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.
The journey from struggling placeholder at shortstop to full-time third baseman and big-time clutch hitter has had a lot of twists and turns in between. However, here Ramirez is now, a central figure in the success of this year’s Cleveland Indians squad. It could be argued the team may have been lost without him this year, after he seemed so lost himself just one season ago.
The Tribe has lost several important players to injury this year. More recently, number two and three starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have found themselves on the disabled list. Carrasco will miss the postseason, while Salazar will be a reliever at best.
Offensively, the team lost catcher Yan Gomes for half the year with a shoulder injury and then a wrist injury. However, the blow most felt would be fatal to the club actually came at the end of last year. Going hard for a ball hit to the outfield, left fielder Michael Brantley injured his shoulder. Expected to return this April, he did briefly. However, he could never get fully healthy and ended up playing only eleven games. Some wondered if the team could hit with Brantley in the lineup. Without him, many thought it would be a matter of time before Cleveland’s offense failed to hold up and would be the demise of the season, undoing all of the good of a superb pitching staff.
Instead, it has been the starting pitching that has become suspect, while the offense has produced the second most runs in the A.L. this season. At the heart of all that hitting has been Ramirez. Granted, Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli have provided the power the lineup with 30-plus home runs apiece. It has been Ramirez, however, who has come up big time and time again when the moment has mattered most.
The 24-year-old has been the Indians’ best clutch hitter this season. He is hitting .345 with runners on base. It is .357 when they are in scoring position. When the bases are loaded, he’s hitting at an eye-popping .400. Talk about clutch. And, it is not as if he is a stiff with the bases empty. He is hitting a solid .290 with no one aboard.
All told, Ramirez has blossomed in a big way in his fourth big league season. He is at a .312 average overall with eleven homers and 76 RBI. His presence in the fifth spot of the batting order makes it so that pitchers have to throw strikes to the pure power hitters who hit before him.
Ramirez is also dangerous on the base paths, with 22 stolen bases in 29 attempts. He truly has done it all for the Indians this year. Truth be told, he has been the presence in the batting order that Brantley has been in season’s past and everyone thought he would this year upon his eventual return.
It is a far cry from where Ramirez was last year. When he got off to the horrendous start to 2015 and was then jettisoned to Columbus, he was only 23, but appeared headed to a career as a utility player at best.
Ramirez was given a second chance last season with an August promotion to the majors. He had hit well during his time in Triple-A and took advantage of his two-month stint in Cleveland to close out the 2015 campaign. He hit .241 in August and then really shined at a .306 clip in September. Ramirez’s final two months were encouraging and enough of a sign that the Tribe opted not to keep veteran utility player Mike Aviles during this past offseason.
Ramirez entered spring training the likely candidate to make the Opening Day roster in a utility role. He could play second base, shortstop, and third base. During the Cactus League portion of play, he learned how to play outfield, mostly in left. That made him more of a super utility guy and clear cut favorite to crack the Tribe roster out of camp.
The ability to play outfield was key for Ramirez as this season opened. Brantley was still not ready to return, Lonnie Chisenhall had landed on the disabled list right before the end of spring training, and Abraham Almonte was to miss 80 games for a failed banned substance test. That was the Tribe’s entire starting outfield. It seemed it would put the club seriously behind the eight-ball when this season opened.
It also opened the door for other guys to prove themselves. Ramirez not only saw the opening, but he kicked down the door.
The bulk of Ramirez’s playing time came in left field during the first couple months of the season. The Indians had signed veteran Juan Uribe to man third base, with the hopes that last year’s rookie Giovanny Urshela may be ready to go by the end of the year. Instead, the slick-fielding Urshela continued to not be able to hit in Columbus and the Tribe needed to cut ties with Uribe, who showed signs of slowing down a few steps. Ramirez stepped in as the full-time third baseman in June and seems to have shored up a position that has been in flux for the Tribe for quite some time.
Ramirez has been just as superb in the field as he has been hitting. After a full season of playing at a top-notch level, it is hard to call this a fluke at this point, either. Ramirez, with an amazing hustle and drive, appears to have blossomed into a guy who the Indians should have in their plans for a while.
Once considered a utility player, it is hard to think of Ramirez as anything but a full-time player and key cog after being such a driving force behind this year’s A.L. Central Division Championship squad.
Rather than being out of the good graces of the team, as he was last June, or serving as a bench player as it seemed he would before this season began, Ramirez is now one of the main members of the roster leading the Indians to October baseball. If the Tribe is to have any success against the Red Sox in the A.L. Divisional round or any possible opponent after, Ramirez will need to continue to come up big in big moments. Now, those moments will be even bigger.
The lights will be shining brightly on Ramirez this month. Surely, it is a much better place to be than where he was 16 months ago. Once deemed a dispensable player on the roster, Ramirez is now truly indispensable. No longer irrelevant, the Tribe’s third baseman is about as relevant and important as it gets for this club on its playoff journey.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images