CLEVELAND – This World Series matchup surprised many, a meeting of two franchises defined historically more by their collective failures than their successes.
But while the volatility and unpredictability of the sport from year to year makes World Series rematches a rarity, the Cubs and Indians seeing each other next October isn’t impossible to envision.
The Cubs getting here, of course, was no surprise. They entered the season with one of the sport’s youngest rosters and were tabbed as a prohibitive favorite not only to make the World Series but to win it. And, indeed, the average age of the starting lineup that clinched the National League pennant in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Dodgers was 23 years old.
But the Indians, too, have plenty of youth.
While many see their run to the Series as a fluke — especially after frontline starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco got hurt in September — the young players make up the core of their club.
“I do think we feel good that our organization is pretty healthy, just because of the guys that are under contract and where they are in their careers,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor is at the head of that list, a 22-year-old who hasn’t been phased by the bright lights of the postseason. Entering Tuesday night’s Game 6, Lindor was 8-for-19 in the World Series and 18-for-50 this postseason.
His play has earned him an admirer in the other dugout.
“He’s quite a talent,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “The kid is uniquely good. He’s got a lot of positive energy about him. I love the way he interacts.”
Maddon added: “It’s all good. It’s good for the game. It’s good for him. It’s good for Cleveland. That’s the kind of guy you need to attract young baseball fans. Not necessarily players, but fans. I think he’s wonderful. So I hope with good health that he stays that way for so many more years to come. Because it’s good, like I said, it’s good for everybody to have people like him in the game.”
Additionally, the Indians feature Jose Ramirez, a 23-year-old who blossomed as a third baseman this season and 25-year-old Tyler Naquin, an AL Rookie of the Year candidate after producing a .296/.372/.514 slash line with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 116 games this season.
The pitching staff isn’t a collection of young guns, but it’s not in the old category, either as the group is led by 30-year-old righthander Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin (31), Trevor Bauer (25), Salazar (26) and Carrasco (29). They also have Cody Anderson (25) and Mike Clevinger (25) who totaled 19 starts this season.
All are under contract for next season, as is stud reliever Andrew Miller (31), who has two years remaining on his deal.
“I think we feel like we’re pretty healthy,” said Francona, who just finished his fourth season managing the Indians. “You know, even our pitchers that are banged up now, none of our guys are really that old or have that much wear and tear on them.”
Maddon’s club, built by team president Theo Esptein, burst on the scene in 2015, upsetting the Cardinals in the NLDS before losing to the Mets in the NLCS. They broke through to win the franchise’s first pennant since 1945 and are well-positioned to win in the coming years, regardless of how this World Series turns out.
“That’s the part that’s really exciting to me is that we’re in this position right now, two years in a row,” Maddon said. “Like last year we didn’t quite get here, but two years in a row now we’ve been one of the last four teams playing with a really young group of baseball players that are going to continually get better.”
And a World Series experience that only can help in that development. Maddon led a young 2008 Rays team to the World Series, where it lost in five games to the Phillies.
But that roster, because of the Rays’ small-market payroll, didn’t get the chance to build on that experience the way his current team will.
“You have to do it the first time to really understand it and feel what it’s like,” Maddon said. “So there are a lot of ancillary benefits to be derived right now. And our guys are young. I’m really proud of how they’ve dealt with this moment. But looking down the road, I want to believe with their ability to do other things, to be able to keep this core group together, and then augment it, I think could be pretty special.”