Major League Baseball will kick off the 2019 season with its earliest start ever (excluding international openers) as all 30 teams will take the field on March 28. Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 61 days
Dan Otero has spent the last few years as the most recent member of the 61-club for the Cleveland Indians, serving as a reliable middle reliever for the organization. That role is expected to change for 2019, as free agent losses of Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen over the last couple of offseasons have drastically altered what was once one of the more formidable bullpens in the Majors.
A free agent himself following the coming season, Otero is looking to improve upon one of the worst seasons of his career in 2018. A similarly bad campaign in 2015 with the Oakland Athletics led him to be designated for assignment in that offseason, claimed off of waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies, and then shipped to Cleveland a month and a half later.
Otero had a surprise turnaround for the Tribe in 2016, going 5-1 in 62 appearances with a 1.53 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP, the best mark of his career. He maintained his solid career walk rate while cutting his hit rate dramatically from the season before while adding the best single season strikeout rate of his career to date. The next season, he continued to provide the Indians value out of the ‘pen, going 3-0 with a 2.85 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP, adding a pair of holds.
His numbers spiked the wrong way in 2018, reminiscent of his struggles with the A’s in 2015. He had a lot of base traffic, averaging 10.6 hits per nine innings of work, and his 1.26 WHIP was his highest since 2015. Uncharacteristically, he was also victimized by the long ball, giving up a single-year high of 12 in his 58 2/3 innings of work. Thirty of his 69 hits surrendered on the year went for extra bases, and while he maintained a minimal rate of mistakes by issuing just five free passes on the season, he did struggle against left-handers, who accounted for 15 of those extra base hits while doing so in 59 fewer plate appearances than right-handers. As a whole, lefties put together a .337/.351/.652 slash against him, while righties were limited to a .259/.288/.429 effort.
From a statistical standpoint, Otero draws an interesting comparison through the age of 33 to another former Tribe reliever, Rafael Betancourt (chronicled just two days ago in our Countdown 63 profile). The Indians and their thinned out bullpen could use an effort similar to those provided by Betancourt during his Cleveland tenure in a bounceback from Otero, who will now pitch in tandem with Brad Hand and Adam Cimber in late inning work for the club. Left-handers Oliver Perez and Tyler Olson will provide matchup options, and the team may need to look to utilize Otero less against the left-handers who hit him hard last year (and historically as well). Otero has put up rough numbers every three years of his career, beginning with a tough rookie campaign with the San Francisco Giants in 2012, but the Tribe will hope that his career trends lead to significantly improved numbers for the year ahead.
As Otero’s career was kicking off with his 21st round selection in the 2007 draft by the San Francisco Giants, another Indians player to wear the number 61 was wrapping up a Hall of Fame caliber professional career that began in Cleveland, but ended in Japan.
While one Ramirez (Manny) was seeing his star shine brightly in Cleveland, another Ramirez toiled in the Indians’ farm system, proving consistently to be a top hitter in the club’s minor leagues while waiting for his opportunity in the Show.
Alex Ramirez signed with the Indians in 1991 as a teenager out of Caracas, Venezuela. He saw his professional game action begin in 1993 at the age of 18 and he evolved into a balanced threat of power, steady batting averages, and speed. Yet somehow, despite some positive numbers in the early stages of his career, his greatest accomplishments as a baseball player would occur far from his native Caracas or from his temporary home in the United States.
By 1997, Ramirez had reached the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo and remained with the club in 1998, where he burst onto the scene with a .299 average with 21 doubles, 34 homers, and a career-best 103 RBI while being named the team’s Minor League Player of the Year and an International League postseason All-Star. The strong showing in his second season with the Bisons, who went on to end a long Governors’ Cup drought that year, got him a September call-up to Cleveland, where he was 1-for-8 in his first three Major League games wearing the number 61 on his back.
Ramirez split the 1999 season between Buffalo and Cleveland, appearing in 48 games for the Tribe while hitting .299. While the batting average looked promising and he showed some power and ability to drive in runs over his 102 plate appearances, he drew just three walks in what had become a trend throughout his young career. His minor league numbers remained good (20 doubles, 12 homers, 50 RBI with a .305 batting average), but they were a bit down from the level of production that he had shown the previous year. Despite that, he still was named a midseason International League All-Star.
