There's a reason Cleveland Indians fans were sent into a panic when seeing Jose Ramirez get carted off the field during last Sunday’s spring training game. Sure, we were reassured almost immediately that his fouling a ball of his leg caused no serious damage. Still, the idea of heading into a crucial season without Cleveland's star infielder, as briefly as it appeared, was too much to handle.
Consider this proof of how important Ramirez will be to the Indians in 2019. In fact, you could argue Cleveland needs him now more than ever.
Sure, this team's bread and butter remains its rotation. Without said star-studded group of starters, the Indians wouldn't once again be considered locks to win the AL Central.
However, on paper, this is a roster which looks like it'll struggle to score runs. It'll be particularly rough to start the year, thanks to both Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis recovering from injuries. For the foreseeable future, Ramirez is truly the only sure-thing in Cleveland's lineup.
As a result, anything less than what he's offered over the past couple seasons could seriously hamper the offense.
It sounds foolish in the grand scheme of things, this idea of saying "boy, I sure hope a player who's gotten astoundingly better each season since 2015 can contribute this year." Still, considering the season Ramirez is coming off, it's fair to put such heavy expectations on his shoulders.
Heading into August, Ramirez looked like a clear MVP candidate. His average had hovered at or around .300 since mid-May, while he was flexing more power than ever before.
Unfortunately, August also marks the moment his good fortune at the plate came to a stop.
From the beginning of the month until season's end, his average dropped from .301 to .270. The slump followed him into October, where he failed to notch a single hit while his team was stomped and swept by the Houston Astros.
In Ramirez's defense, he wasn't the only Indians player whose bat went quiet in the ALDS. However, his inability to get on base seriously hurt Cleveland's chances.
Now imagine what a performance like this would do to the significantly weakened roster the Indians are boasting in 2019.
Where last October saw Ramirez sharing a lineup card with Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson, he heads into Opening Day teamed up with Tyler Naquin, Jake Bauers and Eric Stamets. Sure, things change a little bit when Lindor and Kipnis return, but not by much.
As a result, Ramirez is going to be counted on far more than he's used to. Not only will another year of offensive progress be ideal, it's practically necessary. Should he still have trouble shaking off his cold spell at the plate, Cleveland’s offense is going to struggle mightily.
Ramirez also has to maintain steady offensive contribution the entire year, not just the first few months. Again, we saw how his slump hurt the Tribe late last season, so you can only imagine how much of an impact another one would have on this year's group.
It may sound a little dire, but this is the situation the Indians have put themselves in. They spent the winter cutting back on salary, assuming the playoffs were still a certainty as long as the rotation was intact and Ramirez and Lindor were in the fold.
While the latter will eventually return to the lineup, the former is the only proven, consistent hitter in it right now.
Obviously this situation changes if guys like Bauers or Jordan Luplow turn out to be better than expected. At the moment, though, making said bet still feels lofty.
As a result, Ramirez is about to be leaned on like never before. Should he struggle, he’s no longer surrounded by hitters with a proven ability to pick up the slack. Likewise, Cleveland’s loaded rotation won’t be able to get the job done if it’s only receiving a run or two of offensive support.
Ramirez has heard his name included in MVP discussions at various points in the past couple seasons. If the Indians are going to succeed in 2019, this is going to have to happen again. Anything less could create a hurdle this team isn’t built to handle.