Things did not quite go as planned for the majority of fans in attendance for Wednesday night’s AL Wild Card Game in Cleveland, as the Cleveland Indians were blanked by the Tampa Bay Rays in a 4-0 loss. Rays starter Alex Cob - who has been on a tear since returning to action in mid-August, following a stint on the disabled list that was induced by a scary line drive to the head - continued his dominance over opposing hitters against an Indians lineup that failed to cash in on any of its vast array of opportunities at the dish.
Despite the club’s lackluster Wild Card performance, it would be more than unfair to call this 2013 season a failure for the Tribe. Coming off a season in which the Indians experienced their second post-All-Star break collapse in two years, the team was able to translate its increased talent level and clubhouse chemistry into a season that kept fans on their toes for its entirety. Rather than falling into second-half obscurity yet again, the Terry Francona-led Indians hung around the Wild Card race long enough to be in prime position for a postseason run in September. They seized the opportunity in excellent fashion, rounding out the regular season with a miraculous 21-6 record during its final month, including a 10-game winning streak to cap it off.
In spite of the team’s fantastic final month, there’s no doubt that the Indians served as one of baseball’s streakiest clubs in 2013. Heck, they were under .500 as late as June 17th. Needless to say, the team’s transformation from mediocrity to a club that finished 22 games above .500 happened quite rapidly.
How did the Tribe manage to turn things around so quickly? Here are a few key contributing factors that come to mind:
Managerial and veteran leadership
None of this would have been possible without the help of one of baseball’s greatest managerial minds in Terry Francona. Leadership was a key trait that was so obviously lacking in past seasons under the reign of the soft-spoken Manny Acta, but under the guidance of Francona and an overall improved coaching staff, leadership and experience served as one of the Tribe’s greatest assets this season.
When the Indians inked Columbus native Nick Swisher to a 4-year, $56 million deal during the offseason, some Tribe fans were ready to anoint him as the team’s long-awaited big bopper in the middle of the order. Much to the dismay of many of these fans, Swisher did not live up to the lofty on-field expectations placed upon his broad shoulders. His numbers were not quite up to par with those compiled during his previous four seasons spent in New York as a member of what was a ridiculously good Yankees lineup. He did produce enough, though, to warrant a continuation of adoration from fans (Brohio, anyone?).
Luckily, what Swisher lacked this season in statistical success he may have more than made up for with his contributions behind the scenes. A consistently smiling face from a professional baseball player throughout the course of a grueling 162-game schedule is not something you see all too often, but Swisher seemed to sustain a wide grin all season long. Fans, coaches, and team members alike all appreciated the refreshing nature of Swisher’s boyish enthusiasm for the game.
Jason Giambi served as a virtual player-coach for an Indians squad that already boasted one of the game’s best veteran clubhouse presences in Swisher. There was a reason the Colorado Rockies interviewed Giambi for its managerial opening during the offseason. It’s easy to forget that the Giambino was an admitted steroid-user back in his heyday, considering how much respect and admiration he has received from the Indians’ fan base. Regardless of his past mistakes, Giambi served as one of the driving forces behind a much-improved clubhouse and dugout atmosphere as well as a mentor for the team’s youngsters.
The emergence of Kipnis, Brantley, and Gomes
Prior to the 2013 season, many experts predicted that an improved Indians lineup would lead to guys like Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, and Jason Kipnis seeing better pitches and, therefore, producing better results at the plate. While Cabrera struggled mightily to get into any sort of groove this season, Santana progressed to the tune of a .268 AVG/.377 OBP/.455 SLG slash line (compare that his 2012 line of .252/.365/.420).
While Santana’s improvements came at a modest rate, Kipnis emerged as one of the league’s best second basemen while also earning a trip to the All-Star game in mid-July. Kip’s final stat line (.284 AVG/17 HR/84 RBI/30 SB) was ballooned a bit by the 26-year-old’s torrid stretch during the months of May and June, where he hit 11 of his 17 homeruns and drove in 47 of his 84 RBI (he also hit at a ridiculous .419 clip in June), but the numbers are still a compilation of a season-long superior effort that puts him right in line with some of the game’s best.