He returned to the Indians roster to start the 2000 season and through 41 games had hit .286 with five doubles, a triple, and five homers while driving in 12. But the corner outfielder, still unable to latch onto a spot in the crowded Indians grass, was dealt to Pittsburgh with Enrique Wilson for left fielder and first baseman Wil Cordero, who was returning for a second stint with the Indians.
With a fresh start in a new league with a new team, Ramirez’s early showings did not translate. He hit .209 in 43 games with the Pirates, supplying his usual extra base numbers while seeing a decline in singles and a general lack of patience at the plate that led to few free passes. Following the season, his contract was sold to the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League.
This move would turn out to be far more substantial for the 26-year-old, who blossomed into a superstar on the Japan stage. He spent seven seasons with Yakult, appearing in 982 games while hitting .301 with 200 doubles, eleven triples, and 211 home runs in that span. He hit 40 homers and drove in 124 runs while batting .333 in 2003 and, in his final season with the Swallows, he set a Japan Central League record with 204 hits (including 41 doubles and 29 homers) while hitting .343 for the season.
He passed on a new deal with Yakult following the season and joined to the Yomiuri Giants, who immediately benefited from Ramirez’s presence in the lineup.
In his first season with the club, he hit .319 with career-highs with 45 homers and 125 RBI and was named Central League MVP. He hit .322 the following season as the league’s batting champion and was again named the Most Valuable Player as the Giants won the Japan Series. In 2010, he toppled his personal bests with 49 homers and 129 RBI for the Giants.
Ramirez moved on from the Giants following the 2011 season as his numbers appeared to be heading towards a decline. At 37, he joined the Yokohama BayStars and spent two seasons with the club, hitting .300 in 137 games in 2012 with 19 homers and 76 RBI, but he hit just .185 in 56 games in 2013 in his last season of professional action in the Japan Central League. Early in his final season, he hit a home run for his 2,000th hit in Nippon Professional Baseball, making him the 42nd player ever (and the first and only foreign ball player) to reach that mark. The accomplishment earned him entry as the first Western born ball player in the Meikyukai (The Golden Players Club, a private club independent of Nippon Professional Baseball), one of two baseball hall of fames in Japan.
In his 13 seasons in Japan, he hit a combined .301 with 380 home runs. Combined with his eight seasons in the Major League and minor league systems, he hit .297 with 505 home runs over his career.
Ramirez continued to play the game that he had dedicated 21 professional seasons to when he spent 2014 as a player-coach in the Baseball Challenge League in Japan with the Gunma Diamond Pegasus. Following the season, he retired and worked as the club’s Senior Director before joining the JPCL’s Orix Buffaloes as an advisor.
In what was a surprising move to some following the season, he was named the manager of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars despite having no previous professional managerial experience. He led the BayStars to a 69-71-3 record in his first season at the helm in 2016, guiding the team to a third place finish in the Central League and an exit in the second round of the league’s Climax Series. During the year, his accomplishments with his former Triple-A team, the Buffalo Bisons, earned him entry into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame on July 29.
While the season provided Ramirez with plenty of new challenges and struggles along the way, he was given the vote of confidence from Yokohama’s owner that he would get an opportunity to fulfill the second year of his two-year contract. The choice looked like a wise one, as Ramirez’s BayStars reached the Japan Series in 2017, losing to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, 4-2.
Ramirez’s time since has remained eventful. He managed the Yokohama BayStars again in 2018 and he has aspirations to manage Japan’s national team. Two days ago, the Venezuelan was granted Japanese nationality (he is married to a Japanese citizen and has two children with her).
Should Ramirez exit the managerial ranks in the future, he has plenty to fall back upon. The beloved slugger had a successful restaurant in Tokyo called Ramichan Café, and he also sells stuffed dolls in his likeness and other t-shirts and memorabilia at ramichan.jp (using the nickname he earned during his time in a land far from his native Caracas and much removed from his MLB days in the United States Rust Belt).
*** ** * ** ***
Other former 61s in Tribe history:
Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
*** ** * ** ***
Miss out on our other Countdown pieces? Check out more Indians history below.
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 99
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 90 – Adam Cimber
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 88
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 77
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 76
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 75
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 73
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 72
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 71
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 70
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 69
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 68
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 67
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 66
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 65
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 64
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 63
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 62