Indians reach goal sooner than expected
One-year turnaround builds foundation for possible extended run
CLEVELAND -- Before the champagne, before the magical September, before the rotation righted itself or the roster was given a facelift, Terry Francona sat in an interview room deep within Progressive Field being introduced as the Indians' new manager. Some pundits thought him crazy for taking the job in Cleveland.
With his good friend and new boss, general manager Chris Antonetti, at his side, Francona called the task ahead a challenge, but one he wanted to tackle in order to try to turn this franchise around. Coming off last summer's nightmare, it was expected that Cleveland was going to endure more troubles before possibly experiencing triumph.
Leave it to a 23-year-old pitching prospect to perfectly sum up what has happened instead for the Indians.
"This is the beginning of a new era," Danny Salazar declared during Cleveland's American League Wild Card-clinching celebration on Sunday.
Behind Antonetti's drastic roster maneuvering, Francona's famously loose clubhouse environment and contributions from both expected and unexpected players, the Indians have pulled off one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in team history. On Wednesday, Cleveland will host the AL Wild Card Game (first pitch at 8:07 p.m. ET on TBS) with the chance to move on to the AL Division Series to face Francona's former Red Sox.
As the party roared in Target Field's visiting clubhouse on Sunday, Antonetti was asked if the scene unfolding before his eyes was what he had in mind when he hired Francona.
"This," he replied with a smile, "and a few more."
From the front office to the playing field, that is now the goal for Cleveland. The Indians do not want to be a "flash in the pan," as first baseman Nick Swisher put it. After so many years of misery, and now with a taste of what is possible lingering in their mouths, the Tribe wants to have staying power in the American League Central.
When Francona accepted the job, he did not know for certain what the coming winter months would hold. The Indians were able to reel in top free agents such as Swisher and Michael Bourn, helping build around a talented young nucleus that was already in place. The combination of so many new faces and roster holdovers led to a 24-win upgrade over last season's showing.
"Thing aren't like they used to be, man," Swisher said.
After a year at the helm, Francona has a better sense of what he actually has in hand.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis developed into an All-Star and is one of the game's budding talents at his position. Outfielder Michael Brantley, who has not once complained about moving from center to left field or being slotted in nearly every lineup position, has become one of the club's most consistent hitters. Carlos Santana's blend of patience and power has been an asset to the middle of the order.
Young starters such as Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and, most recently, Salazar, have solidified a starting staff anchored by leader Justin Masterson. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir could be free agents this coming winter, but their respective comebacks could lead to a longer stay in Cleveland.
The youthful foundation continues with the likes of catcher Yan Gomes and setup man Cody Allen among others, and any number of prospects down on the farm (most notably, shortstop Francisco Lindor).
"There were a lot of good pieces in place," Francona said. "And then Chris went and made some amazing additions this winter."
Does Francona believe that makes the Indians' current run sustainable for many years?
"That's easier said than done, and I know that," Francona cautioned. "I am excited about our future here, but you kind of take what you have now and try to do with it what you can, and don't get too full of yourself. And then, when it's over, you start thinking about next year and how you can get better."
After Sunday's clincher in Minnesota, Francona delayed the team bus' departure and allowed his players' celebration to rage on. The manager wanted them to enjoy the moment, savoring how far the team had come this season, and how far away last year now feels.
In August 2012, the Indians lost 24 games and ended with 94 losses.
Cleveland won 21 this September and won 92 overall to seal its place in the postseason.
"It's night and day," Indians pitcher Chris Perez said. "It's amazing how it can happen, but it happened. You have to give credit to the front office and [Francona]."
Perez went through four losing seasons with the Indians before experiencing the team's success this year.
The same goes for Masterson, who made his first All-Star team this summer.
"This is what you play for," Masterson said on Sunday. "You play to win a World Series, but you've got to get their first, get to the playoffs. So you play to get to the playoffs and here we are with that opportunity. It's just been incredible. The ups and downs of this organization the last few years, we couldn't ask for anything better."
Except to keep it going over the next few seasons, too.
"What a turnaround," Swisher said. "It shows you what this organization is doing. We're working to get better every single year."