Although he struggled to avoid another second-half decrease in production, Kipnis’s Post-All-Star break performance was much better than it was during last season’s collapse. Not to mention, he finished the season strong with an encouraging month of September in which he batted .287.
Following the second baseman’s breakout season, most would be more than willing to anoint Kipnis as the team’s most valuable player in 2013, though another player deserves quite a bit of consideration for that title, as well: Left fielder Michael Brantley.
With the offseason acquisitions of two Gold Glove-caliber speedy defensive outfielders in Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs, Brantley – who spent most of the 2012 season as the Tribe’s center fielder - was forced to move to the much less glamorous corner outfield position in left. He embraced the role, however, and finished the season with an unscathed fielding percentage of 1.000 in 1,293 innings of work. Perhaps even more impressive than his error-less effort in left field was the arm accuracy displayed from throws made to second base. On more than a few occasions, Brantley was able to gun down baserunners looking to extend singles into doubles. He ultimately finished first in fielding percentage among all qualifying left fielders and tied for fourth in assists with 11.
Brantley’s production at the plate didn’t go unnoticed, either, as he drove in 73 runs and slugged 10 long-balls, both of which were a career best. The 26-year-old was most productive in key situations, as he batted .375 with runners in scoring position and lived up to his nickname of ”Dr. Smooth.” He was much more efficient on the base paths this season, also, succeeding on 17 of his 21 stolen base attempts (Brantley went 12-for-21 in 2012).
Lost in the shuffling of players during the offseason was catcher Yan Gomes, who - alongside infielder Mike Aviles – was acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays for reliever Esmil Rogers. Needless to say (even though I’m saying it), the Indians made out quite well from this trade. Aviles has served as one of the team’s go-to bench players, and Gomes has emerged as the Indians’ catcher of the future.
After showing glimpses of promising offensive potential during spring training, the main concern from the Tribe’s coaching staff surrounding Gomes then became how much of an impact he could have defensively. He spent most of his short stint with the Blue Jays in 2012 at first base, but came into spring training as a viable candidate to backup Carlos Santana and Lou Marson at catcher. When Marson went down early in the season with a neck injury, the Tribe were forced to bring Gomes up from Triple-A Columbus earlier than anticipated. Marson then returned just a few short weeks later before sustaining yet another injury, only to have the latest one keep him on the disabled list for the remainder of the season. So, Gomes became the backup catcher by default.
Gomes has more than filled the void this season, producing an impressive offensive stat line (.294 AVG/11 HR/38 in just 88 games played) while also developing into a legitimate force defensively. Among all catchers with more than 70 games played, Gomes ranks fifth in caught stealing percentage, having thrown out 20 of 49 base stealers. His defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 1.9 is much higher than that of fellow Indians “catcher” (let’s face it, he will no longer be the catcher of this team) Carlos Santana, who posted an underwhelming defensive WAR of -1.1.
If not for his brief appearance in the big leagues last season, Gomes would likely be a top candidate for the American League Rookie of the Year award.
The Goon Squad
Together, Giambi, Ryan Raburn, Aviles, and Gomes helped form one of the league’s best bench rotations. The group ultimately earned the nickname of ”Goon Squad,” and rightfully so. This rather odd mix of veterans (and Gomes) served as four of the team’s unsung heroes.
Giambi’s impact was mostly made behind the scenes, as he consistently struggled at the dish en route to a final batting average of just .183. He did provide two of the season’s most memorable walk-off homeruns, though, one of which came in the season’s final week and served as a crucial momentum builder that propelled the team through its final playoff push.
After producing the worst offensive performance of his career in 2012, which led to his eventual offseason release from the Detroit Tigers, Raburn emerged as one of the Indians’ biggest power bats and one of the season’s most impressive comeback stories (the Tribe had a number of those in 2013). Despite playing in just 87 regular season games, Raburn smashed 16 homeruns and 55 RBI (translates to roughly 30 HR and 102 RBI over the course of 162 games).
