Posts By Craig Gifford
The Cleveland Indians’ team approach and mentality has gotten the club to the World Series for the first time in 19 years. That win-as-a-team mentality is costly when it comes to arguably the most prestigious individual honor a player can win – the American League Most Valuable Player Award.
The Tribe will likely have top three finalists or winners of the other three major pieces of hardware that get handed out at the start of the offseason, honoring a player’s or coach’s regular season work. Terry Francona is a good bet to win the A.L. Manager of the Year, Tribe ace Corey Kluber has a decent shot at his second league Cy Young Award and outfielder Tyler Naquin is a likely top three contender for Rookie of the Year honors.
However, when it comes to A.L. MVP recognition, Cleveland does not seem to have a big enough dog in the race. The MVP winner usually comes from a playoff team and leads his league or is near the top of a couple of the major offensive categories. Another big thing MVP voters like to see is a player that carried a large burden and put his team on his back for much of the season in getting to the playoffs.
Terry Francona has received much deserved praise this postseason for the way he has masterfully guided the Indians, with an injury-depleted starting pitching rotation, all the way to the World Series.
In watching the drama and excitement that has been a strong, three-week playoff showing, it is easy to forget the energy and excitement the Tribe brought to the 162-game regular season. However, that is where Francona’s mastery truly began this year.
In skippering a team, with numerous key injuries, to a 94-win American League Central Division championship campaign, Cleveland’s bench boss proved to be quite a few steps above the rest of his managing brethren this year in the A.L. While it is stunning that the group of Indians managed to win seven of eight games in the playoffs to earn entry into this season’s World Series, which starts Tuesday, it would be even more stunning if Francona does not earn his second A.L. Manager of the Year Award.
In 2014, Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber went 18-9 with a 2.49 ERA and 269 strikeouts. Those numbers in what was his breakout season earned Kluber the American League Cy Young Award.
This year, Kluber toted the same exact 18-9 record in the regular season. His ERA was a little higher, at 3.14, yet still was among the best in the A.L. and he struck out 227 batters that he faced. He may have even won more games if not for exiting his final start early and missing his final turn in the rotation.
With comparable numbers to that 2014 campaign, it now remains to be seen if The Klubot can take home this season’s hardware as the league’s top pitcher again. There are some major differences between that magical year for Cleveland’s No. 1 starter and this year.
When it comes to the American League Rookie of the Year award, Cleveland Indians history has shown that finishing second or third in the balloting may be better than taking home the hardware as the league’s top first-year player.
Such names as Sandy Alomar, Jr., Joe Charboneau, Chris Chambliss and Herb Score have won the trophy as members of the Tribe. Alomar, Charboneau and Score each had promising careers derailed by injuries. Chambliss was the only one to avoid the curse of winning the AL ROY as an Indian, but he spent the majority of his career with the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves.
In the last 25 years, the likes of Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez and Francisco Lindor each fell just shy of earning enough votes to take home the prize. Lofton would have been a Hall of Famer had he played in any era but the “steroid era.” Ramirez would have been a surefire HOFer if not for testing positive for a banned substance. Lindor just enjoyed a fine second season, as a key player in helping the Indians to their first postseason appearance in three years and first division title in nine summers.
In 16 months, Jose Ramirez had gone from being Mr. Irrelevant to Mr. Irreplaceable.
On June 7, 2015, Ramirez was hitting .180 with no home runs and one RBI in 150 at bats. He was playing shortstop, but everyone knew he was essentially keeping the position warm for future star Francisco Lindor. Lindor would take his spot and never look back when he was called up from Triple-A Columbus as Ramirez was sent back to the minors. Lindor, of course, went on to finish second in last year’s American League Rookie of the Year voting and surged to a strong sophomore season this year.
As for Ramirez, he is doing just fine. In fact, he is now one of the most important players for a club that, on Thursday, will play its first postseason game since a one-game Wild Card showing in 2013 and embark on its first playoff series since the 2007 American League Championship Series.
Maybe all is not lost for the Cleveland Indians starting rotation after all.
It sure seemed bleak eight days ago when No. 2 starter Carlos Carrasco was struck by a line drive and pronounced out for the season with a broken bone in his pitching hand. That came eight days after No. 3 man in the starting five and 2016 All-Star, Danny Salazar, left a game early with tightness in his right forearm. He was not deemed a total loss for the year, but if he can get back for any of Cleveland’s possible postseason appearance, it would likely be as a reliever rather than in his starting role.
Even with ace Corey Kluber pitching well enough to be in the conversation for his second career Cy Young Award, the state of the Tribe’s pitching staff sure seemed dire one week ago.
The Cleveland Indians are in a spot that they have not been in in quite some time. They enter the final two weeks of baseball’s regular season with a good shot at winning the American League Central Division crown and earning a trip to the playoffs. It is a title that they have not held since the 2007 season. It is a playoff that they have not partaken in, aside from 2013’s one-game Wild Card cameo, since that campaign of nine years ago.
