How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?

Like many things, the Cleveland Indians season ended too soon.

After a wild ride that ended with a 10-game winning streak to complete the regular season, winning the first Wild Card spot and hosting the Tribe’s first playoff game in six years, Cleveland finished the season as Major League Baseball’s hottest team. However, Alex Cobb and the Tampa Bay Rays needed just one win to extinguish the energy and enthusiasm behind the Tribe. Wednesday’s 4-0 loss to Tampa ended the Indians’ season while it was at its peak.

The Indians exceeded most projections for the 2013 season. After hiring new manager Terry Francona, the organization openly discussed and created a new culture. Francona spent last winter traveling to personally meet players and sell them on his ideas, while general manager Chris Antonetti reconstructed a roster that was embarrassingly short when it went 68-94 in 2012.

Antonetti signed Ohio native Nick Swisher to four-year, $56 million contract to make a splash the Indians don’t normally make in the free agent pool. He also orchestrated a three-team trade that sent Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati and brought to Cleveland Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Drew Stubbs from the Reds.

While Antonetti made big splashes last winter, some of his quiet moves turned out to be the biggest. Early in November, Antonetti dealt Esmil Rogers to the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes. A month later, he signed Scott Kazmir on the suggestion of Akron Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez. Rodriguez was managing Kazmir in the Puerto Rican winter league and felt he had found his major league repertoire.

But the biggest surprise might have been when the Indians shocked Major League Baseball on the eve of spring training when they signed leadoff hitter Michael Bourn to a four-year contract. After adding the speedy leadoff hitter and reassembling their projected starting lineup, the Indians were cautiously optimistic. After just a 68-win season in 2012, if everything went their way, they could contend in 2013.

But everything didn’t go their way.

Kazmir was sidelined early with a rib cage strain. Free agent addition Brett Myers struggled and was sidelined in April due to injury. Desmond Jennings plowed backup catcher Lou Marson, and the Indians didn’t have a reliable backup catcher. In May, Vinnie Pestano was injured and then Chris Perez. The once reliable bullpen soon became a weakness.

But Corey Kluber stepped into the starting rotation from Triple-A. Gomes filled the backup catcher’s spot, and Cody Allen and Joe Smith took on further responsibilities in the bullpen. The streaky Tribe sprinted out to a 26-17 record, followed by a lackluster June that dropped the Indians to 30-33 on June 10. After an eight-game losing streak, it appeared this Tribe team was contention material, but more with a look to 2014 in the rebuilding process and culture change.

However, Team Streak came right back with a winning tear that put them at 45-38 entering July and a half-game ahead of the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central standings. The Tribe continued its streaky ways through the entire season, but Gomes began to emerge as the starting catcher, free agent gamble Ryan Raburn forced his way into a right field platoon and Aviles did the same at third base with young Lonnie Chisenhall. With the aid of 42-year-old Jason Giambi, The Goon Squad was born. The flexibility preached by Francona in spring training now was one of the Indians’ greatest strengths. Their bench was as strong as their lineup. Cleveland didn’t have nine starters — but 13— in their lineup.

And in early August, with the Tribe trying to make a final push to contend with the Detroit Tigers for the division, a young, surprise starter emerged in Danny Salazar. Salazar shined with a blazing fastball and became one of the second half catalysts to the Tribe in a place where Bauer and Carlos Carrasco already had failed.

When the Indians lost Sept. 18 in Kansas City, they quietly had worked their way through the gauntlet of Wild Card contenders to be just a half-game behind the Texas Rangers and a game and a half behind Tampa. With 10 games remaining, the marathon of a baseball season was now a sprint to the finish. The Indians won all 10 games, passing both the Rangers and Rays to win the first Wild Card and go 92-70 for the season, capped by an amazing walk-off win on Sept. 24 with a two-run home run by Giambi. His homer might be the Tribe’s “Game of the Year.”

The 92 wins exceeded anyone’s predictions for the Indians that once were perceived to be pitching thin. Despite Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Kluber and Kazmir each spending about a month on the disabled list, Ubaldo Jimenez anchored the rotation. Jimenez, the key to a July 2011 trade deadline deal, finally emerged into as the ace Antonetti thought he was acquiring two years ago. Jimenez assumed the role as staff ace when Masterson was sidelined on Sept. 2, and won American League Pitcher of the Month.

Jimenez became a microcosm of the Indians and their season. Once a side note to the Cleveland sports scene, the Indians became the talk of the town in September. Had Cleveland been able to win the one-game, elimination game Wednesday, they would be a formidable opponent to the Boston Red Sox and the American League playoffs. Jimenez was lined up to pitch Game One and Game Five.

But, just like Jimenez, the best likely could be gone too soon.

Cleveland’s season ended with just one loss on Wednesday, possibly right on the precipice of something special. The Indians exceeded expectations in 2013, but starting immediately, the bar is much higher for 2014. The Tribe will be expected to compete for the American League Central Division with the Tigers. Avoiding the one-game playoff and getting into the playoffs will be a clear goal as the Tribe heads to Goodyear, Ariz., in February.

And while that seems like a fair and reasonable goal, reaching the new heights will be more difficult than it seems. It isn’t as easy as just adding to the roster already assembled. After a season of poor attendance, it seems unlikely that the team’s payroll will climb to another level. The Indians have almost $50 million committed to the 2014 roster with players like Perez, Masterson and Michael Brantley due larger contracts through arbitration and Smith, Albers and Kazmir headed to free agency. To bring this team back for 2014 — as it’s currently assembled —might cost the Indians around $100 million. The roster will shuffle by Opening Day 2014.

And despite the wild run in September, this team isn’t currently constructed to win the Central Division and overtake the Tigers. After going 4-15 against Detroit, it’s clear the Tigers are better. The expectations will be higher than any year since 2008, while the payroll will remain near the same level.

Antonetti and Francona now enter a winter with a new set of questions and challenges to take on. Can Francona persuade another free agent to join Swisher and Bourn in Cleveland? Will Antonetti be able to resign Jimenez, who is certain to opt out of his deal, to team with a healthy Masterson? Can the Indians afford high-priced contracts like Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera after disappointing seasons? Can Antonetti land anything via trade for them that will help the team in 2014?

Can pitchers like Kluber or McAllister repeat their breakout seasons? Can Salazar emerge into a front-of-the-rotation starter? Will the Indians be able to extend Masterson past his current 2014 contract or is next season his last in Cleveland?

Will the Indians land a middle-of-the-order bat to be the cleanup hitter they so desperately need? Will Aviles, Raburn or Gomes become regular starters next season? How do you remake a questionable bullpen?

A winter ago, the Indians turned a 68-win team into a 92-win surprise. After a 24-game increase, finding a way to be a couple games better seems simple, yet the last few games might be the toughest in the rebuild process.

Beginning tomorrow, we’ll begin to work our way through the questions and issues facing the Tribe as it enters the offseason. Cleveland will enter 2014 with the expectations of playoffs and World Series contention. They’ll also enter with a smaller payroll than Detroit, a weak farm system at the top of the organization and a serious attendance problem with fans. Regardless, the bar will be set high.

How do the Indians reach the next level?

Photo: Getty Images

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