CLEVELAND -- The Indians know they fell short last season, but the club also feels strongly that it took steps forward.
The 2014 season did not end with a trip to the postseason, but Cleveland overcame a long list of problems to remain in contention for most of the year. In the process, the Indians saw Corey Kluber develop into the American League's Cy Young winner and Michael Brantley grow into one of the top all-around hitters in the Major Leagues.
Cleveland received outstanding individual performances -- among them: Lonnie Chisenhall had three home runs, five hits and nine RBIs against the Rangers on June 9, and Josh Tomlin flirted with a perfect game in a one-hit shutout against the Mariners on June 28 -- and also set some unique records. The Tribe's pitching staff turned in a Major League record 1,450 strikeouts and the most relief appearances in AL history.
It was a season both bizarre and memorable, but Indians fans were once again left wanting more when the final out was recorded. Cleveland saw its rotation make great strides and received key contributions from its young core, giving hope that the club is in a good position as it prepares for the 2015 campaign.
Here is a glance back at five of the top storylines for the Indians from the past year:
5. Locking up the Cleveland core
The Indians made some additions to the long-term blueprint in the weeks leading up to the season. In a wave a signings reminiscent of when John Hart was Cleveland's general manager in the '90s, current Tribe GM Chris Antonetti inked outfielder Brantley, catcher Yan Gomes and second baseman Jason Kipnis to multiyear contract extensions.
It began at the beginning of Spring Training, when Brantley penned his name on a four-year pact worth $25 million that runs through 2017 and has an option for '18. The deal covered all three of Brantley's arbitration years and at least one free-agent year. Brantley thanked the Indians with an All-Star season that ended with a Silver Slugger Award.
At the end of Spring Training, the Indians announced that they had also signed Gomes to a six-year, $23 million pact that includes options for the '20 and '21 campaigns. Gomes' contract was the largest in baseball history for a catcher in his pre-arbitration years. Gomes then embarked on a career year that cemented his place among the game's top backstops and also netted a Silver Slugger.
Before the home opener, Cleveland rounded out its internal signings by inking Kipnis to six-year contract worth $52.5 million that includes an option for '20. Kipnis became an All-Star in 2013 and established himself as one of the top second basemen in the Majors. He struggled through an injury-marred '14, but the Tribe firmly believes Kipnis, along with Brantley and Gomes, are key parts of the core.
4. Winning ways continue
After capturing the AL's top Wild Card spot with a frantic finish to the 2013 season, the Indians did not reach the playoffs in '14. Cleveland fell just short, falling out of contention officially on the final weekend of the regular season. October baseball was not in the cards, but the Indians won 85 games and accomplished something that had not been done in Cleveland in more than a decade.
For the first time since piecing together eight straight winning seasons from 1994-2001, the Indians turned in back-to-back winning campaigns. Under manager Terry Francona, who came to Cleveland prior to the '13 season, the Indians have posted the fourth-highest winning percentage in the AL over the past two years.
Francona won the AL Manager of the Year Award for his work in his first season in Cleveland in '13, but he arguably did an even better job in '14.
Opening Day starter Justin Masterson and veteran shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera each fell well short of expectations and were traded by July. Key players such as Kipnis, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn dealt with subpar seasons that were hindered by health woes. The Tribe's defense, especially in the first half, was the worst in the Majors. All these issues combined led to a youth movement down the stretch.
Through all the inconsistencies and injuries, the Indians remained within earshot of the postseason picture. That has given the club optimism about the team's ability to contend again in 2015.
3. Finding five for the future
Rare is the year in which a team uses the same starting rotation for the entire season. The way things started for Cleveland, it appeared that 2014 was going to me a problematic campaign in terms of production from its starting staff. Instead, the Indians headed into the offseason with what is widely considered one of the most promising young groups in baseball.
First and foremost, Kluber jumped from being a solid mid-rotation arm to suddenly performing as one of the elite pitchers in the Majors. Kluber emerged as Cleveland's No. 1 starter and turned in a historic season. He set the tone both in terms of leadership behind the scenes and production on the mound.
The second development that drastically shifted the rotation's outlook was the comeback by Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco had a rough April and was sent to the bullpen, where he reworked his approach and style, and pitched well enough to convince the Tribe to give him another chance as a starter. Over his final 10 starts, the big righty lit up the radar gun and posted a 1.30 ERA.
Along the way, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House found homes in the rotation and experienced varying levels of success, especially in the second half. After the All-Star break, the Indians' rotation led the AL and ranked second in the Majors with a 2.95 ERA. Cleveland now heads into 2015 with one of the most talented and cost-effective starting staffs in baseball.
2. Brantley's breakout campaign
As the story goes, the player to be named in the blockbuster trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers in 2008 was contingent on Milwaukee making the playoffs that year. Once the Brewers punched their ticket to the postseason, the Indians were given the rights to Brantley.
Six years later, Brantley made an All-Star team, picked up a Silver Slugger, was a finalist for a Gold Glove and finished third in voting for the AL's MVP Award. Cleveland knew it had a solid player in Brantley -- evidenced by the extension he received in the spring -- but the team could not have known that the left fielder was on the cusp of this kind of season.
Brantley set career highs in games (156), batting average (.327), on-base percentage (.385), slugging percentage (.506), home runs (20), doubles (45), runs (94), RBIs (97), stolen bases (23) and hits (200). Brantley became the first Indians batter since 1996 to reach at least 200 hits, and he became the ninth player in team history to enjoy a year with at least 20 steals and 20 homers.
Brantley's season was one of the greatest all-around offensive campaigns in Cleveland's long history, too. He became the first player in team history to have at least 20 homers, 20 steals, 45 doubles and 200 hits in a single season. Brantley is only the ninth player in Major League history to reach those plateaus in one campaign.
1. Kluber's Cy Young season
No one saw this coming. Not even Kluber saw it coming. The pitcher was even asked how he would have reacted if someone questioned him in the spring about the possibility of winning the Cy Young Award. Kluber laughed and joked that he probably would have then asked if the reporter was talking to the right person.
Kluber's season was one for the ages both in Cleveland and in baseball.
The right-hander seemingly came out of nowhere and propelled himself to the rank of Major League ace. Kluber won 18 games, posted a 2.44 ERA and piled up 269 strikeouts against 51 walks in 235 2/3 innings. Kluber also led AL pitchers in WAR (7.4) and fielding independent pitching (2.35). This is where it should be noted that this was Kluber's first full season in the Majors.
He finished sixth on Cleveland's all-time single-season strikeout list and posted the highest rate of strikeouts per nine innings (10.27) for a Tribe starter since 1966. He joined Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens as the only pitchers to have at least 18 wins, 260 strikeouts and an ERA under 2.50 in a season in the past 25 years. Only Bob Feller (1946) and Luis Tiant (1968) had done that previously for the Indians
All the statistical triumphs, combined with Kluber's part in keeping the Indians in the postseason hunt deep into the season, led to an extremely close vote for the AL Cy Young. Kluber edged out Mariners ace Felix Hernandez for the annual award, giving Cleveland four Cy Young winners (Cliff Lee, 2008; Sabathia, 2007; Gaylord Perry, 1972) in team history.