Today begins DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.
This wasn’t the plan when the Indians entered spring training.
After a breakout 2013 season, finishing with a 10-game win streak, the Cleveland Indians were a surprise member of the American League playoffs a year ago. And despite a quick exit after a 4-0 defeat to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Indians had new expectations around the league, with their fan base and in their own locker room.
The 2014 season was a simple theme: Unfinished Business.
This was the year the Indians, led by their Manager of the Year Terry Francona and All-Stars Jason Kipnis and Justin Masterson were going to challenge the Detroit Tigers streak of three straight American League Central Division titles. After all, while Detroit clinched early in 2013, the Indians were just one game behind the top spot at 92-70 a year ago. This was the season they would shut up the doubters of the organization, and even Kenny Lofton, who felt last season was an aberration and a one-game playoff was not really a playoff team. With a return from subpar 2013 seasons from Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, and the arrival of fire-baller Danny Salazar, the Indians would pick up right where they left off last September. This was the year the Indians would enter the season with swagger and challenge all opponents in the league as they would try to make back-to-back playoffs appearances for the first time since 1998-99.
But the flaws in the plan were obvious when the Indians started the season 10-17 in April. Michael Bourn started the season on the disabled list and Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana got off to horrendous starts. Carlos Carrasco couldn’t hold down the fifth starter’s job in April and by the end of May, Danny Salazar was back in Triple-A, Zach McAllister was struggling and Masterson no longer looked like the pitcher everyone wanted to give a contract extension to. New closer John Axford looked a lot like old closer, Chris Perez. The season was not off to the start anyone had hoped for.
Worse yet, the Indians had a major problem on their hands…their gloves. Defensively, the Indians were one of the worst teams in franchise history, but the first half of the season was pathetic. Yan Gomes threw balls all over the field, Asdrubal Cabrera seemed to have less range and hustle as the season progressed and the Santana experiment at third base came to a close due to its own failures and Swisher’s at first base. Toss in the once flexible, now-not-so-much, Ryan Raburn and there weren’t many places on the diamond an Indians’ pitcher wanted the ball hit.
As the offense was sporadic and the defense was terrible, the starting pitching was inconsistent. The mistake to allow two veteran starting pitchers leave via free agency and not replace them with any external options—instead relying on Salazar’s 10 starts from a year ago—seemed more egregious every time the rotation recalled Trevor Bauer, T.J. House and Josh Tomlin and optioned out McAllister and jettisoned Carrasco to the bullpen.
Yet, the Indians slowly climbed back to the .500 mark, but despite visions of another 10-game win streak like last season, the team just didn’t have the look of a playoff team. At the deadline Masterson was dealt to St. Louis for minor leaguer James Ramsey and Cabrera was sent to Washington for Zach Walters. Even though Francona promised his team would never quit, it seemed obvious that the season was taking a different route.
And the route it took was one no one expected, while Kipnis struggled, Bourn spent his third stint of the season on the disabled list and Swisher tried to keep his batting average above .200, the team seemed to find its stride. Michael Brantley parlayed a first half good enough for his first All-Star appearance, into one of the best seasons in the American League. Corey Kluber, who just missed an All-Star appearance, continued to get stronger in the season and emerged as the ace of the staff. Bauer and Salazar rebounded from inconsistencies and became more well-rounded pitchers and Carrasco rose from the ashes of the bullpen to become one of the best pitchers in baseball during the final two months.
Gomes improved behind the plate and became a cornerstone of the Tribe’s lineup. Jose Ramirez replaced Cabrera at shortstop and Tyler Holt help patrol the outfield while Bourn and Murphy were injured. Each provided scrappy play and improved defense and suddenly Francona was just trying to manufacture enough runs to support his pitching staff and get to his reliable bullpen, headed up by new closer Cody Allen. After an 18-9 August the Indians had played their way back into contention with a schedule full of games against Kansas City and Detroit, the teams ahead of them in the standings.
Entering September just 2.5 games back, the young, upstart Indians either ran out of gas or regressed to the mean, going just 14-13 in the month. They were just 1-6 against the Tigers in September. Twice they had key series against Detroit and another against Kansas City, but could only go 2-8 against the two teams they chased. And finally, last Friday the season of pretending to contend was finally over when they were eliminated from playoff contention. Chief Wahoo weeps at the top of the page for the opportunities lost and disappointment of the season.
Worse yet, when the Kansas City Royals host the Wild Card game on Wednesday night, the Indians have to feel like they took their playoff spot from a year ago. Kansas City made moves to add veterans last winter and their core came together and played to their expectations in 2014, where the Indians did not. Instead of a second straight playoff appearance, the Indians finish two games out of a playoff spot. Their 92 wins a year ago would have been enough to win the division this time. But in 2014 no business will be finished, instead more work is necessary.
Cleveland’s offseason begins this morning much earlier than they had hoped and with a much different set of problems than they could have thought when they left Goodyear, Arizona in March. The Indians need to improve the worst defense in Major League baseball, while improving their offense at the same time. That won’t be easy with a payroll that is tight and invested in several long-term contracts, including the injured and underperforming Swisher and Bourn. The bullpen could use more depth and the front office will have to decide if a young starting rotation is all going to mature together, or if regression—like this season—could take place.
Francona and General Manager Chris Antonetti will have to decide when to infuse youth like Francisco Lindor, Giovanny Urshela and Ramsey into the roster and what roles Ramirez, Holt and Walters have going forward. While they’ll retool around Brantley and Kluber, they’ll have to determine if they have an MVP and Cy Young contender in each for the next several seasons, or a tandem that had career years that were the keys to keeping the Indians just above .500 for the season.
Building a contender is never easy for Antonetti as he works with a fixed budget. But many of his financial restraints haven’t been set by ownership, but his own previous poor decisions. Antonetti will have to improve on his hits and limit his misses. He’ll have to rely on youth, hopefully the healed health and improved performance of veterans and roster creativity via trades and free agency to make another attempt to challenge the Tigers and appease a fragile fan base in 2015.
Just seven games separate the 2013 and the 2014 results for the Indians, but the attitude and swagger from six months ago is gone. The organization has been humbled and they’ll have to look for a new moniker for 2015.
But first, they’ve got work to do.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images