Indians Old Guard Holds Key to Successful Season

During the winter, Cleveland’s front office made countless moves to remake a team that had had spent the second halves of the last two seasons falling out of playoff contention with disastrous late-season play.

The new names and faces are many and well-documented. Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds were brought on board to pump some life into a dormant offense. Brett Myers, Scott KazmirBryan Shaw and Matt Albers were among those acquired to bolster the pitching staff.

Despite all the fresh talent up and down the roster, it is actually the Indians’ mainstays who have been among the biggest contributors to a team that is now 36-35, second place in the AL Central and 3.5 games behind front-running Detroit.

In the lineup, it is guys like Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley who have done a lot of the heavy lifting. On the mound, Justin Masterson has become an All-Star caliber starter. Fellow starters Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber have all found varying degrees of success this season. In the bullpen Joe Smith has been brilliant, while Vinnie Pestano seems to be turning the corner from an arm injury that caused him to struggle last month. The thing all of these players have in common is they each were part of at least one, if not both, of the Tribe’s second-half collapses in 2011 and 2012.

It may come as a shock to some people that players from underachieving teams have played key roles in getting this year’s Indians off to a competitive start. However, it should not.

Two years ago, general manager Chris Antonetti said Cleveland had a two or three-year window of contention. He said those words when he made the infamous trade for Jimenez. He said those words because he had confidence in a core group that included Kipnis, Santana, Masterson and Pestano. The group also includes 2012 all-stars Chris Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera who are currently on the disable list, but should be back for much of the second half.

In 2011, that core group was young and did not know how to handle late-season contention. The mistake going into 2012 was the Tribe brass believing few changes needed to be made and those players would simply mature. That obviously did not happen.

Wholesale roster changes were certainly made after the second year of finishing poorly. Along with all the new players, Cleveland also replaced manager Manny Acta with two-time World-Series-winning manager Terry Francona. Those changes were not made to completely overhaul the team. Rather, they were made to augment the talents of budding stars already playing for the Indians.

On the offensive side, he offseason moves were a way to help Kipnis, Santana, Brantley and Caberera get even better. The past couple years, if two or more of those players struggled the entire offense went south with them. That quartet was essentially the entire lineup. They had a lot of weight to carry and a ton of pressure. Adding the likes of Swisher, Bourne and Reynolds immensely upgraded the rest of the batting order. No longer can pitchers pitch around the foursome of Cleveland’s holdovers. They are seeing better pitches to hit.

Brantley and Santana have responded with good seasons to this point. Kipnis got off to a slow start, but has been up to his old hitting ways over the last month. Cabrera also started off cold but was heating up at the plate when he got hurt. Rather than carrying an offense that is lost without them, those four are now leading a much flashier and productive lineup. They are still the stars of order, despite high-paid names.

Likewise, on the hill, Masterson is now getting run support. That has helped him to a 9-5 record. While Myers has been on the DL since late April, Kazmir has been in the rotation all year. While he has contributed to some wins, it is Masterson and the rest of last year’s hurlers who been most crucial to what has been a surprisingly decent starting staff. McAllister and Kluber have taken huge strides since their rookie campaigns of 2012, while Jimenez has been better than his 4.79 ERA would indicate. It was over 10.00 through three starts. He has been a solid No. 3-caliber pitcher over the last two months.

While the Indians could not simply stand pat after back-to-back disappointing seasons, there was also knowledge the many of the players the Indians had were very good. The talent cupboard was not bare. It just needed a few upgraded pieces that did not have chips in it.

As the season progresses, it will continue to be the team’s longstanding players who will be front and center in the efforts to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. Santana, Kipnis, Brantley and Cabrera will need to continue to do the big work in the batting order. Masterson will have to continue being a true ace, while a return to form for Perez and Pestano is a necessity.

Unlike the past couple years, though, the old guard will not be fighting the playoff fight alone. The team now has quality veterans who have played October baseball. Guys like Swisher, Bourne and Reynolds know what it takes to win in August and September. No longer is the team relying solely on its young players growing up. The Tribe now has players and a manager who can lend a guiding hand in the maturation process.

That is why the new blood was pumped into the Indians. It was not to completely strip down the past squads and replace them entirely. It was to speed up the ability for a young, talented core to win sooner, rather than later. With a soft second-half schedule and a more experienced roster, another late-season collapse seems less likely. That is especially true watching the way the Indians have rebounded for a 6-2 record after their recent eight-game slide. Years past, the slide would have buried the young players. An older team now, Cleveland  has  better sense of how to handle the good and bad moments a season brings.

Much like the young Indians of the early 90s needed the guidance of knowledgeable veterans, so too did this group. Now the familiar names have a chance to get less-than-familiar results.

Photo: Getty Images

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