GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Jose Ramirez is a true rags-to-riches story.
In 2015, the 25-year-old infielder didn’t look he belonged in the major leagues. In 2017, he was one of baseball’s best players.
Cementing his status as one of the game’s elite after a breakout 2016 season, Ramirez finished third in American League MVP voting last year and was the first Indians player to start in an All-Star Game since Juan Gonzalez in 2001.
Few saw this coming after a disappointing 2015 season for Ramirez, who began the year in the majors as the Indians’ starting shortstop and ended it in the minors after he struggled mightily and was replaced by Francisco Lindor.
“It’s pretty cool. I’m sure for Jose, it’s probably a little pinch me (moment) a little bit at times,” manager Terry Francona said.
“He knows where he belongs, as far as players go. I’ve said it a lot of times — he’s a genuine middle-of-the-order bat on a really good team. That’s not easy to do and he fits that bill.”
Last year was another fun one for Ramirez and the Indians, who won their second straight Central Division title and finished with the AL’s best record (102-60) — two games behind the Dodgers for the top mark in the majors.
Ramirez helped power plenty of the wins, hitting .318 with 29 home runs and 83 RBIs, while ranking near the top of the league in multiple offensive categories, including batting average (fourth), OPS (fourth, .957), slugging percentage (third, .583), hits (fifth, 186) extra-base hits (first, 91) and doubles (first, 56).
“Jose’s fun to watch. He’s impressive,” Lindor said. “Every time he comes up to hit, you know he’s going to get a hit or do something fun.”
The good times for Ramirez and the Indians ended abruptly in the postseason with a Division Series loss to the Yankees after owning a 2-0 lead.
Like the majority of his high-profiled teammates, Ramirez struggled against New York, going 2-for-20 with seven strikeouts and failing to drive in a single run.
“It seemed like we were always winning, and then it was over,” Ramirez said through an interpreter. “But so many good things happened to me and this team.”
Ramirez, a second baseman in the minor leagues, finally broke through in the majors after replacing veteran Juan Uribe at third in 2016. He became an All-Star after taking over for an injured Jason Kipnis and returning to second last year to give Cleveland one of the best double-play combos in the big leagues.
Kipnis was mentioned in numerous trade rumors this offseason, but was never dealt, and despite experimenting in center field at the end of last year for an injured Bradley Zimmer, the plan is for him to return to second.
That means it’s back to third base for Ramirez.
“It’s not even on my mind,” Ramirez said. “My job is to do my best to get prepared for the season. Second base is the position I played in the minor leagues, but I’ll play wherever this team needs me to play.”
The Indians weren’t good enough to win the World Series last year, and then lost key longtime contributors in first baseman Carlos Santana and workhorse reliever Bryan Shaw to free agency.
Much to Tribe fans’ chagrin, Cleveland’s only notable offseason addition was first baseman Yonder Alonso, while AL contenders Houston, New York and Boston all did more this winter.
Though the Indians still have plenty of top-shelf talent — Ramirez, Lindor, two-time Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber and reliever Andrew Miller among others — the task of delivering the franchise’s first World Series title since 1948 is arguably much tougher this time around.
“(The fans) need to trust those of us who are still here,” Ramirez said. “We’ll come out every day to do the best for ourselves and the fans.”