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12/26/11 10:57 AM EST

Walk-off thrillers, Ubaldo trade highlight 2011

Asdrubal's emergence, Thome's homecoming part of magical year

CLEVELAND -- A lot of prognosticators counted the Indians out before the 2011 season began. Inside Cleveland's clubhouse, one of the youngest teams in baseball decided to do all it could to prove the critics wrong.

In the end, the Indians did not achieve their ultimate goal of reaching the postseason, but the club did serve as one of baseball's pleasant surprises. Despite a variety of obstacles, Cleveland finished second in the American League Central, taking another step toward being a realistic contender.

The Indians believe that they can compete for the division crown again in 2012, even if that means returning with virtually the same roster. Injuries took a considerable toll on the Tribe last season, forcing a group of young players to fill important roles, and the team still saw an 11-win improvement over their 2010 showing.

Pleased, but hardly satisfied, the Indians head into next year with a larger payroll and plenty more experience up and down the roster. Youngsters such as second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall -- in Triple-A at the start of last season -- will return with shots at prominent roles in the Opening Day lineup.

There are plenty of unanswered questions as the Indians head into 2012, and there are certainly risks involved in relying on youth and players returning from injuries. That said, Cleveland made positive strides over the past 12 months and believes that next season could bring even more progress.

Year in Review
Looking back at 2011
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MLB Year in Review

Here were five of the Indians' biggest storylines from the past year:

5. The walking wounded
The Indians do not like to use injuries as an excuse, but there is no denying the impact that the frequent use of the disabled list had on the ballclub. Cleveland used the DL 22 times in 2011, marking the second-highest figure in the American League. In all, Tribe players lost 826 days due to time spent on the DL. The Indians lost their entire starting outfield (Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo), their designated hitter (Travis Hafner) and 40 percent of their starting rotation (Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin) for extended periods of time. Without the resources of a big-market franchise, the Indians were left scrambling in the wake of injuries. That reality made the Indians' 80 wins and second-place finish all the more promising.

4. The Cabrera connection
Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera entered the 2011 season with 18 career home runs in four previous seasons with the team. During Spring Training, veteran infielder Orlando Cabrera suggested that the shortstop try to find certain times to swing with more authority. That advice helped pave the way for a breakout season for Asdrubal Cabrera, who started for the AL in the All-Star Game and ended with 25 homers and 92 RBIs for Cleveland. Cabrera's home run total established a new record for an Indians shortstop and for a Venezuelan-born shortstop. His jump from three homers to 25 from one year to the next marked the second-largest single-season increase in Indians history.

3. The Thomecoming
In need of some offensive help, the Indians put in a waiver claim to acquire veteran slugger Jim Thome from the Twins in August. That led to a heartwarming homecoming for one of the most storied hitters in Cleveland's long history. Thome -- the Indians' all-time home run leader with 337 in a Tribe uniform -- rejoined his original club on Aug. 25 and wasted little time in showing his flare for the dramatic. In his second game back with the Indians, Thome launched a critical homer on his 41st birthday. In his first trip back to Minnesota on Sept. 16, Thome homered again. Then, during a "Jim Thome Day" celebration in Cleveland on Sept. 23, Thome collected three hits, including a 425-foot homer to center field that marked the 604th blast of his long career. The Indians also unveiled plans to erect a Thome statue at Progressive Field.

2. Landing Ubaldo
A clear indication that the Indians believe they have a realistic shot at reaching the postseason in the near future came on July 31. That is when Cleveland pulled the trigger on an unexpected blockbuster trade to acquire star right-handed pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies. In order to land Jimenez, the Indians sent Colorado a package of four Minor Leaguers, including top pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. It was a stunning move that showed that Cleveland is viewing the next two years as a prime window for contention. Jimenez had mixed results down the stretch for the Tribe, but 2012 will provide plenty of time to evaluate the first franchise-altering move under general manager Chris Antonetti.

1. Walking it off
The Indians did not finish the way they hoped, but the team certainly gave fans a wild roller-coaster ride of a season in 2011. Cleveland stormed out of the gate and into first place in the AL Central by opening with a 14-2 record at home and a 30-15 record through May 23. Mixed throughout the season were 36 comeback wins and 18 victories in the last at-bat. The Indians enjoyed 12 walk-off wins, including seven that came courtesy of walk-off home runs. That marked the most walk-off blasts in one season for the Indians since the team had nine such shots in the 1995 campaign. Carlos Santana (April 29 against the Tigers) and Hafner (July 7 against the Blue Jays) each had a walk-off grand slam during Cleveland's memorable season. The Indians are hoping that such late-inning magic means good things are ahead for their developing team.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.