Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tribe Talk: It's Only The Beginning

By Alex Hale, @ThatCLESportGuy

They weren’t supposed to be that close to a World Series Championship.  The injuries that depleted their roster would make us just lucky to be in the playoffs, let alone winning the first American League pennant since 1997.  The players that emerged were supposed to be fringe prospects that could be serviceable, but you couldn’t count on them.  The coaching was suspect and with a down year could potentially put a future Hall of Fame Manager on the hot seat.  Yet…after all of that, the Cleveland Indians were 1 WIN AWAY from winning the Franchise’s first World Series since 1948.  And while the loss in the World Series to the Cubs stung, the Indians and their fans shouldn’t hang their heads down over this.  What they did was nothing short of miraculous and shouldn’t be forgotten, given everything that happened.  In 2016 we learned more about the character of the Cleveland Indians franchise than we did by the pure potential of the team in terms of talent.  In this Season Wrap-up we will see how the Indians got to the doorstep of winning the Fall Classic.

We go back to March when Spring Training started, the Indians were looked at by many as a team with a great Starting Rotation, a solid bullpen, but an offense that was extremely suspect, especially with Michael Brantley not scheduled to return until May.  The Indians had added Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis to add some veteran presence along with the power and speed they provided.  The Indians would add Juan Uribe to provide someone to start at 3B, along with his winning attitude that he’s brought everywhere he’s been.  What the Indians didn’t expect was the Spring Training emergence of Tyler Naquin who would torch pitching throughout March, earning his spot on the Opening Day roster.  Going into the regular season, expectations were low, I had the Indians finishing fourth in the division.  Little did we know the craziness that awaited us in the Regular Season…

The Indians started the year at home against the Boston Red Sox, a team a lot of analysts had picked to win the AL East.  That series would have 2 postponed games and the Indians would struggle out of the gate.  The Indians were primarily led by Josh Tomlin who went 3-0 with a 3.18 ERA.  Corey Kluber would start out the year in April going 1-3, leaving a lot of people to wonder if the Indians were going to get the 2015 Kluber, who pitched well, but just had no luck in terms of run support.  Michael Brantley would return late in the month of April, but would only be on the roster for 11 games before suffering a setback that would keep him out the rest of the season.  The Indians would go 10-11 in April, leaving many fans to wonder if 2016 was going to be just another mediocre year.

The Indians would show signs of life in May going 16-13, but it wasn’t until June that the Indians started to really come together.  The Indians would go on a 14 game winning streak that lead to a 22-6 month of June clearly putting the Indians atop of the AL Central.  The Indians were finally getting the 2014 AL Cy Young Corey Kluber back and Josh Tomlin was quietly off to one of his best seasons ever and would be one of the biggest AL All-Star snubs.  The Indians rotation was coming together, the Indians bullpen was hitting their stride and finding some new impact relievers like Dan Otero to bolster the depth.  The biggest story though in the month of June was the emergence of Jose Ramirez, who had burst onto the scene as a clutch hitter who was capable of filling the role left by the loss of Michael Brantley.  By June, the Indians had been platooning Ramirez with Juan Uribe at 3B and by July would become the full-time 3B as the Indians would release Juan Uribe.

In the month of July the Indians were at a crossroads, they had a solid offense that would probably propel them to an AL Central Championship as Mike Napoli became the Indians cleanup hitter and allowed the rest of the lineup to find their own roles to create a consistent balanced lineup.  But the Indians were missing something, a lefty reliever that they could rely on.  As the Trade Deadline approached, the Indians searched many options, but decided to go bold and push their chips in acquiring from the Yankees RP Andrew Miller AND Brewers C Jonathan Lucroy…or so we thought.  As the Andrew Miller trade was finalized that sent prized OF prospect Clint Frazier to the Yankees, Jonathan Lucroy would use this opportunity to exercise his No Trade clause, rejecting playing for the Indians.  This would force the returning Roberto Perez to platoon with veteran journeyman Chris Jimenez at Catcher.  But through this process, the Indians Front Office made a statement, “We’re ready to win NOW”.  That message hit home with the locker room who would use Jonathan Lucroy’s rejection as fuel that would propel them to the AL Central Crown, finishing the regular season at 94-67.

