Second Thoughts Game #162: Rays 2, Indians 7
Tribe part-timers put on a show in final match of regular season
And so it ends.
Another long six-month grind has come to an end as the 2014 season of Cleveland Indians baseball is now officially in the books. They ended on a high note with a 7-2 victory over Tampa Bay to finish the year with a respectable 85-77 record.
The celebration ended once the players left the field, however, as Terry Francona's bunch fell just shy of a postseason berth after being eliminated from contention just two days ago. Of course, the goal every year is to make the playoffs, but for a team coming off a Wild Card berth in 2013 and beginning the year brandishing the slogan "Unfinished Business", they came up short.
Now that the final pitch of the season has been thrown, aside from not making the playoffs, the question everyone will speculate over the next several weeks is did the Cleveland Indians take a step forward or a step backward in 2014?
A Golden Opportunity
No question the pitching took a step forward as they set a new MLB regular season record for strikeouts and boast a Cy Young candidate ace in Corey Kluber. The youth and longevity of the rotation and bullpen creates a unique opportunity for the Tribe to become a legitimate playoff contender for the next several years if the offense and defense improve.
The Tribe front office now has a unique opportunity in front of them as for the first time in years, they have one facet of their team fully loaded and ready for the playoffs in the pitching staff, give or take an additional depth signing or two. Between the current starting five and the bullpen, everyone will remain in the fold for next season, unlike last offseason where the team was in the position of trying to replace two productive starting pitchers in Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.
They have an ace in Corey Kluber in addition to three other pitchers with potential ace-caliber stuff and a more-than-solid lefty number five starter in T.J. House to anchor the back of the rotation. In the bullpen, while another back-end type arm would be nice, I believe a potentially lighter workload next season with this new rotation will go a long way towards increasing their effectiveness, as well.
So knowing that's already in place, the Indians have one key task ahead of them and that's to improve the offense. Pitching can win a lot of games, including championships, but it cannot win anything with no runs on the board. Heck, your pushing your luck with just one or two runs per game even with the best pitching staff. Impact hitters don't grow on trees, but it's something that needs to be addressed.
Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes did a fine job leading the way at the plate, but there are still six other players in that lineup who have jobs to do. And if they can't do it, we need to find someone who can. This isn't about "developing" or "seeing what we have" anymore. I think we have a good idea of what we have now and how to push it over the top.
We don't have to recreate the potent mid-90s Indians lineups, which may be a once-in-a-lifetime concoction anyway, nor do we need to. This is most likely going to be a pitching-dominant team again next year. What we need is to add just enough offense to complement it.
Oh, and on a side note, if anyone we bring in this offseason has a decent glove, too, it wouldn't hurt.
In addition to the pitching staff picking up where they left off this season and whatever additional help the front office decides to bring in this offseason, it will be crucial for key players already in the fold, such as Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher to step up and rebound from their subpar seasons this year.
While their performance was somewhat hindered by injuries, full health is just the first step for them. For Kipnis, by his own admission, the pressure to perform added by his contract extension last offseason was an issue for him and contributed to his regression from his All-Star campaign in 2013. That in addition to a nagging oblique injury and hamstring discomfort complicated things even more.
Some are beginning to question whether Kipnis can be a long-term productive player as he has yet to show a full season of consistency. Obviously this season set new career lows in many ways for the Tribe second baseman. Nowhere to go but up, right? Who knows, maybe when he's settled into his new contract next year, the initial pressure will begin to wear off. Getting him back to his All-Star level of performance would be a tremendous boost to this team.
The same goes for Nick Swisher, who has been as good a leader and influence in the clubhouse as anyone for these young players, he has not yet met up with expectations on the field, particularly this season, which ended early due to knee issues which would require surgery. Swisher did admit that his knees had been bothering him all season and claims that was the cause of his struggles.
His knees may have hindered him somewhat, but I also contest that his over-anxiousness at the plate may have had something to do with it as well. He loves being here and he wants to do well so bad that he tries too hard. I know he tries too hard because I've seen first-hand what he can do when he relaxes at the plate. During his midseason rehab assignment with the RubberDucks, he played two games in Akron and used the whole field. Yes, it's a small sample size against minor league pitching, but that doesn't affect his approach and there was a stark difference.
For Swisher to be successful again, he needs to 1) make sure he can swing the bat fully again without issue, and 2) try to relax at the plate more and stop pulling the ball so much. Hopefully now with guys like Brantley and Gomes stepping up, he doesn't feel the need to be the primary threat in the lineup.
Additional reinforcements will still be welcome in the lineup, but a healthy Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis performing at or near their career norms will also do wonders for this offense.
See You Next Spring
As we head into the fall and winter months during the offseason, questions will be asked (and hopefully answered), rumors will fly and speculations will abound as to what lies ahead for the Tribe in 2015. By the time the dust begins to settle on the Hot Stove season, the Indians will be in Goodyear, Arizona preparing for the campaign.
While the Indians have some work to do in the offseason, I have professional and academic obligations of my own to see to. During that time, I will be taking a partial Sabbatical from my work here at the site at least until after the holidays. After the new year and leading up until spring training, I plan on returning in a regular-contributing capacity once again, especially when March rolls around, where I'll be spending a week down in camp with the team in the desert.
Until then, however, thanks to the Indians on giving us another exciting season to cover, despite its ups and downs. Thanks to the Akron RubberDucks for giving me my first experience of working behind the scenes in baseball this season. Thanks to Tony Lastoria and all the staff here at IBI for their continued support this year. And, of course, thanks to all the loyal readers for your support as well.
I'll still chime in from time to time during the offseason as news breaks, but for the time being, I'll see you all in the spring.
Up Next: Indians pitchers and catchers report to Goodyear, Arizona. February, 2015.
Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.
Thanks Jake, for doing a great job covering the Tribe. I will take exception with two of your comments though, and their both in one paragraph: "Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes did a fine job leading the way at the plate, but there are still six other players in that lineup who have jobs to do. And if they can't do it, we need to find someone who can. This isn't about "developing" or "seeing what we have" anymore. I think we have a good idea of what we have now and how to push it over the top."
I disagree that Santana did a "fine job." He did not. He had two really good months (June and July), and one other good month (Sept), but before the AS break, which imo is when the season was lost, he hit .207/.349/.388. That along with Swisher, Kipnis and Raburn tanking as well (not to mention a starting staff that fell apart), killed the Tribe's chances when they could have easily established themselves as leaders in the division.
The other point you make, that I do appreciate, suggesting that there is an opportunity and a window here w the pitching we have, and so there's a sense of urgency, does not mean that next year is not about "developing." For a team with the payroll of the Indians it will always be about developing, and to a certain extent "seeing what we have." There are a number of players that need to continue to develop for the Tribe to be successful next year: Chisenhall, Kipnis, Santana, Carrasco, Salazar and Bauer are imo the keys, but also Ramirez, Walters, Aguilar, Perez and even Lindor. All of those guys need to improve and continue to develop, and that is where the difference will be next year, not with the addition of one hitter. It's all of those guys, they need to get better, and we need to see what we have. I don't see how it can happen any other way...do you?