This season has been full of ups and downs, to be sure, for the Tribe. The team was riding high on a franchise-record 14-game winning streak to end June and open July. The Indians have been down, as was the case on a recent 2-5 road trip through Oakland and Arlington to play the A’s and Texas Rangers.
However, one constant has remained the same for Cleveland this year. It is something that has alluded the club in recent years and caused the demise of solid Indians teams the last few seasons. That is success within the Central Division. Winning games, in bulk, against their Central Division foes is the main reason the Indians sit at 86-62, with an eight-game lead on second place Detroit with 14 games to play.
When Yan Gomes went down with a shoulder injury on July 17, the Indians’ one-time Silver Slugger Award winning catcher was not having a good year at the plate. He was also hearing whispers about the Tribe chasing after Milwaukee’s All-Star backstop Jonathan Lucroy to replace him.
Indians fans know the entire Lucroy saga by now and how he spurned the Tribe by invoking his no-trade clause and avoiding a change of scenery to Cleveland. At the time, the Indians seemed in a perilous position at catcher.
Gomes was only hitting .165 at the time his addition to the disabled list. However, he seemed a far better bet to catch fire at the plate than either of his backups, Chris Gimenez or Roberto Perez. Gomes is also very well-respected as a quality game-caller behind the plate by the club’s pitchers. That is key for a team that has very good pitchers in the starting five and in the bullpen.
It is a little hard to believe, but it has been eleven years since Coco Crisp last wore an Indians uniform. In 2005, he was one of the move beloved players on a Tribe team that won 93 games and just barely missed the playoffs.
The following offseason, Tribe management determined the club had enough outfielders and depth at the position. It was hurting at third base. Cleveland pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Crisp to the Red Sox for top hot corner prospect Andy Marte. Certainly, that is a deal the Indians would like to do over. Marte never panned out while Crisp has enjoyed a long, solid career.
Crisp, whose given name is Covelli, spent parts of four mostly productive campaigns with the Tribe. His best year in Cleveland during his first Tribe tenure was his final one. He hit a career-best .300. He also added 16 home runs and 69 RBI, both second-best career marks for the power numbers. He swiped 15 bases that year, making him a truly all-around player on a playoff-contending club.
During the first half of this season, Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar performed at an elite, All-Star level. It earned him a selection by manager Ned Yost to the Midsummer Classic. He did not pitch due to resting a sore elbow, but did take his rightful place in San Diego along side his fellow American League stars.
Since the All-Star break, however, Salazar has looked more like a guy who was pitching at Triple-A Columbus through the season’s first three months rather than a guy popping up in conversations as a possible A.L. Cy Young Award candidate.
Whether it has been the elbow issues, for which he spent the first half of August on the disabled list, or something mental, as has been speculated, Salazar has just not been the same pitcher. Before the annual mid-July showcase, the 26-year-old, in his fourth Major League season, was enjoying a breakout campaign. He was combining with Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco to form a Big 3 at the top of the rotation that made Cleveland a favorite to reach the World Series.
Mike Clevinger was impressive during this past spring training, opening the eyes of many in the Cleveland Indians organization. No way was the young starting pitcher going to crack the Tribe’s Opening Day roster, with the wealth of pitching the club had entering the season. However, he was certainly on the radar of management as well as Indians fans.
A bit of disaster struck Cleveland’s starting five early in the year as Cody Anderson came nowhere near replicating his impressive rookie showing of 2015’s second half and the squad’s number two starter Carlos Carrasco went down with a hamstring injury. Demoted starter Trevor Bauer was able to leave his new bullpen role and fill one of the voids. However, Cleveland would have to look to Triple-A Columbus to fill the rotation’s second vacancy.
There awaiting a phone call was Clevinger. The Tribe put its 25-year-old top pitching prospect on a Major League mound for the first time on May 18 against the Cincinnati Reds. Clevinger did enough to keep his team in the ball game, allowing four runs in five and one-third innings and the Indians went on to win 8-7. Overall, an okay debut. He struck out five and walked just one batter, avoiding the wildness that sometimes can accompany the first big league game jitters.
Things are not supposed to be easy for rookies in any professional sport. That is especially true in baseball, which can often be very unforgiving to a young player. The stories of players needing a return visit to Triple-A to polish off their games for the big league level are much more prevalent than those involving players who debuted in Major League Baseball and were an instant success.
For much of this season, Cleveland Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin was the young player who arrived in the Majors and took no time adjusting to better pitching, larger crowds, brighter lights, and a grander stage.
Despite the efforts of the Tribe organization to have him spend a little more time in Columbus during the early part of the season, injuries and suspensions to other outfielders on the big league club made it difficult. So, too, did Naquin himself.