But the end of the year caused some roadblocks for the Indians going into the playoffs.  Danny Salazar had gone through shoulder problems in the 2nd Half that would put the Indians down one in their rotation.  Then Carlos Carrasco got in the way of a line drive that would break his hand, ending his season.  The Indians would go on to rely on Kluber, Josh Tomlin (after a horrible month of August), Trevor Bauer and Terry Francona’s “bullpen days” that would utilize the entire bullpen to get them through the game.  Going into the postseason, very few had the Indians really making it past the first round against the Red Sox.  Even Indians beat writers doubted their chances.

In the playoffs the Indians as they had come to show all year long showed the resilience that became their identity.  Against almost impossible odds to even stop Boston and the David Ortiz farewell tour, the Indians made quick work sweeping the Red Sox.  The Indians would then go on to face former team President Mark Shapiro and his Toronto Blue Jays.  With Corey Kluber and a revitalized Josh Tomlin, the Indians took two wins in Cleveland.  But a certain drone incident would set the team back again as Trevor Bauer’s pinky would be severely cut and in Game 3 wouldn’t make it out of the 1st inning because of his cut being reopened.  The Indians would somehow with their bullpen win Game 3 and would lose Game 4 with Corey Kluber starting.  That left Game 5 in the hands of rookie SP Ryan Merritt, who had one other career start late in the year at Kansas City.  Merritt would shock everyone, dominating an extremely talented Toronto lineup before turning it over to ALCS MVP Andrew Miller and the bullpen to close out the series and send the Indians to the World Series.

Now we all know how the World Series went down, the Indians against overwhelming odds and almost every analyst saying the Cubs would easily win this series, would somehow have a 3-1 lead against Chicago.  While the Indians would blow that lead, Game 7 of the World Series was the definition of the Cleveland Indians.  Down 6-1, the Indians wouldn’t quit and claw their way back before Rajai Davis, who had struggled all postseason would hit a game tying Home Run off Aroldis Chapman, who before Davis hadn’t given up a Home Run since he arrived in Chicago.  The Indians would one swing away from their first World Series Championship since 1948.  Even down 2 in the 10th, the Indians would continue to fight, scoring one and have the winning run at the plate before the Cubs finished the series once and for all.

So what did we learn in 2016 about the Cleveland Indians?  The Indians may not have the superstars like most teams, but the Indians have a will to win that can’t be measured.  Every time you count this team out, they fight until the bitter end.  While the ending wasn’t what we all had hoped for, the Indians seem like they’re in the same position as the Royals were after coming up short in 2014.  Like those Royals, the Indians not just have the bullpen, but the resilience that makes you never count them out of a game.  I fully expect the Indians to come into the 2017 season hungry to finish what they started in 2016 and to be honest, no matter what they do in the offseason, I wouldn’t put anything past these guys.  In 2015, I said their struggles throughout the 2015 season was exactly what they needed.  The Indians had guys like Jason Kipnis and Corey Kluber step up as a leaders and hold the team accountable.  It started to rub off on the new blood of the core like Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor who have finally seemingly have the left side of the infield plugged in for years to come.  Most of the team is under contract and will be back together for 2017 and will be ready to finish their mission.

While the Indians have decisions to make on bringing back Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli, I’m going to save my offseason predictions.  I mean nothing really happens until the Winter Meetings, but rest assured, you’ll see what I’d do and more importantly how the Indians have plenty of money to spend this offseason.

Guys…the Indians weren’t supposed to get here.  All the series of events throughout the season screamed that the Indians were lucky to even get to the playoffs.  Yet somehow, someway the Indians were 1 swing away from a World Series Championship.  This is only the beginning Tribe fans, the future is indeed bright for the Cleveland Indians.  WE WILL BE BACK…I guarantee it.

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