Who'll win AL Central? Let's break it down

Three teams. Three days. Three playoff seeds up for grabs.

Don’t blink, or you might miss the photo finish that’s shaping up this weekend in the American League Central — the most exciting and volatile divisional race in baseball.

All three front-runners — the Twins, White Sox and Indians — have long since punched their tickets to the postseason. But a division title that once appeared secure for Chicago is now up for grabs after the Sox fell into a five-game skid, culminating in a four-game sweep by Cleveland at Progressive Field.

Now, it’s anyone’s game. Entering the final weekend, the Twins own a one-game lead over the Sox, which, in turn, have a one-game edge on Cleveland.

A quick reminder: The Twins own the tiebreaker over the Indians, the White Sox own the tiebreaker over the Twins, and the Indians own the tiebreaker over the White Sox. The Twins win a three-team tiebreaker, followed by the Indians and White Sox.

But with a complicated seeding picture, is it necessarily the best thing for each team to play for the division title?

Here’s what’s at stake this weekend:

TWINS (1st, 3 games vs. CIN)

The goal: Win one game.

A second straight division title would be great. The Twins control their own destiny and can secure another banner with a sweep of the Reds this weekend. More importantly, though, just one win (or one Cleveland loss) will lock in home-field advantage for the AL Wild Card Series. Though the Twins will never acknowledge this, falling into second place actually wouldn’t be the worst thing in this playoff bracket, so long as the Twins play at Target Field, because the third-place team in the AL Central is all but guaranteed to be the No. 7 seed, which would line up against the No. 2 seed. That’s where the Twins currently sit.

So, really, it boils down to this: Win one game. Get Nelson Cruz healthy. Get Luis Arraez healthy. Don’t push it too hard against a motivated Reds team fighting for its playoff life. Let the other pieces fall into place.

The strategy: Why is home-field advantage so important for the Twins? Minnesota owns a 23-5 record at Target Field in 2020, the best mark in the Majors. Those five losses have come by a combined 15 runs. The specter of facing even their longtime playoff nemesis, the Yankees, in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup appears less daunting in that case (the Yankees are 11-18 away from the Bronx). Other than that, much of the Twins’ seeding fate depends on what happens with the Rays, A’s, White Sox and Indians.

The White Sox lineup, which has seen plenty of the Minnesota pitching staff, would probably be the least-welcome matchup in a No. 2 vs. No. 7 duel. Nobody wants to see Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac in a three-game series, though the Twins are 7-3 against Cleveland in 2020. The No. 1 seed (vs. Toronto) or No. 3 seed (vs. Houston) would be the sweet spot here, and certainly preferable to the No. 2 seed (vs. AL Central third-place team). That would require a collapse from Tampa Bay (vs. Philadelphia) or a surge from Oakland (vs. Seattle).

The concern: The only way this could go wrong is if the Twins get swept by the Reds and Cleveland pulls off a sweep of Pittsburgh, leaving the Twins alone in third place. Falling into the No. 7 seed and going on the road to face the No. 2 seed is the worst-case scenario. Other than that, an injury at this point in the season would all but rule that player out for the AL Wild Card Series. The Twins have had wretched injury luck this season, and an injury would be a big morale blow for a lineup that is finally coming together and hitting its stride.

WHITE SOX (2nd, 1 GB, 3 games vs. CHC):

The goal: Winning the AL Central has been front and center for the White Sox since they clinched their first playoff berth since 2008 on Sept. 17 at home against the Twins, with the title providing a little extra meaning for this young team after three years of rebuilding. Things haven’t exactly progressed as planned from that point, with the White Sox going 1-6 on their most recent road trip and losing four straight in Cleveland. Now, they could just as easily end up as the No. 7 seed as they could the No. 2 seed.

The goal this weekend against the rival Cubs, who they host for three to conclude the regular season, is simply to win a couple of games and get back on track to restart everything on Tuesday. Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada working back offensively also would help the cause.

The strategy: Neither Lucas Giolito nor Dallas Keuchel will pitch against the Cubs, as they are lined up to go Games 1 and 2 in the AL Wild Card series. But the White Sox might catch a break in the Crosstown Cup, with the Cubs not hitting and the North Siders throwing southpaw starters Jon Lester and José Quintana The White Sox have a 13-0 record this season vs. left-handed starters.

Ideally the White Sox want to avoid Cleveland in the first round after finishing 2-8 against the Tribe this season. They also don’t particularly want to go to Oakland, a venue where they have gone 1-8 over the last three seasons. The team is 17-10 at home and 17-12 on the road, but that home-field advantage makes a difference in a potential 4/5 matchup against the Yankees, who are 21-7 at home and 11-17 on the road, not to mention when facing the Twins, who are 23-5 at home and 12-17 on the road.

The concern: The White Sox didn’t exactly play bad baseball during their rough road trip. They simply suffered some brutal losses, with walkoff home runs by José Ramírez and Jordan Luplow in Cleveland, and four runs allowed by Jimmy Cordero and Carlos Rodón in the seventh on Thursday at Progressive Field. A bad finish to the 2020 regular season doesn’t necessarily mean a quick playoff exit — just ask the 2006 Detroit Tigers, who got swept by a 100-loss Royals team at home in the final three games of the season, lost the division in the process, and then went to the World Series. But with a young team, the White Sox would like to see this group regain some of the momentum it built in August and the bulk of September.

INDIANS (3rd, 2 GB, 3 games vs. PIT)

The goal: To secure a spot in the postseason after missing the playoffs last year. But the Tribe is determined to try to move up the divisional rankings in the final series of the regular season in an attempt to secure home-field advantage for the AL Wild Card Series.

The strategy: If the Indians are unable to catch the White Sox in the division and are forced to remain in the top AL Wild Card spot (No. 7 seed), they’d certainly welcome the opportunity to match up against Chicago again on Tuesday. The Tribe went 8-2 against the Sox this season and are fresh off a four-game sweep of Chicago. That would mean the White Sox would have to pass Minnesota for first place in the division.

The No. 7 seed is set to face the No. 2 seed, which will likely end up going to either the A’s or whoever wins the AL Central. As of now, the Twins hold that spot, and the Tribe would probably prefer to avoid another series against their divisional foe. Cleveland went 3-7 against Minnesota this season and struggled against Kenta Maeda, who’d be the Game 1 starter, as he owned a 0.50 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 18 innings against the Indians this year. And with the Twins boasting a 23-5 record at home this year, this does not seem to be the recipe for success for the Tribe.

The final option would be hosting the Yankees at Progressive Field if the Indians could pass the White Sox for the second spot in the AL Central and earn the No. 4 seed in the postseason rankings. Though New York boasts quite a powerful lineup, a Shane Bieber-Zach Plesac-Carlos Carrasco starting trio would be a tough task for any offense. The Yankees have also struggled on the road this year, going 11-18 as opposed to 21-7 at home. After getting through Gerrit Cole in Game 1, the Tribe’s offense may have its best chances against the Yankees’ starting pitching.

The concern: Meeting the Twins on Tuesday could be the biggest problem for the Tribe. But overall, the team’s greatest concern is whether the offense will be able to support its elite pitching staff. Over the past week, the Indians’ bats have had more life than they’ve shown all season, but the offense has been so inconsistent all year that the question remains whether this energy will be able to hold throughout the postseason. Did they hit their stride too early? Will the momentum carry through the AL Wild Card Series? The Indians will have their answers soon enough.

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.

Scott Merkin has covered the White Sox for MLB.com since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin and Facebook and listen to his podcast.