The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians will meet tomorrow in a World Series matchup that nobody thought possible. If it weren’t actually happening, I would have thought it unthinkable. The Cubs and Indians are both tortured franchises upon whom the baseball gods have picked for nigh on a century.
However, one is in for redemption in 2016, and for whichever one it is, that redemption will be all the sweeter having overcome a mountain of injuries, most notably the loss of an All-Star left fielder… The Indians and Cubs both lost their left fielders in April. Every team deals with injuries, but both these guys were absolute mainstay studs. Overcoming those losses to reach the World Series was extremely impressive.
For Cleveland, Michael Brantley received MVP votes in each of the last two years and was worth something like 10 WAR over that same timeframe. He was a top 10 outfielder in all of baseball, but played just 11 games for the Indians this season while battling shoulder problems. Meanwhile, the Cubs lost Kyle Schwarber to an “multiple-CL” injury just two games into the 2016 season. Last year, as a 22 year old, Schwarber looked every bit the part of a young Prince Fielder. He combined a solid regular season with an other-worldly postseason (5 HRs in 9 games) to lay the foundation for a solid career.
So how did they do it? How did both teams lose one of their best players and then bowl through the playoffs to reach the World Series?
For the Cubs, the answer is pretty simple: Depth. They were better positioned to deal with this type of loss than any other organization. Jorge Soler was going to be the fourth outfielder this year, and he’s extremely talented in his own right. Then, when he went down, the Cubs leaned on their 2016 Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras.
In 2016, Contreras was basically everything that 2015 Schwarber was for the Cubs. Consider:
- 2016 Contreras: .282 avg, .357 OBP, .488 Slugging, 12 homers in 283 plate appearances
- 2015 Schwarber: .246 avg, .355 OBP, .487 Slugging, 16 homers in 273 plate appearances
Schwarber was unique in that he was going to help out behind the plate and in the outfield and provide power. Well, funny thing about that Contreras kid: he fit pretty much that exact profile himself.
For the Indians, the picture isn’t quite as clear, but still comes back to depth. Jose Ramirez‘s emergence would be a simple answer to how the Indians overcame Brantley’s injury, but Ramirez only started 50 games in left field. Rajai Davis started another 40 and did so quite effectively.
Then, things start getting more interesting. Abraham Almonte played 20 games in left and the 39 year-old Marlon Byrd got 11 starts out there. The Indians traded for Brandon Guyer at the deadline, and he got 20 starts in left. Then, on August 31st, one day before he would be ineligible for the postseason, the Indians decided to bring in left field reinforcement in the form of 36 year old Coco Crisp.
My favorite part of the Indians left field merry-go-round is that every single player who played left field for the Indians in 2016 had a positive WAR. Indians Manager Terry Francona mixed and matched like a wizard and made it work.
Schwarber may be making a grandiose re-entrance back into the Cubs’ fold just as the World Series begins, but Michael Brantley will not be lacing them up until next Spring. The two organizations were not equally prepared to absorb the loss of one of their stars, but they both got where they are by capitalizing on organizational depth to manage their way through the long season and ensure that left field remained a productive spot in the lineup.