Two months ago, the Cleveland Indians looked dead in the water. Now they’re 66-46 and just 3.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins for first place in the American League Central; the emergence of outfielder Oscar Mercado and the resurgence of third baseman Jose Ramirez are fueling their epic turnaround.
Sure, Leonys Martin and Tyler Naquin had starting experience, and they picked up Jordan Luplow in the offseason, but it was evident going into spring training that the Indians outfield was going to be an issue. Plus, long-time outfielder Michael Brantley signed with the Houston Astros in free agency.
In May, the Indians offense was at an impasse. While Naquin had been a pleasant surprise and Luplow had been respectable, their offense, as a whole, was dreary. Martin was designated for assignment in June, and Greg Allen was recently sent down to Triple-A. Looking for offense and some sort of spark, the Indians called up Mercado in mid-May; he answered the call.
Hitting .288 while totaling nine home runs and 32 RBIs, Mercado has been a steady force in the 67 games he has played. He has also made some noise on the basepaths, stealing nine bags. But he has taken things to the next level over the last month.
In the 24 games he has appeared in since the All-Star break, Mercado is hitting .301 while sporting an .887 OPS and totaling five home runs and 15 RBIs. Mercado is a contact hitter. He has some pop in his bat, but is more so a hitter adept at putting the ball in play to all fields. Sure, he has a bit of an erratic swing, but for him to be producing at this level, for this long, in his rookie season is extremely impressive. Imagine what he’s going to do when he levels out his swing.
Mercado is also adept at making considerable contact with low pitches and/or ones outside of the strike zone. Check out this five-hit display he put together on July 19 against the Kansas City Royals.
To add more juice to his stock, Mercado is a superb fielder.
He has the speed to get behind any flyball hit in his general vicinity, has a respectable arm, and is versatile. Manager Terry Francona has played Mercado in all three outfield positions (44 appearances in center field, 19 in left field, eight in right field), and he has committed just two errors. His ability to play anywhere in the outfield grass comes in handy given the turnover that aspect of their roster has endured this season.
Meanwhile, Ramirez has been hitting like his prolific-self, as of late. On June 12, Ramirez was hitting an abysmal and puzzling .198 while sporting a .586 OPS. He was waving badly at pitches, striking out often, and looked lost at the plate. To watch a player who has been a finalist for the AL Most Valuable Player Award in each of the last two seasons struggle mightily at the plate was difficult to comprehend. But over the last month, the All-Star third baseman has come to life.
Since July 2, Ramirez is hitting .311 while sporting a .972 OPS and totaling nine home runs and 27 RBIs; that’s the Jose Ramirez the Indians know and love. The player who hits for a high average, produces runs at an elite clip, runs the bases well, and has exceptional plate discipline is the player who co-stars the left side of the Indians infield alongside Francisco Lindor.
Through the good and bad of this season, Ramirez has continued to wreak havoc on the basepaths, as he has totaled 22 stolen bases. Now he’s getting on base at a rate the Indians are accustomed to, and, along with Mercado, shaping a savvy offense.
Cumulatively speaking, the Indians have sported a yawning offense, from a production standpoint. Post-All-Star break? Different story. They went into their Monday night matchup with the Texas Rangers sixth in Major League Baseball in total bases (379) and batting average (.271), seventh in runs (124) and hits (213), and eighth in home runs (36) and OPS (.810).
Lindor and Carlos Santana have been the motor keeping the Indians offense running, while Roberto Perez provides power and Jason Kipnis sports the highest batting average of his career since 2016 (.255). Now they have the likes of Yasiel Puig, who’s on pace to top his career high in home runs for a single season, and Franmil Reyes, who’s a pure power hitter, in the fold; this is a deep lineup.
In the midst of injuries and unfortunate circumstances surrounding rotation staples such as Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger, the Indians starting rotation has held down the fort. Shane Bieber is one of the most dominant young starters in the sport, Zach Plesac has been a pleasant development, and Jefry Rodriguez and Adam Plutko have filled voids, providing length, when need be.
Of course, trading Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds creates a void in their rotation, but if Kluber can get back on the mound in the coming weeks, he essentially replaces Bauer in the short term. Incorporate that swap with the likes of a bullpen that owns the best ERA (3.24) and has totaled the fewest walks in baseball (112), as well as a rejuvenated offense, and the Indians are a team in the thick of the AL pennant race.
This team can only improve as the season continues. Without Mercado and Ramirez, this revival wouldn’t be possible.