Five questions as the Twins head into September

The final stretch of the season is upon us, and the Twins enter the month of September protecting a five-game lead in the American League Central with 28 games left to play.

They have led the division for almost the entire season, and they seem well-positioned to hang on and make the postseason for the first time since 2020, where they would be in position to host a best-of-three Wild Card Series at Target Field in early October.

As the calendar flips to September, here are five questions with one month remaining in the season:

How will Cleveland’s moves affect the race?

The Twins were in a tie for first place in the division as late as Sept. 4 last year. A refresher on how that ended: an incredibly injured Twins team tumbled in September and finished in third place, 14 games back of the Cleveland Guardians.

A repeat of that doesn’t seem likely.

Though the Twins had an opportunity to put more distance between themselves and the second-place Guardians and did not do so this week, losing two of three games to Cleveland, the Twins still enter the month 69-65, in first place by five games with just three to go against Cleveland.

The Twins’ playoff odds are at 94.6 percent, per FanGraphs. The Guardians, though, did get better on Thursday, grabbing starting pitcher Lucas Giolito and relief pitchers Reynaldo López and Matt Moore off waivers from the Los Angeles Angels. The Guardians were awarded the waiver claims by virtue of their record, which is worse than that of other playoff hopefuls.

In addition to those three pickups, the Guardians are also expecting starting pitchers Triston McKenzie, Shane Bieber and Cal Quantrill back from the injured list in September. But will it be too late?

Which contributors will the Twins get back?

Speaking of September additions, the Twins could get a whole host of impactful contributors back down the stretch, too, which will reshape their roster.

Willi Castro is near ready to return, and Byron Buxton and Alex Kirilloff shouldn’t be too far behind after both started rehab assignments with Triple-A St. Paul on Wednesday. The latter two have both been out since the beginning of August.

Brock Stewart was one of the Twins’ most trusted relievers at the time of his injury in late June, and if he can come back and return to form, that would provide a huge boost to the bullpen. Reliever Jorge Alcala is working towards a return as well, and starter Chris Paddack, who has been rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery, could also potentially return late this season and figure into the bullpen plans.

The Twins did little to address the bullpen at the trade deadline, only swapping reliever Jorge López for Dylan Floro, but they could soon get internal reinforcements.

How much center field will Byron Buxton play?

For the first time in more than a year, Buxton patrolled the outfield on Wednesday night.

That happened in St. Paul with the Class AAA Saints, where he currently is rehabbing from a hamstring strain. Though he didn’t play the field in the first four months of the season, the Twins are preparing Buxton to play center field upon his return.

How much remains to see. The Twins and Buxton are taking it day by day to see how his body holds up to the increase in demands — a knee issue has been the root cause of keeping him out of the field this season.

There’s no guarantee he’ll play center field at all, and if he does, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has said it will be occasional. But putting Buxton back in center field will allow the team more flexibility with the rest of its lineup.

Will Joe Ryan return to form?

Joe Ryan pitched like an all-star for much of the first half of the season.

And then he got injured. A seven-start stint followed during which he posted a 8.63 earned-run average and gave up 17 home runs in 32 1/3 innings. The thought is that the groin injury played a big role in those results.

Ryan then missed much of the month of August before returning on Aug. 26. His only start post-injury was a productive one — he gave up just one run in five innings. His second start will come on Friday against the Texas Rangers.

How Ryan responds over the course of the month will be something to watch as the Twins push for the postseason and then, should they make it, determine a rotation for the best-of-three Wild Card Series.

Will Louie Varland factor in?

The St. Paulite made 10 starts for the Twins earlier this season before being optioned to the Triple-A Saints in June, where he has remained.

He’s been quite good in the month of August, posting a 1.90 earned-run average in 23 2/3 innings. Could he play a role down the stretch, if not in the starting rotation, then in relief? Baldelli said last week that he believed it was a role that Varland could do, but there was no blueprint for it.

“I think you have to think about it, time it up correctly,” Baldelli said. “I think teams have done that with guys in September and start to get them a little more familiar coming out of the bullpen. I don’t know if we are going to be doing that, but anything is possible at this time of the year.”

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