Indians have another rung to climb in '14
Playoff appearance last year was step up, but early exit left Tribe wanting more
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It has evolved from a slogan into a mentality. What started as a two-word motto stretched across the chest of some shirts is now a kind of rallying cry for the Indians.
Inside Cleveland's clubhouse, and surely around the city, the overwhelming feeling about this team heading into the 2014 season is that there is still work to be done. The Indians took a major step forward last year but ultimately fell short in their one-game taste of the October stage. That is not how the Tribe wants its story to end.
W: Allen L: Johnson SV: Axford
"That was just a stepping stone," Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said. "I think we can go farther. I don't think we've played our best baseball yet as a collective group. There's things we need to improve on. We know that, and we look forward to doing that as a team."
That is Cleveland's challenge this year.
The next chapter begins with Opening Day on Monday in Oakland.
The Indians won 92 games last summer, grabbing hold of the American League's top Wild Card spot and swiftly turning the page on the team's 94-loss showing one year earlier. In his first season at the helm, Cleveland manager Terry Francona took home the AL's Manager of the Year Award for helping guide the club to its 24-win turnaround.
The Tribe won 21 games in September, ending the month on a 10-game winning streak, but saw its run end with a 4-0 defeat to the Rays in the AL Wild Card Game. Cleveland hosted that postseason game, playing in front of a red-clad crowd that had fans reminiscing about the franchise's glory days.
Cleveland snuck up on the baseball world last year, but that will not be the case in 2014.
"People know who we are now," Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. "We put ourselves on the map last year, and that only makes things harder. Now you've got that 'X,' and that's what you work for. You want to have that. We've definitely got our work cut out for us, man."
Following the hiring of Francona two offseasons ago, Swisher and center fielder Michael Bourn each committed to Cleveland with four-year contracts. The Indians then went to work on retooling every aspect of their roster, building around the young core and trying to create a versatile group that gives Francona a slew of interchangeable parts.
The Indians appear to have a budding star in second baseman Jason Kipnis and an up-and-coming catcher in Yan Gomes. Carlos Santana -- a cleanup hitter, third baseman, backup catcher and first baseman for the Tribe -- will anchor an offense that finished as one of the AL's top-scoring groups a year ago.
This past offseason, the Indians added right fielder David Murphy to the mix with the hope of improving the team's performance against right-handed pitching. Maximizing the platoon advantage was a specialty for Francona last year, and he has reserve options in Lonnie Chisenhall, Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles and Elliot Johnson to help in that regard.
No player had 30 homers or 100 RBIs last year for the Indians, but the depth of the offense was clear.
"We had one of the better offenses in the league, statistically," Kipnis said. "Our offense is going to be a strength for us. I think a lot of the guys in the lineup are excited to be hitting next to each other again. We've got good chemistry among the position players. And I think the pitchers have a chip on their shoulders."
Heading into the season, pitching is a big unknown for the Indians.
"Isn't that the same thing people were saying last year?" Tribe starter Corey Kluber said.
Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir played key roles for Cleveland during its postseason chase, but both left via free agency. Opening Day starter Justin Masterson will lead the staff again -- potentially for the final time for the Indians -- and Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar will play larger roles.
The bullpen also experienced a high rate of turnover.
The Indians have a new closer in John Axford and are asking youngster Cody Allen to step up as the team's main setup man. Over the winter, the Tribe also traded for lefty Josh Outman, pairing him with southpaw Marc Rzepczynski in the revamped relief corps. Cleveland is also counting Bryan Shaw and Vinnie Pestano to fill important roles.
"We lost a few very key pieces from the last few years," Allen said. "But we brought in some guys, and I feel like some guys really took a step forward last year. We definitely have the pieces to do it. Bullpens are funny. It's going to sort itself out, and we've got some guys who can step up and have big years."
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti is looking forward to seeing what the team, which consists of many of the same faces from a year ago, can do in the coming months.
"More than anything, I enjoy so much being around this group of coaches and players," Antonetti said, "and to see the way they interact and to see the way they go about their business and the way they do their work. That's what's fulfilling day to day.
"How many wins or losses that translates into at the end of the year, we don't know exactly what that will be. But I believe in the group of people that are here from top to bottom. I'm excited to work alongside that group and see how good we can be."
Francona said last season was an important step for the Indians, but it left the club craving more in the aftermath of its abrupt exit from the playoffs.
"You want to learn from everything you've done in the past," the manager said. "At the same time, we don't want to be that team that got hot the last two weeks, it was kind of a nice story, and then didn't do much after that."
That is the "unfinished business" that everyone around the Indians is talking about.
"We know we're better than last year," Chisenhall said.. "We still have most of the same guys, and we've learned from mistakes and we've gotten better from it."
As for the red T-shirts that have been floating around the clubhouse, Francona said he was still waiting for someone to drop one off in his office.
"There's always a down moment in every organization," Francona said with a smirk.