probably seal their fate. If ownership wants to sell and cut payroll, as their actions over the past nine months have suggested, this would give them a concrete reason to do so. Trading away Bauer, Brad Hand and others would essentially hand the division to the Twins, barring something really crazy happening.

If neither team sweeps, Cleveland’s decision becomes murkier, and this conversation likely continues over the next two weeks until they’re forced to act at the end of the month.

If you’re a Twins fan, the next three games should be appointment viewing. If things go perfectly for Minnesota, the 70 games that follow could be little more than a lead-up to October baseball. If things go south this weekend, we may be in for an exciting, and stressful, final two-and-a-half months of the season.