Prospects are everything, the mana and soul and identity of every baseball team that ends up being worth something. They’re the dreams that roll through your sleep after the 90th loss of the season and let you wake up happy and ready for more baseball. Prospects become rookies, rookies become stars, and stars become the posters that kids hang on the wall and the jerseys that adults wear on their backs.
Prospects are nothing, a junk bond, an IPO for a tech venture that sucked you in and sounds dumber and dumber with each passing week. Maybe that 90th loss of the season came on a night when you realized that your favorite prospect was never going to be a regular major leaguer, and that made it much, much harder than the typically dumb loss.
That saying "It’s better to have loved and lost ..."? Doesn’t apply to prospects. If they don’t succeed, it’s far better to have been blissfully unaware. The championships you had them winning in your school kid fantasies make you feel foolish.
It’s worth thinking of the Indians’ pennant in terms of prospects, then. That’s for better and for worse. Sometimes, the story isn’t very remarkable. Francisco Lindor was one of the best prospects in high school, then he was one of the best prospects in the draft, then he was one of the best prospects in the minors, and then he was one of the best players in the majors. Nice and linear. The guy can play baseball. When you get excited about a draft pick, the fantasy career path looks like Lindor’s
It’s rarely like that, though. Take Carlos Carrasco. He was a top-100 prospect when he came over in the Cliff Lee trade, even making the majors late in the season. His debut was a disaster, but Indians fans got the entire winter to remain excited about him.
Carrasco’s next season was fine. Maybe a little underwhelming, most of it spent in the minors, but fine.
The next season after that involved Tommy John surgery.
The next season after the next season was all about rehabilitation. He returned to the majors, but he got blown up again.
Now you have a 27-year-old without an identity. He’s somewhere between prospect and failed experiment, and he’s at the nexus of surprising the world and disappearing forever. You’ve seen it happen both ways, but the world errs on the side of disappearing forever.
And you know what happens? It works. Carrasco is a monster. He’s an ace, a strikeout deity with a slider won in a poker game with the gods. He’s everything a prospect hound would ever dream of.
Then he breaks his hand on a line drive up the middle. One-in-a-million shot. Prospects are everything until they get sucked away from you just that fast. That was going to be the championship-winning prospect made good until physics messed everything up. As it does.
It works in reverse, though. There weren’t a lot of dreams about Corey Kluber on those 90-loss nights. He was the guy in that one deal a couple years ago, whatever. When he was Trevor Bauer’s age, he was getting lit up by the Indianapolis Indians, with Jose Tabata and John Bowker getting to him for early runs.
Then he’s a Cy Young. The kind you can keep around for a few years, not the kind you have to trade away because you can’t afford him, like the other Indians Cy Young winners of recent vintage. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen with him. He was a different kind of prospect, the out-of-nowhere star. And physics hasn’t messed him up yet.
There are other Indians prospects who bounded up the mountain only to get kicked down at the worst possible time. Danny Salazar’s career path was more traditional than Carrasco’s, but so was his injury. Michael Brantley went from being a player to be named later to the hope of the franchise, and then injuries wrestled him down. Yan Gomes was the next big thing, and the wheat thresher got him, too. Trevor Bauer took the long path, but he was a contributor. Until a drone bit him.
Here lie the Indians: Their prospects and young players left them at the worst possible time. Rest in peace, sweet baseball team.
Which brings us to Ryan Merritt, whose name I had to double-check three times in this paragraph alone. It’s something of a stretch to call him a prospect. He probably won’t be in the Indians’ rotation next year; he probably won’t be in the Indians’ rotation in 2020. But he started the clinching game of the American League Championship Series, and he held the Blue Jays scoreless.
Think of the Blue Jays last year, a snarling, bat-flipping, dinger-mashing machine that baseball just wasn’t used to. Now think of them being shut down by MLB.com’s No. 30 Indians prospect with their season on the line. It doesn’t compute. Why are the Indians down to their last prospect when their rotation was supposed to be the reason they had a shot at the World Series in the first place? Why can’t the Blue Jays deconstruct him?
Merritt turned out to be masterful, even if just for a time-and-a-half through the order. Carrasco couldn’t be there because of a fluke. Salazar couldn’t be there because of a depressingly predictable elbow. Bauer couldn’t be there because of the eternal battle between man and machine. It was Merritt who remained to face someone like Edwin Encarnacion, falling behind 3-0, then calmly working his way back with perfect pitches and inducing a double play.
Prospects are timing, then. They’re not everything. They’re not nothing. They’re different notes being played, and sometimes they’re played at different times, and sometimes they’re played at the same time. Sometimes a few of them sound like someone slamming a cat against a washboard, and they still end up making the best Tom Waits album out there. The Indians had Lindor and Kluber and Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall working for them about as well as they could have hoped, and they were without a half-dozen other players they were counting on at the beginning of the season. It’s all worked out perfectly so far.
The Indians are where they haven’t been in nearly two decades because of their prospects. They’re there specifically because of their absence of prospects, some of the most important ones, the ones who were supposed to lead the way. They opened up a spot, and the spot was filled in just the right way at just the right time.
The Indians might get where they’ve been trying to get for 69 seasons because they took the dreams of a couple prospects and exchanged them for the instant gratification of a deadline deal. Possibly the greatest deadline deal in the history of the franchise. Andrew Miller was a prospect for some other teams years ago, and now he’s the talk of the postseason. All it took to get him were prospects.
The Indians won the pennant, and they didn’t do it like they were supposed to. They didn’t do it in the way that their fans dreamed about before this season, much less three seasons ago. For a franchise that’s had so much go wrong throughout the years, for a franchise that’s had so much go wrong in the last two months, they’re here because they had the perfect mix of players who were surprising and players who were completely expected.
That’s all every successful postseason team usually has. It’s just that it doesn’t happen a lot for the Indians, so they should enjoy the absolute heck out of this one.