Indians are done, but how much progress came at Progressive?

Major League Baseball’s postseason starts tonight, and the Cleveland Indians won’t be a part of it this year. It’s easy to take that at face value and say that the Tribe regressed this season. Equally as simple – and probably fair to a degree – is chalking that regression up to a lack of activity last winter that  led to a more honest representation of the Indians’ true offensive ability this season. The list of defects in the 2014 Cleveland Indians goes far beyond the lack of one more run-producing bat.

The Indians did regress this year. There’s no way to look at it holistically as progress. A year ago around this time, Cleveland was preparing for the (horrible idea that is the) Wild Card round, clinging to some hope that a one-game scenario could somehow come out in the Indians’ favor. At least it was something. Now, Cleveland waits for the Browns’ return from a bye week on Sunday. It’s disappointing.

Right?

Call the season what you want, and you’ll probably be able to make an argument to prove yourself right. The fact of the matter is that there was progress this season, no matter how underwhelming the final record was. Really, there was so much improvement in some areas that it covered up some fairly awful truths about this year’s Indians.

Let’s start with Corey Kluber, who is a bonafide Cy Young candidate that deserves the award as much as anyone after posting a sparkling 18-9 record with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts. If you can, take yourself back to April and read that sentence over. If it’s still not sinking in, try reading this sentence instead:

Corey Kluber, the 28-year-old who last season went a good-but-not-great 11-5 with a fine-but-not-overly-good 3.85 ERA in his first full season in the big leagues, is a bonafide Cy Young candidate that deserves the award as much as anyone after posting an 18-9 record with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts. 

Sounds like progress. Let’s move on to Carlos Carrasco, who pulled himself from the precipice of the dangerous abyss of once-promising prospects who mysteriously turn into has-beens over night. Carrasco is 27 years old now, and clearly much more mature than he was when he first came to the Cleveland organization as a 22-year-old. His “stuff” has always been praised, but he never put it all together until this season. It all came together in a big way, with Carrasco posting an 8-7 record and a 2.55 ERA (2.67 as a starter), all while posting a K/BB ratio (4.83) that was a staggering 2.7 strikeouts better than his previous best full-season effort.

Speaking of strikeouts, they were a big deal for this season’s Indians pitching staff, as in a record-setting kind of big deal. The Tribe’s 1,450 strikeouts broke a Major League record of 1,428 set by Detroit last season. Maybe that’s how the Indians were able to stay in the playoff race for so long. They needed the strikeout numbers to be best-in-the-history-of-baseball good, because they also committed a league-worst 116 errors that put the pitching staff in tough spots more than they deserved.

The balance between scoring runs and pitching got further and further out of whack as the season wore on, which made it apparent that this edition of the Indians wasn’t likely going anywhere fast. In August, the Tribe finished 25th in MLB in runs scored. They finished the season by finishing 22nd in runs in September. Maybe it’s surprising, then, that they actually finished the season 11th in the bigs in runs. In other words, something went right somewhere along the way.

Enter Michael Brantley.

This wasn’t as big of a surprise, as Brantley had already proven that he was a good big league hitter with solid campaigns in 2012 and 2013. Still, to call 2014 a breakout for the 27-year-old right fielder would be a gross understatement. He made his first All-Star team, finished second in MLB in hits and third in batting average while posting top-ten numbers in a host of other hitting categories and became the first Indian to reach 200 hits since Kenny Lofton in 1996.

Joining Brantley in the plus category offensively was Yan Gomes, who proved that he is an All-Star caliber catcher both behind the plate and at it. Gomes’ 21 homers were a pleasant addition to the lineup, and he posted a solid .278 batting average to boot. Defensively, he caught 31 runners stealing, good for fourth in MLB.

Even Carlos Santana, who had a first half that was just about as abysmal as anyone can have, rebounded impressively post-All-Star break. In 84 games before the break, he slashed .207/.349/.388 and struck out 83 times, which was worse than only Nick Swisher over the same period. In his 68 games following the break, he slashed .260/.385/.475 and cut his strikeouts in half with 41. Unsurprisingly, Santana also led the team in homers with 27. 2014 was Santana’s worst in a lot of ways, but he proved in the end that he shouldn’t be a huge concern going forward.

Miscues and disappointments were aplenty, too. Injuries to nearly all of the Indians’ lineup fixtures didn’t do the team any favors, and when many of those fixtures weren’t hurt, they couldn’t get much going. Jason Kipnis, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn all fall into that category. You can look up the numbers if you want, but it wasn’t pretty for any of them. Add in poor defensive play and boneheaded base-running on more occasions than anyone would like, and it’s a bit of a wonder that the Tribe finished the way they did. There’s no question that the Indians would benefit from adding new personnel to the lineup in the offseason, but until the postseason shakes out and we find out exactly who will be available, that debate can be tabled for now.

We know that statistical averages at least suggest a few things. You can expect Kipnis and Swisher to be better next year if they stay healthy. Bourn is a relatively known quantity who will likely be a mid-.260’s hitter that gets on base in the low to mid-.300’s range. It’s how he’s been his entire career, even during his two All-Star seasons. Brantley probably won’t be as red-hot, but there’s no reason to believe that he can’t continue to be the cornerstone of the lineup, seeing as his past two seasons were still productive. Maybe Lonnie Chisenhall will take another step forward, maybe not. The point is, the offensive production – particularly down the stretch – wasn’t good enough this season, but it will probably be at least a hair better by next April. None of this means that improvements aren’t welcome.

Of course, averages say that pitchers like Kluber and Carrasco won’t be as dominant, either. Will Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer realize their potential next season after a full year of trying to figure it all out? There’s no way to know, but if Mickey Callaway can help Kluber and Carrasco achieve what they did this season, there’s always a possibility. The Indians will probably want to add at least a back-end rotation arm, but maybe they’ll count on the likes of T.J. House and others. These are all questions that are for a later date, but they’ll be worth keeping an eye on.

Terry Francona aptly pointed out after the season that better fundamentals would have kept some of the ugliest parts of the Indians’ season from being so augmented. Presumably, the Tribe won’t be the worst defensive team in baseball again in 2015, something that could be helped by the arrival of defensive stud and top prospect Francisco Lindor at some point next season. Hopefully, they’ll be smarter on the base paths, too.

All things considered, it was an accomplishment for the Indians to be in the hunt as long as they were and finish with the record that they did. Most importantly, this season proved that the Tribe could be in the middle of some kind of a window. As mid-market teams know well, windows can be small and fleeting. The production the Indians got on the mound this season was good enough to make serious noise if it were complimented by a more regularly competent offense. That basic conclusion should be enough for the Indians to emerge from 2014 hungry for more in 2015. And it should be enough for ownership to make a real push for something special. It’d be an awfully nice way to welcome in those fancy renovations that are coming soon to Progressive Field.

The Indians didn’t make the playoffs this year. They were frustrating and exciting in the same breath. Ultimately, they fell short. In the process, though, they stumbled on a few things that could make them very good in the very near future. For now, Cleveland will be swept up in Cavaliers and Browns mania, and rightfully so. In the mean time, the Indians will go to work in the background with an unquestionably solid core in hopes of competing again next season.

They only have 188 days until we start this marathon all over again.

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