No one felt certain about the future of Jose Ramirez at the end of last season. In his limited appearances up to that point, a fan could draw contrasting conclusions about the 22-year-old. In 2014, he showed promise as a versatile infielder with an above average glove who might develop into an excellent contact hitter. The following season, he won a roster spot for opening day and squandered the opportunity; on June 6th, the Indians sent him back to AAA Columbus due to his .180/.247/.240 batting line.
Many voices around baseball in 2015 wondered whether or not the highly-heralded prospect Javier Baez would be remembered as a former future franchise player and nothing more. In two short stays in the bigs, it looked like he might never patch up the massive holes in his swing and find a way to use his considerable talents. The history of baseball is littered with swing-for-the-fences prospects who never escaped the purgatory between AAA and the Show. At age 22 Baez looked like one more crumbled up prospect sheet on the heap of history.
Consider the journey both made since this time last season. In a year when the Indians needed help all over the diamond, Jose Ramirez was the Jack of Hearts. He delivered a 3.9 bWAR season while playing left field, third base, and occasionally the middle infield. He finished 2nd in the American League in doubles (46), 7th in both batting average and WPA (.312, 3.1) and 10th in OBP (.363).
Meanwhile, Baez burst on the scene this year in the National League, an unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond. He stroked 14 home runs with a .273/.314/.423 slash line, but his most impressive contributions came in the field. Baez finished the year ranked 4th in zone runs in the NL at both 2nd and 3rd base, and earned a reputation as the best tagger in all of baseball.
If you find these turnaround stories fascinating, there’s one more thing that you should know: neither might have happened without major injuries on both teams forcing them into these increased roles.
Michael Brantley suffered a shoulder injury injury late in the 2015 season. At first, it seemed like a minor issue. Surely the Indians would make sure that their number three hitter would return at full strength. The problem with shoulder injuries — particularly torn a labrum, which is what Brantley suffered — is that they are notoriously difficult to return from. Sometimes, a player will bounce back from surgery as if nothing ever happened. Other times, a player will flicker for a few seasons and then fade, never to burn as brightly again. We hope that this is not Brantley’s fate, but we do not know yet.
Jose Ramirez spent much of the first half of the season playing left field in Brantley’s place. At first, it seemed like a desperate move by Francona to cover the fault. However, Ramirez quickly found his corner of the sky in left field, and then again at third base after the departure of Juan Uribe. Would Indians fans have clamored for Michael Brantley to lose a season in his prime at the beginning of the year? No. I don’t think that they would now, either.
To look at the career of Brandon Phillips — finding success after toiling on the bench in Cleveland — is perhaps to view an alternate path for Ramirez without the injury.
For Baez, the opportunity came following an unfortunate play during which Kyle Schwarber and Dexter Fowler collided.
At the time, a number of news outlets reported that it was a simple sprain. Schwarber would surely be fine, and he would not miss any extended time.
This ended up being not quite right. Schwarber tore both his ACL and MCL. In response to this, the Cubs called Baez up to start on April 16th. The resulting fielding situation led to some juggling with Kris Bryant and Baez at third base. Sound familiar? While Ramirez split time between third and left, Baez played a significant number of innings at third, second, and short for the Cubs. These are all positions at which Ramirez is also adept. I would not be shocked to learn that Baez is an above average left fielder.
Without the injury to Schwarber, it is almost certain that he would have played the majority of games in left field with Bryant at third. Without the injury to Michael Brantley, he would have played every single moment of the 2016 season in left field, keeping Ramirez out of the lineup. Since both Schwarber and Brantley were temporarily lost at sea, these young players shined and gave their front offices interesting decisions to make in the future. I can’t wait to see both players in their first World Series, and perhaps their performances will allow us to remember them as always courageous, upright, strong, and forever young.
If we’re lucky, one of the games in the series may feature a call like this from Tom Hamilton:
The set. The pitch. Ramirez swings and it’s a lined shot down the right field line! Heyward won’t get there and it rolls to the wall. This will be a double, and — the ball is stuck in the ivy! Ramirez is around second and loses his helmet. Zobrist takes the relay and throws to Baez, the tag is down, and the call is——