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Cleveland Indians: Jose Ramirez the franchise cornerstone

It's certainly possible the Cleveland Indians best player isn't named Francisco Lindor. Not many saw this coming.

File that title under “things I didn’t expect to write in my lifetime.” When Jose Ramirez made his debut in late 2013, a pinch run opportunity in Detroit, few knew his name and even fewer knew the impact this short and stocky Bani, Dominican Republic native would have on a franchise that needed him desperately. Ramirez would bounce between Columbus and Cleveland multiple times over the next few seasons before he finally got his shot, and what an impression he has left.

What we thought

Throughout his time spent with the Indians farm system, starting in late 2011, he has always been labeled as a utility infielder. Along with a utility tag comes the common baseball stereotype of being able to provide defensive flexibility, but that defensive strength typically comes with a hitting cost. Throughout the beginning of Ramirez’s professional baseball career, he fell into this category perfectly. In five years in the minors, a total of 1,539 plate appearances, Ramirez only totaled more than five home runs in a season twice –while only carrying a career .411 slugging percentage.

Following Ramirez’s first two years in the big leagues, his career seemed to be headed down that common path of a utility 25th man – i.e. Michael Martinez. This path is not always a bad thing. Every team in the Majors can use a player who can adequately flex into multiple positions and run with plus speed – there’s plenty of value in that. Ramirez was gifted the shortstop position by default when Asdrubal Cabrera was traded to Washington in 2014.

He played sporadically but the hope was for something more promising at the position due to his natural second base being blocked by franchise staple Jason Kipnis. Ramirez, unfortunately, disappointed in 2015 as the place holder for the rapidly rising Francisco Lindor, as the Tribe were expecting more than a .219/.241/.314 slash line. After Lindor’s call up Jose spent a good portion of 2015 in Columbus picking up some new positions (primarily outfield) in an attempt to fill roles as the utility man when needed. 

What we didn’t expect

Everything changed for Ramirez late in 2015 when Michael Brantley made a routine dive in Minnesota. Not long after that attempt and the ensuing labrum surgery, there was an apparent opening in left field for the upcoming 2016 season. The Indians attempted to fill the uncertainty in spring, and Jose thrived. He showed glimpses of the plate discipline that set him apart as a prospect, keeping his strikeouts low and driving the ball off the barrel more consistently. This provided a chance to fill in for Brantley.

Ramirez bounced between left field and third base due to the struggling Juan Uribe and he maximized those opportunities, finally settling at third when the Tribe released Uribe. Defensively he was going to be fine wherever they needed him to play, he’s born with the natural instincts and soft hands, but between left field and third Ramirez was exactly what the doctor ordered in 2016.

He replaced a Silver Slugger in Brantley, essentially providing the same high average (.312), high OBP (.363) and minimal strikeouts (a measly 62 in 618 plate appearances). Ramirez posted a 4.8 WAR and finished second on the team with a 122 wRC+ to even further his case. He even went as far with the media as to finishing 17th in the AL MVP ballot. 

Where he finishes

When a statistically outlandish season such as Ramirez’s 2016 happens, the ensuing season comes with plenty of questions. Most pundits expected a regression for Ramirez, and his early 2017 returns seemed to display exactly that. He wasn’t hitting as well in the clutch, he was hovering in the .280’s and he wasn’t quite driving the ball consistently.

While still respectable, the critics may have been onto something in regards to his apparent slight regression. Then June happened. Ramirez slashed .367/.405./.661 during the month with 13 doubles, five home runs, and just 10 strikeouts. 20 of his 40 total hits went for extra bases and he compiled a stretch of nine straight multi-hit games from June 14-21, ending on June 22nd when he could only manage one hit.

Ramirez earned the role as the starting third baseman in the All-Star Game – the Indians first fan voted All-Star starter since 2001 (Juan Gonzalez), and showed up well going 2-for-2 with two sharp line drives and a stolen base. Ramirez sits in the top 10 in WAR for 2017 and can keep climbing as the consistency improves. He is a contender for AL MVP, but plenty of things need to break in his direction.

The current favorite is the Astros’ Jose Altuve, and rightfully so. Luckily Mike Trout missed a month due to a thumb injury, and the Yankees Aaron Judge is regressing to the mean quickly, so hope remains. Nonetheless, seeing Ramirez come from a little-known average prospect to this full blown franchise staple has been nothing short of remarkable. All Tribe fans can hope for is that this journey ends in an MVP followed by more October magic.

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Jake Burns

Columbus, Ohio native who is passionate about Cleveland sports and the game of baseball. Muskingum University Graduate in 2011 with a degree in English/Journalism.

Cleveland Indians: Jose Ramirez the franchise cornerstone

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