MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Nothing went as planned for Tribe -- except title

Injured pitchers, Brantley's absence couldn't hold back Tribe

Nothing went as planned for Tribe -- except title

The plan Monday called for a shutdown start from Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber to put an emphatic exclamation point on the Indians' first division title since 2007.

It didn't go to plan. And the Indians won anyway.

How's that for a single-game reflective of the bigger picture?

The Cleveland Indians are American League Central elite not because so many things went right this year but because of how they responded to so many things gone wrong. Kluber leaving this start at Comerica Park after four innings was an awfully unsettling sight for Indians fans (who were relieved to learn the Klubot was battling groin tightness and not an arm or shoulder malady), but the fact that the Indians finished off the 7-4 win without him was also an awfully apropos ending to this championship chase.

Kluber leaves with an injury

Obviously, every division title is something to be applauded and, if the spirit moves you, toasted with bubbly.

But despite some friendly preseason projections from the calculator crowd (which, as the 2015 Royals can attest, isn't always so effective on the forecasting front), none of 2016's division winners was or is more unlikely than the one Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff constructed and Terry Francona guided.

This Tribe team entered the year with the seventh-lowest payroll in the game -- a payroll lower than any other ballclub that's advancing to October. And the $86 million tally was actually even punier when you consider Michael Brantley -- the Tribe's second-highest-paid (and best) player -- was essentially a sunk cost.

Going into the year, you would assume -- or, at least, I did -- that the Indians' chances rested primarily on Brantley coming back healthy and productive after November shoulder surgery.

Nope. Brantley played just 11 ineffective games (the Indians' actually had a win streak that lasted longer than Brantley's games played total).

You would assume -- or, at least, I did -- that, with or without Brantley, the rotation would have to be an unrelenting, dominant force.

Nope, not really. On measure, the rotation was very good, sure, but it also has the sixth-highest ERA in the sport going back to July 2. And while the September shelf status of Carlos Carrasco (broken hand) and Danny Salazar (elbow flexor strain) is the current concern, there were others that preceded. Carrasco missed more than a month early in the year with hamstring trouble, when the Indians were still jockeying for position. Kluber took some time to settle into the season. Salazar had a miserable second half. Josh Tomlin had a messy two months that began just before the break. The fifth spot served as a consistent source of inconsistency.

Oh, and Yan Gomes, the guy throwing down the signs? He logged an OPS+ 71 percent worse than league average -- and that was before he got hurt.

Clearly, the strength of this team was that which could not have been reasonably assumed.

Could you have reasonably assumed, for instance, that two of the great free-agent finds of the Hot Stove season would be Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis?

When an effort to swing a swap for Todd Frazier fell short, the Napoli and Davis signings felt to some fans like a low-cost consolation prize. Yet Napoli has not only had a resurgent, 34-homer season but also been the leader around whom this clubhouse revolves. (Napoli, for the record, was the one who sprang for the good stuff for the champagne celebration, so it was the ultimate Party at Napoli's). Speed isn't supposed to age well, but the 35-year-old Davis more than doubled his 2015 stolen-base tally to lead the American League and help the Indians post one of the better baserunning scores in baseball.

Reliever Dan Otero, he of the 1.57 ERA, was a cheap and wily find, too, and Brandon Guyer was an underrated Trade Deadline get (we'll talk about the big one in just a sec). The Indians' front office had such a great year that assistant GM Derek Falvey had dual celebrations Monday -- a title-clincher and a new gig as the Twins' head of baseball operations.

Beyond the external upgrades, could you have reasonably assumed the Indians would have so many internal ones?

Jose Ramirez was roundly written off as an everyday player after an underwhelming stint preceding Francisco Lindor as the starting shortstop last season. But with a jump in OPS+ from 68 to 113, he's been one of the game's most improved players, saving the Indians both from the sting of losing Brantley to injury and two other outfielders (Abraham Almonte and Marlon Byrd) to PED suspensions and from the disappointment that was Juan Uribe's output.

Tyler Naquin wasn't even the most heralded outfield prospect in the Indians' system (Brad Zimmer and Clint Frazier shared that honor), yet he's launched a campaign worthy of Rookie of the Year consideration.

Speaking of the farm system, there was an assumption going into the year that it was strong enough to pull off an impact in-season deal. But it would have been impossible to assume the Indians would have both the opportunity and the stomach to sell off such a significant chunk of their future for a high-leverage reliever.

I believe Andrew Miller's numbers -- and the impact those numbers have had on Cody Allen and Co. elsewhere in the 'pen -- speak for themselves.

Obviously, some stuff went to plan. Recent slump aside, Lindor has had a strong sophomore effort. Jason Kipnis has had the most power-packed year of his career to date. Lonnie Chisenhall had a steadier bat, and Carlos Santana had a booming one. The defense that was reinvented when Lindor arrived last summer has again been very reliable.

But small-payroll clubs aren't supposed to survive the kinds of things this team did. The Indians not only survived but thrived, and now they are en route to an October in which, once again, they'll have to overcome reasonable assumptions about what they can or cannot accomplish without Carrasco and possibly without Salazar.

"I think," Francona said recently, "our guys feel like, as a team collectively, we can figure some things out that maybe people don't think we can."

That's the plan.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.