Can the Indians catch the Twins? These five things must happen for Cleveland to close the AL Central gap

The 2019 MLB regular season will reach its halfway point later this week. Every team has played at least 74 games this year and 21 of the 30 teams have played at least 78 games. It's not early anymore. We're in the dog days of summer now.

As we approach the season's halfway point, five of the six division leaders have at least a five-game lead, including the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. They come into Tuesday with a 7 1/2-game lead over the second place -- and three-time defending division champion -- Cleveland Indians.

The Twins and Indians have essentially traded places since Opening Day. Cleveland came into the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the AL Central. Now the Twins are favored. Here are the projected win totals, via SportsLine:


Opening Day wins projectionJune 25 wins projectionChange

Cleveland Indians

92

92

+0

Minnesota Twins

82

97

+15

That 7 1/2-game lead is nice, but here's the thing: Minnesota had a 10-game lead as recently as last Wednesday. They had a season-high 11 1/2-game lead on June 2. The Indians have been chipping away at their AL Central deficit the last few weeks, enough that it's time to wonder whether they can finish the job and win their fourth straight division title.

Now, is it likely the Indians come all the way back to win the AL Central? No, I don't think so. It's not often an 11-game lead gets erased. Is a comeback possible though? Absolutely. There is roughly half-a-season remaining and that lead can disappear as quickly as it was built. I assure you the Twins don't consider the AL Central title locked up.

With that mind, let's look at what needs to change for the Indians to really make this a race and threaten the Twins for the AL Central title. Here are five things that must happen for Cleveland to have a chance at a fourth straight division championship. 

1. Get healthy

An obvious place to start. The Indians are currently without three of their top four starting pitchers, plus two other depth arms who really would come in handy right now. The injured Cleveland hurlers:

The Indians have received fine work from rotation replacements Zach Plesac, Adam Plutko, and Aaron Civale (combined 2.95 ERA in 13 starts), but the chances that group continues at that pace is small. Carrasco, Clevinger, and Kluber are among the best pitchers in the American League and are true dominators when healthy. Their returns would give the Indians a big lift.

Of course, the Twins have injury problems of their own. Byron Buxton is out with a wrist issue and Marwin Gonzalez recently hit the injured list with a hamstring issue. They miss those guys. Minnesota's injury problems aren't as extensive as Cleveland's, however. The Indians have lost 448 man games to the injured list this year. The Twins? Only 310, fourth fewest in baseball.

2. Get Jose Ramirez on track

Slowly but surely, Jose Ramirez is snapping out of a slump that started last August. He is hitting .217/.308/.322 this season and .200/.308/.318 in 507 plate appearances (!) since last Aug. 15. That doesn't include his 0 for 11 showing in last year's ALDS either. For whatever reason, Ramirez went from MVP-caliber to sub-replacement level seemingly overnight.

There are signs Ramirez is coming around though. He is hitting .280/.351/.480 over the last two weeks and both his overall OPS and hard contact rate are trending up:

jose-ramirez-ops-hard-contact.png
Jose Ramirez is finally starting to show some signs of life with the bat. FanGraphs

I can't help but wonder whether Ramirez has been playing through an injury. How else does a player that good and that productive just stop hitting, especially at age 26? Whatever it is, it looks like Ramirez may be snapping out of it. He's been hitting the ball harder lately, and his production the last few weeks more closely resembles 2016-18 Ramirez. 

Clearly, Ramirez returning to form would be an enormous boost to an Indians lineup that currently ranks 21st in baseball -- and 10th among the 15 American League teams -- with an average of 4.41 runs scored per game. Cleveland is no doubt hoping these last two weeks are a sign Ramirez's extended slump is nearing an end.

3. Stick with the youngsters

This past weekend the Indians jettisoned the unproductive Leonys Martin (.199/.276/.343) and replaced him with slugger Bobby Bradley, the minor league home run leader. In two games since being called up, Bradley has gone 2 for 6 with two walks and two doubles, including a go-ahead two-bagger in the sixth inning Monday.

A few weeks prior to summoning Bradley, the Indians called up outfielder Oscar Mercado, who's authored a .305/.359/.473 batting line in 34 games. He's played strong enough defense that the Indians were comfortable cutting ties with Martin and installing Mercado as their everyday center fielder.

It didn't take long for the Bradley call-up to pay dividends and Mercado's done everything the Indians could've reasonably expected and more since being brought up last month. Cleveland doesn't have any other obvious call-up candidates sitting in Triple-A -- maybe Eric Haase can be an upgrade over backup catcher Kevin Plawecki? -- but the guys they have called up have been pretty good. Stick with the kids. They'll help if you give them a chance.

4. Take advantage of a weak schedule

Playing in the AL Central has its advantages. It means a lot of head-to-head games against the Royals (27-52) and Tigers (26-47), as well as the White Sox (36-40), who aren't as much of a pushover as the last few years, but are still a year or two away from emerging as a true powerhouse. As a result, the Indians have one of the softest remaining schedules in baseball.

Here are the lowest remaining opponent's winning percentages in MLB:

  1. Tampa Bay Rays: .468
  2. Houston Astros: .474
  3. Cleveland Indians: .481
  4. Minnesota Twins: .481
  5. Kansas City Royals: .487

The Indians still have 10 games remaining with the Tigers and 15 games remaining with the Royals. Roughly three out of every 10 games they play the rest of the season will be against Detroit or Kansas City. Truth be told, the favorable schedule has already helped the Indians get back in the race. They've gone a perfect 6-0 in six games against the Tigers over the last two weeks.

Of course, the Twins play in the AL Central as well, and their remaining opponent's winning percentage is the same as the Indians. They have 20 games to play against the Tigers and Royals. The Indians can't worry about that though. They have to take care of their own business. Any team can beat any other team on any given night in this game. We know that. As long as Cleveland does what its supposed to do the rest of the way, Terry Francona's team will give itself a chance in the division race.

5. Win the head-to-head matchups

To me, this is the single best way the Indians can get back in the AL Central. They still have 13 head-to-head games remaining with the Twins (six in Cleveland and seven in Minnesota) and head-to-head games are the easiest way to make up ground. Win those and things will take care of themselves.

Here is the remaining head-to-head schedule:

  • July 12-14 at Progressive Field (three games)
  • August 8-11 at Target Field (four games)
  • September 6-8 at Target Field (three games)
  • September 13-15 at Progressive Field (three games)

I suppose the good news for the Indians is most of those games will be played after August begins, giving their sidelined starters (Carrasco, Clevinger, Kluber) time to return and get back up to speed. The Indians are at their best when those guys are on the mound, and the schedule suggests they could be a factor in the remaining head-to-head games.

The Indians and Twins have split the first six games of their season series (Minnesota has outscored Cleveland 26-23). For the Indians to have a real chance at winning a fourth straight AL Central title, they will have to win the season series from here on out, and win it convincingly. Going 8-5 probably won't be good enough. They need to go 10-3 or even 11-2 to have their best shot at completing the comeback and winning the division.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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