It's the time of year where everyone gathers with loved ones to give thanks. In that same spirit, I'd like to take the opportunity to express my appreciation for what the Indians have given us as fans not only in the last year, but over the last several years leading up to their pennant run. This has turned into a special team and an era of Cleveland baseball that fans will remember for a long time.
1. Thank you to the Indians front office.
It all starts at the top and the Tribe front office and ownership teamed together several years back to create a new, healthier strategy to build a team that could not only contend, but also be sustained for multiple seasons. By prioritizing player development above all else and improving their scouting and drafting philosophies, Chris Antonetti took this team from perpetual mediocrity to a perennial playoff contender. This new approach created the likes of Jason Kipnis, Danny Salazar, Cody Allen and Francisco Lindor. Additionally, the organization found a way to identify overlooked and underrated talent both on the trade market and through free agency. Trades brought in Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and others.
Also by improving their depth in their farm system, the front office also was put in the rare position of being able to pull the trigger on blockbuster trades to try and put their big league roster over the top, which brings me to their willingness to go against their traditional instincts and make such a move by bringing in Andrew Miller this year. For years now, the biggest complaint among Tribe fans has been the team's perceived reluctance to make that big trade or signing when they were on the cusp of making a deep playoff run. Hopefully their newfound aggressiveness continues and renews faith in team management among the fanbase.
Thanks to their rejuvenated farm system and player development philosophy and now their aggressiveness and willingness to make the big move when needed, the Indians front office has created a ballclub that is not only a World Series contender, but potentially a team that could contend for years to come.
2. Thank you to Terry Francona.
While this transition in team-building philosophies started before Terry Francona came to town, it came full circle the moment the two-time World Series manager was officially hired as the new skipper of the Indians. Coming off a season in 2012 where the direction of the organization was unclear and now with a managerial vacancy, Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti and the rest of the front office came together to find the right man to lead their team forward. A year removed from parting ways with the Red Sox, Francona was looking to return to managing and thanks to an established relationship with Shapiro and Antonetti, he accepted the opportunity to take the helm in Cleveland.
Aside from providing valuable input into the organization's player development and team-building strategy, the impact Francona made immediately was in the clubhouse. His ability to bring a team together and maintain unity took hold throughout the 2013 season en route to a Wild Card berth and their first playoff appearance since 2007. After two more seasons of winning baseball, but just falling short of the postseason, the Indians were back in the October conversation this past season as they would win their first pennant in nearly two decades.
Francona has evolved right along with his team as well, adopting more progressive management strategies such as unconventionally batting a hitter like Carlos Santana leadoff due to his exceptional ability to get on base or the way he managed his bullpen in the playoffs that may have set a new precedent for managers all around baseball. Tito is the right man to lead this team now and moving forward and the thought of the Indians winning a title has become less of a question of "if", but "when".
3. Thank you to Jason Kipnis and Tribe's established core of players.
The Indians roster has evolved in many ways since 2013 with veteran players coming and going and rookies coming up from the minor leagues. The one constant, however, has come in the form of an established core of players including second baseman Jason Kipnis, left fielder Michael Brantley, first baseman and DH Carlos Santana, ace Corey Kluber and closer Cody Allen. In that time, all of these guys have gone from being the new kids on the block to the established leaders on the roster.
All have shown moments of leadership, but arguably the most vocal over the last couple seasons has been Kipnis. He and the rest of the clubhouse have bought in and embraced the philosophy laid down by Terry Francona and the front office. I don't know if any other team could have made it as far as the Tribe did this postseason with the losses they had sustained via injury with All-Stars Michael Brantley and Danny Salazar on the bench along with number two starter Carlos Carrasco.
While heart and grit may not be measurable by any statistics, it's hard not to look at what the Indians did this season taking a powerhouse Cubs team all the way to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series and not point to those factors playing a role. These guys don't give up. They won't back down to any opponent regardless of hype, record or talent. They know who they are and what they're capable of and it takes the right people on and off the field to accomplish that.
