I’m more than willing to admit I would’ve never predicted this. Coming into the 2016 season, the projections for the Cleveland Indians ranged all across the board, with very little in terms of consensus. Some thought a division championship was more than possible, others predicted third place being Cleveland’s ceiling.
Me, I thought a wild card berth would be the Tribe’s best chance at the playoffs. Fighting off the likes of the World Series champion Kansas City Royals and the always-a-thorn-in-their-side Detroit Tigers to win the Central just seemed way too lofty. This was especially so when you considered one of the Indians’ best players was sidelined with a shoulder injury, or when another offseason went by with the front office signing only aged veterans on a discount.
So, when Cleveland clinched the division last night, doing so by defeating Detroit for the 14th time in 16 attempts, even the most optimistic fans had to be surprised. When you look at everything this team endured this year and the efforts players gave despite it, you can’t help but be impressed at their ability to handle adversity.
The Indians haven’t budged from first place since June. This alone is an impressive stat, made even more so by the fact Michael Brantley – arguably their best hitter – only made a handful of appearances this season. When a team receives a blow like that, you can’t help but assume it’s going to struggle in a big way offensively.
Instead, Cleveland has scored the fourth most runs in the entire MLB this year. When the team should’ve struggled to muster more than two runs a game, it instead generated one of the best run differentials in the majors.
How? By having Mike Napoli, one of those low-risk vet signings Cleveland made over the winter, set a career high in both home runs and RBIs. By finally getting the breakout year from Carlos Santana the team and fans have been impatiently waiting for. By having Jose Ramirez transition from occasional utility man to one of the most clutch hitters in baseball.
With Ramirez providing literally everything the Indians lost in shelving Brantley for the season, and Tyler Naquin out-performing his expectations en route to a potential Rookie of the Year nomination, the Indians were able to become more than just a team which relied solely on its rotation. As a result, the Tribe managed to overcome its starters going through a nasty August swoon, as well as injuries to both Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco.
This all wasn’t supposed to happen this year. The injuries, sure, but also just the overall performance. Napoli was nobody’s idea of an offensive savior. Rajai Davis was nothing but a poor man’s Michael Bourn. These were just cost-saving acquisitions, proof that names like Justin Upton and Dexter Fowler were still too expensive for that penny-pinching front office in Cleveland.
The shaky first portion of the year for Corey Kluber should’ve derailed the Indians out of the gate. Salazar’s continued elbow issues should’ve allowed the Tigers to finally snatch first place from Cleveland. Josh Tomlin‘s ugly late-season slump should’ve been a big blow to the rotation as a whole.
And yet, the Indians overcame it all. They got way more than it expected from Napoli and Davis. They navigated through any and all hurdles which came up for the rotation. They survived Brantley’s loss by a strong platoon in the outfield and astounding plate production from Ramirez. They hung in despite the catching position being a black hole where offensive production went to die.
Thanks to all of this, Cleveland clinched the Central with very little doubt. Sure, it’s just one step, and the team has a tough road ahead of it come playoff time. Still, there are more than a few people who didn’t even think the Indians would get here, not with the adversity they faced this season.
Most teams would crumble if dealt what Cleveland was handed this year. All the Indians did was take it in stride on their way to a division title.