Aviles served primarily as a utility man for the majority of the season, though he did begin to see more playing time at third base as the season progressed to spell struggling youngster Lonnie Chisenhall. Though his numbers (.252 AVG/9 HR/46 RBI) are never going to blow anyone away, his defensive versatility proved to be a huge asset for the team that was frequently utilized by Francona.
As previously discussed, Gomes’s impact both at the plate and behind it cannot be undervalued, as his development into an everyday catcher has been one of the most impressive aspects of the Indians’ season. Both the Indians organization and its fan base expect great things from the 26-year-old Brazilian in the coming years.
The starting rotation
Prior to the 2013 season, most assumed that the Indians’ starting rotation would serve as the club’s Achilles’ heel. To the surprise of all of the baseball world - except pitching coach Mickey Callaway – the Tribe’s starting pitching staff emerged as one of the league’s most formidable units during the second half of the season.
Leading the way was good ol’ Justin Masterson, who was one of the Tribe’s two representatives on the 2013 AL All-Star squad. Masty was as consistent as they come throughout the vast majority of the season, going 14-10 while also posting a respectable 3.45 ERA. It was a true bounce-back year for the big righty who failed to follow up his excellent 2011 campaign (12-10, 3.21 ERA) by struggling mightily in 2012 (11-15, 4.93). Masty throws one of the nastiest sinkers in all of baseball, and he proved its worth all season long.
Masterson’s team-first mentality was evidenced by his acceptance of Francona’s late-season request of his 28-year-old ace to pitch out of the bullpen while recovering from an early September oblique injury. Much to the surprise of no one, he thrived in his short time spent filling the role.
More astonishing then the re-emergence of Masterson in 2013 was the re-emergence of Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez came to Cleveland amid extremely high expectations, and rightfully so, given that the Indians gave up their top two pitching prospects to acquire him from the Colorado Rockies. Since the trade, however, the right-hander had produced poorly (to say the least). That is until the second half of this season, during which the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder compiled the following post-All-Star break statistics: A win-loss record of 6-5, a 1.82 ERA, and 100 K’s in 84 innings pitched.
The Dominican big man has seemingly figured things out under the direction of Callaway, who helped make minor tweaks to Ubaldo’s delivery that, combined with an improvement in consistency from Ubaldo himself, provided the groundwork for his comeback season.
In a pitching staff full of comeback stories, the most surprising of all came in the form of Scott Kazmir, a guy who virtually no one expected to even make a big league roster prior to the season. Injuries previously derailed what appeared to be a promising career for the former Rays ace, who found himself pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League as recently as last summer. The Indians took a relatively small chance on Kazmir, signing him to a minor league deal in December.
Rumors of his demise weren’t even that greatly exaggerated, as Kazmir basically did fall of the baseball radar for a few seasons. He made enough of an impression during spring training to warrant a spot in the rotation, however, and has since proven that he undoubtedly deserved it. He finished the season with a 10-9 record to go along with a 4.04 ERA, while also striking out 162 batters in 158 innings of work. Considering where he’s been, the turnaround was truly remarkable to watch.
While Masterson, Ubaldo, and Kazmir re-discovered their potential, young arms like Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Danny Salazar materialized into quality starters themselves to help further solidify an overall balanced group of talented veterans and youngsters alike within the Indians pitching staff.
All in all, it’s hard to dismiss the Tribe’s 2013 season as anything less than spectacular. Obviously, a deep playoff run would have been a much more fitting ending to what was truly a magical season in Cleveland. But take solace in the fact that this group of players - fueled by a quality mix of veteran leadership, young talent, bench production, and a surprisingly good pitching staff – produced the Indians’ first playoff appearance in nearly six years. And with this group, I don’t expect Tribe fans to have to wait another six years.
Opening photo credit: Mark Duncan/AP
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