The offseason prior to the 2019 Cleveland Indians season showed a dichotomy of media coverage and fan sentiment. The overall coverage of the franchise demonstrated a team with expectations to win the AL Central Division by a comfortable margin. The returning rotation had the capability of being historically good. The team boasted two players who finished in the Top 6 of the AL MVP race in back-to-back years. Yet, the warning signs were evident as the lack of preparation for a worst-case scenario was detailed out by many; including some screaming into the void about imminent doom. If there was a trailer for the season made in hindsight, then, after detailing the above, it would conclude with a grainy television turning on and part-owner chief executive officer Paul Dolan turning to the screen and uttering just two words: Enjoy him.
As with anything in the disaster genre, the build-up must set the stage before everything can fall apart. The season began with players such as Eric Stamets, Max Moroff, Brad Miller, Carlos Gonzalez, and Hanley Ramirez receiving plate appearances as the star players were not ready to fill their role. The lack of redundancy at several key positions foreshadowing a recurrent issue despite the starting pitching holding the line as the Tribe started off with an 18-13 record and had face-of-the-franchise Francisco Lindor’s triumphant return.
The heartening backdrop would do little to stem the inevitable collapse as the Indians would only win 11 of the next 28 games to fall, briefly, below .500 in early June. Signs of being able to pull themselves out of the self-dug pit were difficult to come by as stalwarts Mike Clevinger and Corey Kluber would be lost to injury early on. Something was off with Carlos Carrasco, and he would leave the team with a non-baseball related illness; later to be revealed as leukemia. The hope for the emergence of MVP-level Jose Ramirez was waning as he had gone through nearly a full season slump. The Minnesota Twins were proving to be a true divisional nemesis as an 11.5 game lead was opened as they led a home run heavy era of baseball on a record-setting homer pace.
Screams were of the apocalyptic state of the franchise with a dystopian future. Hope was a scarce and volatile resource. Only an intelligent but melancholy engineer could possibly guide a small band of diverse characters through the emerging quandry. If such a character had only begun to prepare in this moment, then all would be lost. Years of research and development to ensure the capabilties of weathering such a disaster would be required.
Indians front office members Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff revealed the blueprint. One of the lone flashes of greatness in the bleak first half was the growth of Shane Bieber into a true ace. Another, the return of home-grown Carlos Santana had steadied the defense and provided enough jolt to the offense to keep it moving forward. The re-emergence of Ramirez and Jason Kipnis would be supplemented by an avalanche of youth. Oscar Mercado, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and Jefry Rodriguez would all be key components of the Tribe as they recorded the best record in Major League Baseball from June 3 through August 12. Trades would further bolster the ranks as Franmil Reyes, Yasiel Puig, and Hunter Wood were added to the MLB roster for the stretch run. Clevinger’s return gave the team a second ace. After losing 17-of-28 in May, it would take 60 more games to lose another 17 as the Tribe erased the divisional deficit and actually took a small lead.
Perhaps if old friends had been more kind when the Indians encountered them, the ensuing storyline would have gone differently. The secondary disaster struck though as Mickey Callaway and Kevin Cash were greedily looking after their own self-interests as they delivered six losses between them to the Tribe. Closer Brad Hand has seen confidence erode in his ability to close out games. Ramirez would be lost for the season to a hamate bone injury. Kluber’s rehabilitation would never make it to recovery as he succumbed to a strained oblique. Even a series win against That Other Team Up North would do little as the odds of reaching even the AL Wild Card game have slipped to 37% versus the 77% for the Tampa Bay Rays and 84% for the Oakland Athletics.
Once again, the outlook is bleak for the Cleveland Indians. The scraggly group of misfits with names of Wild Horse, Sunshine, and Mr. Smile are left to manufacture the scarce resource of hope. The potential reward even in the scenario of a strong finish being a one-game fight to the season’s death; with the winner receiving a match up against the Houston Astros. The team many consider the best in baseball. The team who swept the Tribe in the 2018 ALDS and has the Top 2 candidates for the 2019 AL Cy Young Award, while boasting the top MLB offense.
Such a motley collection cannot be counted out perhaps even hearkening back to a similar destitute grouping in 2016. Logic might not hold the answer to the protagonists victory, but baseball defies logic when seen through the prism of a small enough sample. Win each regular season-series remaining, make the AL Wild Card game, win that game, then take down the unbeatable Astros. If the Tribe can reach the ALCS, then anything will be possible. Why not?