Time for Indians to Shed “Young” Label

Over the past few years the Indians have been tagged with the labels the likes of “young,” “inexperienced,” “youthful,” and “still learning.”

Those tags were used in 2011 and 2012 when talented clubs started strong and finished poorly and far out of the postseason. They were thrown around when that team, under the guidance of Terry Francona, did better, but still only managed one postseason contest – a 2013 Wild Card loss to Tampa – over the past two campaigns.

As the Tribe embarks on the 2015 season, it is now time for those tags, also could be called excused, to go away. Yes, the core of the team was very young the last few years. However, that core group has now had several seasons to learn. It is time for those guys to take the next step. It’s time to change from a young, good team that is overwhelmed under the bright lights to an older, more-experienced group that can handle the pressure and handle the expectations that will now be on them after two straight winning years.

Over the course of 2011 and 2012, Cleveland ushered in a new era as players like Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco all made their debuts or started playing larger roles on the team during that time. As to be expected, those teams had bad seasons.

Through the next couple years, other young players like Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Yan Gomes joined the fray. All except for Allen will be 27 or older this season, meaning that core group of young players should now be entering or getting close to their prime years.

During the course of the last few offseasons, the Indians have added veteran help, to mixed results. Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and David Murphy have all spent time on the disabled list, but can be productive and can be quality clubhouse guys for a younger team. Brandon Moss and Gavin Floyd are veterans added this season. It remains to be seen what they will provide to squad.

What remains true is that the players who have grown with the Indians organization are the ones to hang the biggest hats on. That group of seven that are now poised to take the next step from promising to either very good or even All-Star caliber in some cases, need to take that step now.

Kipnis seemed to take that step in 2013 when the second baseman made it to the All-Star Game. He took a giant step back last year. However, an injured oblique that never really got a chance to fully heal may have been a culprit. In his age 28 season, we should hopefully see Kipnis blossom into the offensive star that he should be.

Another sometimes maddening player with as much power as anyone on the team is Santana. He led the club with 27 homers last year. He added a career high 85 RBI. However, thanks to two of his worst months of his career in April in May, the soon-to-be 29-year-old hit a career-low .231. He has the ability to do so much more at the plate, but needs to cut down on the prolonged slumps that he has been victim to over the years. One would hope, entering his fifth full campaign, that Santana may take that final step in fine-tuning his otherwise dangerous offensive game. He seems finally locked in as a first baseman in the field. Perhaps not moving around to different positions will help.

Gomes does not have quite the time as other guys on the team. He was essentially a rookie in 2013 after the Indians made an offseason trade to acquire him from Toronto. He did well enough to earn the full-time starting gig by the second half and was a big part of the push to the Wild Card. Last year, he proved to be one of the better-hitting catchers in the game with 21 homers, 74 RBI and .278 batting average. He really needs to continue his progression.

As for continuing progression, Brantley and Kluber should be the models of player progression. Those two have gotten better each year of their careers. At 27 last season, Brantley emerged as an All-Star and MVP candidate. Kluber, at 28, won the Cy Young Award following his best season. He was an All-Star snub, but has a very good shot of being in a few Mid-Summer Classics at the rate he is going. Those two, rather than taking another step forward, more need to guard against going back to where they were before last season. The Indians could really use that pair to maintain the star status the blossomed to last year.

In the bullpen, you have younger guys manning the biggest roles. Shaw, 27, and Allen, 26, are the setup man and closer, respectively. Even at his age, Shaw has already posted four excellent seasons of relief work and should only improve. He probably has a chance to be a closer, himself, eventually. Allen will be the full-time closer for a second campaign after posting 24 saves a year ago. Allen could use another step forward in that last year he faltered in bigger games, failing to close out the Tigers in one of the more important games of the year last September. Growth for him in performing in key spots would really put the finishing touches on his development as a top-notch back-of-the-bullpen guy.

As for the final two guys who have been around a while now, Carrasco and Nick Hagadone have some question marks. Carrasco, acquired from Philadelphia in the Cliff Lee trade, looked promising in 2010 and 2011 before being shut down for Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2012 season. In 2013, Carrasco was horrible. He started out horribly last year until a move to the bullpen seemingly revitalized his career. Carrasco ended up in the rotation and was as good as ever in August and September. If he can continue to grow and take what he did at the end of 2014 into this campaign, Carrasco could finally emerge as a true No. 2 or 3 starter.

Hagadone, a reliever picked up in the Victor Martinez deal, also enjoyed his best season in 2014 after several seasons of looking overmatched at the big league level. He could be a key lefty out of the pen this year.

That is the group that the Indians could really use continued growth from. Over the last few years all of those guys have show promise or have actually had that break-out season. Those players performing to their capabilities would go a long way toward the Tribe finally challenging the Tigers for the top spot in the American League Central Division.

Certainly, the Indians have a number of other young players who could break out at any point. Guys like Trevor Bauer, T.J. House, Danny Salazar, Lonnie Chisenhall and Kyle Crockett are younger players who have shown promise, but have either not had a lot of time in the Major Leagues, are the prime 27-year-old mark or both. That will be the next tier of guys the Indians will be looking for steps forward from in the near future.

To call this team, “young,” however would be foolish. A number of guys have now been in the Majors for three or more years, making them veterans. Most have gone through the lows of miserable seasons to the highs of winning baseball. The majority of the Tribe roster has experienced big games. Now it is time to take that next step from developing to developed. It is time to go from using youth an inexperience as excuses to having a young-veteran squad primed to unseat the older ones that may be a step or two slower now.

The next step for many of the Indians now needs to come in 2015.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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