Barely a month ago, it seemed that the Twins’ front office had given up on a playoff run this season. Pitcher Jaime Garcia, picked up in late July as the team was losing ground in the division race, was traded to the Yankees after making just one start. Closer Brandon Kintzler was also dealt to the Nationals right at the deadline, in exchange for a prospect. At that time, the Twins had lost seven of their last 10, and were sitting 4.5 games out of the Wild Card with a record of 50-53.
But now it’s mid-September, and Minnesota is the favorite to travel to New York and take on the Yankees in MLB’s now five-year-old Wild Card play-in game. Eddie Rosario’s walk-off dinger last night kept Minnesota two games up on the Angels in that final postseason spot.
The Twins are in this position not because they’re a great team, but because they’ve been just good enough, treading water with a meager run differential of +8. And if they can hold off the Angels and win that single game against the Yankees next month, Minnesota will be right there on the national stage thanks to a playoff system that favors luck as much as it does talent.
The Twins’ play isn’t a massive shock. PECOTA projected the team to win 80 games this season, and, with a current record of 76-69, they’re probably going to end up with around 85 wins. Though the Twins were the worst team in the AL last year, the emergence and development of youngsters like starting pitcher Jose Berrios, center fielder Byron Buxton, and third baseman Miguel Sano made them a looming threat. A resurgent Joe Mauer, plus contributions from the continually consistent Ervin Santana and Brian Dozier, has bumped them to the edge of relevance just a little ahead of schedule. They’re no Cleveland, but they’re on the right track.
More surprising than the Twins’ decent record is the fact that 85 wins should be good enough to put a team in the playoffs. It’s not so much that the Twins are playing way over their heads, but that the AL has been particularly top heavy this year. The top tier is so stacked that the Yankees, owners of the third-best run differential in the league, have to settle for a Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the Rangers, Tigers, Orioles, and Blue Jays all regressed considerably, leaving the Twins to float to the top of the AL’s uninspiring middle class. The addition of the second Wild Card game was always going to lower the bar, but no club with fewer than 86 wins has made the playoffs in the past five years, and only the Orioles—in the first year of the play-in game—had a run differential worse than the Twins do currently.
In fairness, as far back as 1973, the Mets won the pennant after only winning 82 regular season games, so bad regular season teams making the playoffs isn’t a brand new phenomenon, but this was the obvious drawback of the new Wild Card system. As filled with potential as the Twins are, there’s still a world of difference between them and this Yankees team. A few bad bounces, though, and New York will be out, leaving a potential Twins-Indians stinkbomb to thwart what would otherwise be a thrillingly cutthroat postseason.