Here we are, folks: the End of Season Post-Mortem series. If you're new here (which about 50% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from playoff contention, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
After and underrated off-season as a big mover and shaker, the Cleveland Indians were a surprise entrant to the post-season picture. Having earned a Wild Card berth, the Tribe has now established themselves as a playoff contender, but the question now is what will they have to do to take the club to the next level and be taken seriously as a World Series favorite.
Preseason Prediction: New manager Terry Francona and the lively personality of Nick Swisher should at least inject a new injury into the Cleveland clubhouse which will be a big boost to a club that has to be forlorn at their recent pattern of making a strong showing in the first half of the season before collapsing in the second half. The infusion of new talent should be a big help as well, but this probably just isn't there yet in terms of being a contender. The rotation has too many question marks and the lineup, while better, is still nothing special. A .500 record and a second place finish should be considered a modest success for this club as they ready themselves to be bigger players in the AL Central in 2014 and 2015.
What Went Right: After years of strong first halves followed by second half swoons, the Indians got fed up with that cycle and decided to push all their chips into the middle of the table. Considering that the Tigers were considered to have a stranglehold on the AL Central and the AL was top heavy in general, it seemed as if Cleveland was lining themselves up to spend a lot of money to reap no reward.
While their moves may not have been as high profile as some of the other big spenders last winter, Cleveland made some big moves to upgrade their roster. Nick Swisher (.246/.341/.423) was brought in to upgrade the team's offense and general "bro"-ness. Michael Bourn (.263/.316/.360) was signed to replace Shin-Soo Choo atop the order. While neither player had particularly strong seasons, their presence served to improve the depth and versatility of a lineup that had been uncomfortably reliant on the health of Travis Hafner in previous seasons.
Their additions gave the Indians enough offense to support an underrated starting rotation. Led by Justin Masterson having a re-breakout season and a second half resurgence from Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians ended up having a pretty solid rotation, which was huge considering what a big question mark the starting pitching was entering the year.
What might have been bigger than those signings though was the Tribe hiring Terry Francona to replace Manny Acta as manager. While it is easy to overstate the influence a manager can have on a team, the presence of Francona certainly seemed to alter the atmosphere in Cleveland. There was no impending sense of collapse when the Indians found themselves in contention at the midpoint of the season and the attitude of Indian players seemed more loose in general. More than anything, having Francona at the helm gave Cleveland a sense of legitmacy as a contender that it had lacked for several years.
What Went Wrong: Not everything the Tribe did in the off-season worked out as planned. They signed Brett Myers to help out the rotation, but injuries prevented limited him to 21.1 terrible, terrible innings. Their big trade of Shin-Soo Choo, at least for now, also did not pan out for Cleveland. Drew Stubbs was as disappointing as expected, but the real centerpiece of that deal was supposed to be Trevor Bauer. Bauer struggled mightily in a handful of starts in the majors and continued to show concerning control problems in the minors. He is still plenty young enough to pay dividends for the Tribe in the coming years.
Oh, and closer Chris Perez got arrested because his dog had been buying marijuana through the mail. That was kind of weird.
Most Surprising Player: Scott Kazmir is a major league pitcher again. That, unto itself, is a surprise. That Kazmir was a pretty solid starting pitcher was even more shocking. After being released at the start of the 2011 season, Kazmir had been out of baseball, save for a few stints in the independent leagues. His velocity had plummeted and his once fearsome slider had gone missing in action. Yet the Indians took a chance on Kazmir in the off-season, inviting him to spring training. It was there that they discovered that Kazmir (who is amazingly still just 29 years old), had recovered much of the velocity and stuff that made him so effective back during his days in Tampa. There is exactly nobody, including Kazmir, who could have seen that coming.
Honorable mention goes to Yan Gomes who emerged as a viable Rookie of the Year candidate and, more importantly, gave the Indians an option at catcher that permitted them to move Carlos Santana, who was a big defensive liability behind the dish, to more of a DH role where his potent bat can stay in the lineup everyday.
Most Disappointing Player: In the two previous seasons, Asdrubal Cabrera had been a linchpin of the Cleveland lineup. Though his numbers were never spectacular, he had been one of the better offensive performs (which is more an indictment on the rest of the team than a compliment to Cabrera). The off-season additions lessened how much the lineup would rely on Cabrera's production in 2013 which turned out to be an absolute necessity has Cabrera turned in the absolute worst line of his career going .242/.299/.402. The OBP was easily the worst of his career and was distressingly coupled with Cabrera's strikeout rate spiking to over 20%, also far and away his worst mark ever. To make matters worse, Asdrubal, who was already wildly overrated defensively, had a truly awful season in the field, finishing with a staggering -16 Defensive Runs Saved and -12.8 UZR.
The Future: Even though they lost the Wild Card game, the Indians have to have be ecstatic about reaching the playoffs. They are clearly a team on the rise and are well positioned to give the Tigers a legitimate challenge in the AL Central in 2014. They'll have to figure out what to do about Ubaldo Jimenez who will be a free agent this winter, but the rest of the core is both intact and young. With Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and the late-emerging Danny Salazar as the backbone of the franchise, they should be right back in the mix as a contender and they won't have to spend tens of millions of dollars this off-season to do it.
Now, if only they could translate this success to some fans actually coming to the ballpark and that those that do show up don't dress in "red face," they'd be all set.