4. Thank you to Corey Kluber and the starting rotation.
Corey Kluber delivered one of the gutsiest postseason performances we've seen from a starter in recent years the brought back memories of Madison Bumgarner, Randy Johnson and other top starters turned playoff heroes. While his Game 7 performance in the World Series did not quite go as planned, for the Tribe ace to deliver what was asked of him all through the playoffs was a tall task for event the best of pitchers. Starting on short rest three times and picking up the slack for his injured teammates was a lot more than anyone could've asked of one man, but Kluber did the best job he could and nearly completed the miracle.
Going back to the regular season, the Indians wouldn't have been where they were without their starting rotation and although they were unavailable to start in the playoffs, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco deserve as much credit as anyone. Same goes for Josh Tomlin, who emerged from several injury-shortened seasons and pitched a full workload again surpassing many expectations and potentially solidifying the #5 spot in the rotation. Trevor Bauer had his moments, such as his appearance out of the bullpen in extra innings against Toronto to help seal the Tribe's franchise record 14th consecutive win. One can only imagine what this team could do with all of these guys fully healthy again.
5. Thank you to Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero.
While Andrew Miller was a late addition, these four pitchers stepped up and made the back of the Indians' bullpen a force to be reckoned with to the point where they could actually shorten games. If you gave these guys a lead after the sixth, or even the fourth or fifth innings as demonstrated in the playoffs, more often than not, victory was assured.
Cody Allen maintained his standing as one of the game's top closers, although still vastly underrated, while Bryan Shaw, despite his occasional hiccups, was as reliable and durable as ever. Dan Otero was a bit of a surprise as he was coming off a career worst season with the A's, but his dominance this season was a welcomed addition to the bullpen and his peripherals suggest that his effectiveness may not be a fluke.
And what can you say about Andrew Miller that hasn't been said already. The guy is without a doubt the best reliever in all of baseball right now and will be a member of our beloved Cleveland Indians for the next two seasons to come. Given his historic playoff performance, the Indians are always going to have the edge when he pitches in a game. Kudos again to Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff for pulling the trigger and bringing him in the fold.
6. Thank you to Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin.
These young guns have come up over the last couple years and slotted in perfectly with the Indians' team concept. Lindor is already an All-Star and, despite his young age and inexperience at this level, has already become one of the team leaders on and off the field as well as a beloved member of the community in Northeast Ohio. Jose Ramirez went from being a goat to a hero in one season as he became the team's top clutch hitter, effectively substituting for Michael Brantley this season, and may be the long-term answer at third base. Tyler Naquin is still a bit of a wild card as far as his long-term future in Cleveland, but he delivered a performance worthy of a top three Rookie of the Year finish as well as one of the most iconic moments in Tribe history with his walk-off, inside-the-park home run against Toronto.
Lindor, Ramirez and Naquin are perfect examples of the end result of the organization's revived interest in player development. And they are hopefully not the last of the finished products we'll see from the farm system.
7. Thank you to Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis.
Even if their stay in Cleveland ends up being just for one season, both Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis gave the Indians their A-game and then some in 2016. Napoli provided that bona fide cleanup hitter the Indians have lacked for several years eclipsing both the 30-homer and 100-RBI marks while Davis delivered elite speed and baserunning as he led the league in stolen bases and helped ignite the Tribe's run game to make them the top baserunning team in the AL.
While the odds of them coming back may not be great at this point, the contributions of both veteran players will not soon be forgotten.
8. Thank you to baseball.
It goes without saying every year, but I'm thankful to have the game of baseball in my life both as a fan and a writer. It's a welcome distraction and an avenue to escape, whether it be from the social upheaval of the latest election cycle or the general stress and pressure of everyday life. And even though pace of play is a hot topic of discussion right now, it's the laid back nature of the game that appeals to me as it forces you to slow down in this fast-paced society.
The Indians gave all of us a wild ride in 2016 and moments we will remember for years to come. Whether it was the win streak, Naquin's walk-off, inside-the-park homer or the game-tying home run by Rajai Davis in Game 7 of the World Series, we have a fount of memories to put in the bank even if this campaign did not end with a championship.
Heading into 2017, the Tribe roster will remain in tact for the most part as they could be favored to repeat as AL champs. With a healthy rotation and possibly the return of Michael Brantley, 2016 could end up being just a precursor to an even more magical summer in Cleveland.
So thank you to the Indians and Major League Baseball for another special season and we'll see you in Goodyear!