Ramirez Rewarding Tribe’s Faith With Continued Success

Last season, Jose Ramirez took the baseball world by surprise. After struggling for a couple of years to get his footing at the Major League Baseball level, Ramirez enjoyed one of the game’s bigger breakout performances in 2016.

Some feel he may have been the MVP of last year’s Cleveland Indians – a club that won an American League Central Division championship, the AL pennant, and was one run away from a World Series crown.

Statistically, Ramirez had a breakout season a year ago. He put up career highs across the board with a .312 batting average, 11 home runs, 76 RBI, 22 stolen bases, and 152 games played. Not only did he do all that, but he picked things up where others the Tribe was counting on faltered.

All-star outfielder Michael Brantley played only 11 games in 2016 as he had issues coming back from a late-2015 shoulder injury. Early in the season, Ramirez more than adequately manned Brantley’s left field spot. Starting in June, Ramirez slid over to third base to fill the void left by the struggling veteran Juan Uribe. Uribe was added in the offseason prior to the 2016 campaign to be a veteran presence and an offensive spark. The latter never really happened and the Indians cut bait with him. Ramirez played third at a near Gold Glove level. committing just five errors in 117 games at the hot corner, all the while more than capably filling in for the ailing Brantley.

Ramirez, at 23 years old, was nicely rewarded just before the start of this season by the team that signed him as a 16-year-old amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. In late March, the Tribe and Ramirez agreed to a contract extension worth a minimum of $26 million and could reach up $50 million. The contract is guaranteed through 2021, with club options for 2022 and 2023. He will earn $2,828,600 million next year, $4.15 million in 2019, $6.65 million in 2020, and $9.4 million in 2021. The option years are for $11 million and $13 million, respectively.

For anyone worried that it was too much money for a player with only one big season under his belt and less than two years removed from a miserable one, he is certainly justifying the deal to start the new 2017 campaign.

Heading into Saturday’s action, Ramirez was carrying a .322 batting average with four home runs and 16 RBI. At a somewhat diminutive 5-foot-9, Ramirez would not be a natural choice to be tied for the club’s home run lead through the first 16 games, nor to be leading the team in RBI. After Friday’s 3-0 victory over the White Sox, he was second to only Francisco Lindor in batting average. The early returns on the big investment are certainly looking really good for Cleveland.

Ramirez, a force in 2016 when it mattered most, is again hitting well in the clutch this season. He leads the American League with nine two-out RBI. He is hitting .310 with runners on base and .286 when they are in scoring position. That is not nearly as good as his scorching .346 and .355 in those situations a year ago, but then again it would be hard for anyone to reach those lofty heights.

J-Ram has come a long way from when he was struggling to stay in the big leagues just two seasons ago. The 2015 season was definitely a year he would like to put in the past. The Indians turned to Ramirez that season to hold down shortstop until Lindor would be ready. Ramirez was far from ready himself. On June 8 that year, Ramirez was sent back to Triple-A Columbus. He was hitting an unsightly .180 with one round-tripper and eight RBI in 150 at bats. It was time for the future star Lindor to get his chance.

Some thought at the time that Ramirez may have a really hard time getting back into the good graces of the ball club. His natural position of second base was taken up by All-Star Jason Kipnis, while Lindor was considered a star in waiting at Ramirez’s second best spot.

Ramirez had been okay in his first real Major League opportunity, hitting .262 in 68 games during the 2014 campaign. A ho-hum year followed by a disastrous first half to 2015 seemed like a lot for the young player to come back from.

Come back he did, however. Injuries and the trades of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn opened up roster spots on the Tribe’s roster in early August. As he always had, Ramirez was hitting well in Triple-A. He was granted an opportunity in what was a down season for the team, at the time.

With an August and September surge, the Indians went from looking lousy to being on the cusp of Wild Card contention by season’s end. Ramirez was a key part of that. He earned regular playing time in the final two months of the year. He hit .241 in August. While still not very good, it was a huge boost over where he had been before his demotion. He hit .303 in September when the team was really hitting the gas toward earning a playoff spot that ended up not coming to fruition.

Those final two months, especially September, seemed to give Ramirez a much-needed boost in confidence. He has not looked back since, having his breakout year last season and getting off to a tremendous start this year.

Like last year, Ramirez is again picking up the pieces for others who are struggling or injured. Kipnis missed the Tribes first 15 games with a rotator cuff injury. Ramirez stepped back into his natural second base job, admirably. He went back to third as Kipnis returned Friday night. Ramirez has also picked up the offensive load for a struggling Edwin Encarnacion, the Tribe’s blockbuster free agent signing this past winter.

The athletic Ramirez has played all over the field the last couple years and played well, whether it be left field, third base, second base, or shortstop. If he could ever play in one position for a full season, he may be a Gold Glove candidate. As it is, the Tribe will definitely take his ability to play every night and possibly in a different spot than the game before.

With Kipnis back, Ramirez will likely be at third almost every game. However, his value is immeasurable in that he can still slide to left if needed for Brantley, who the team does not want to overwork just yet. He can obviously play second if Kipnis’ shoulder needs a day off. He can fill in for Lindor if the All-Star shortstop is given a game to rest or play designated hitter.

Last year, Ramirez seemed to come out of nowhere, despite the late 2015 signs he was figuring out MLB pitching. The Indians, who like to lock up their young players to long-term, team-friendly deals, took a bit of a chance that Ramirez was growing rather than having a fluke season. Ramirez is not taking anyone by surprise this year as he is continuing to grow and build off last season’s success.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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