Dolan's Tribe poised for title run

Dolan's Tribe poised for title run

HOUSTON -- Indians CEO Paul Dolan sat inside a conference room at the Indians' Spring Training complex for an interview with MLB.com on a recent morning, the sun-splashed practice fields within view from the building's second floor. Each year, and for each team, this is the time for optimism, but this feels different for Cleveland.

This year, the optimism is aligned with expectations.

Throughout Spring Training, a growing number of national media outlets gravitated toward the Tribe in annual predictions. Sports Illustrated went as far as putting the Indians on one of its regional covers and declared that this was the year the team would win its first World Series since 1948. If there was a preference to fly under the radar, Cleveland now has to adjust to being in the spotlight.

"Clearly, there is sort of a groundswell of recognition that we have a very good team," Dolan said with a smile. "That's better than the other end of it. We certainly feel good about it. But, we mostly feel good about it because we know what we have. We saw it on the field last year and the last couple years."

Over the past two years, Cleveland has won 177 games (fourth-most in the American League) and tasted the postseason with an appearance in the AL Wild Card Game in 2013. Terry Francona won Manager of the Year in '13, starter Corey Kluber captured a Cy Young Award in '14 and the Indians look poised to make a run at the division title in '15.

It has been a swift turnaround for an Indians club that lost 94 games in 2012 and has ranked near the bottom of the league in attendance in each of the past two years. Cleveland also has found success while operating on a payroll that annually falls within the bottom third of baseball. There is a segment of Tribe fans that is vocal about the low payroll and the organization not being a big player in free agency.

Such complaints arose again this winter, when the Indians -- with a Major League roster mostly intact from last season -- were relatively quiet. Cleveland signed free-agent right-hander Gavin Floyd for $4 million (he has since been lost indefinitely to a right elbow fracture) and traded for slugger Brandon Moss, who avoided arbitration with a $6.5 million deal.

Dolan brushes off the criticism, because he has placed an extreme level of faith in the group already in place.

"There is always that what-have-you-done-lately syndrome that exists in sports and entertainment," Dolan said. "In the offseason, there's a lot of attention paid to what clubs do. Sometimes what gets lost is what we already have on the roster. That's OK, because now we're going to start playing games."

Prior to the 2013 season, Dolan did approve long-term deals for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, spending a combined $104 million in guaranteed salary to sign the players and showing a willingness to target free agents in opportunistic situations. With a wealth of Draft selections acquired for that summer, those signings balanced the picks lost through the compensation system.

More important to Cleveland's success of late has been the targeting and acquiring of players through trades. All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley (third in AL Most Valuable Player voting last season), catcher Yan Gomes (a Silver Slugger winner last year), first baseman Carlos Santana and Kluber are among the current players who were obtained as Minor Leaguers through trades.

"That's where we have done very, very well," Dolan said. "That starts with our professional scouts and, ultimately, guys like [general manager Chris Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro]. That has been the linchpin of this franchise -- our ability to recognize talent. We've done well in the Draft recently, but over the years our particular talent has been identifying talent in other organizations."

Locking up young players via extensions -- buying out arbitration years and the first season or two of free agency -- has also been critical for Cleveland. Most recently, the team convinced Brantley, Gomes and Jason Kipnis to sign long-term pacts prior to last season. On Saturday night, Cleveland followed that trend with Kluber, agreeing to a five-year extension that includes two team-option years.

"He's the kind of guy you want in the organization and want to keep," Dolan said.

Dolan was in Arizona for several weeks of Spring Training, so he was looking forward to returning to Cleveland to see the progress made on the massive renovation project at Progressive Field. The sweeping undertaking, which will be officially unveiled for the home opener on Friday, falls in line with the kind of renaissance taking place in downtown Cleveland.

More and more people have been returning to the city's core, and the Indians are trying to find ways not only to draw them to the ballpark, but to create a product that will convince others to drive in from the suburbs. That has been a challenge for the ballclub since the recession hit in the 2000s, when a multitude of companies left Cleveland, robbing the Tribe of a significant amount of ticket holders.

The recent progress made downtown has been encouraging for the Indians.

"People coming to live downtown is at least a step back to where we were," Dolan said. "We've got a long way to go. We're doing everything we can to make [the team and ballpark] as attractive as possible."

While attendance has still been a struggle, Dolan noted that the TV ratings last season (the Indians ranked fifth overall in baseball, according to Forbes) were extremely encouraging, too.

"That reflects the reality that this community is very, very interested in the team," Dolan said. "The passion for baseball and the Cleveland Indians we know is there and we have all the data to show it. We need to work harder to convert that passion into ticket buying."

If the current preseason optimism translates into on-field success, and another trip to the October stage, that will be another step in that direction for the Indians.

"We have a team that will compete for a World Series title," Dolan said. "There are a lot of other teams that will compete for a World Series title, too, but we're legitimately in the mix. That's what you want."

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.