Indians rebound but can't fulfill expectations

After trades of key veterans, young core makes push for postseason berth

Indians rebound but can't fulfill expectations

CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Terry Francona does not like to bring up his Boston days when he's around his current team. Everyone knows about the exorcised demons and the World Series triumphs with the Red Sox. No one needs to see Tito's diamond-encrusted rings.

"I don't go back much and talk about Boston," Francona said. "I don't think that's good. Nobody wants to hear that."

Indians will look to build on strong finish

Francona broke that element of his character during an early-August meeting with members of the Tribe's core group, though. With players like Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes in front of him, and Cleveland's season slipping off the rails, Francona could not help but recall a vivid moment during a critical point with the Red Sox.

Francona wove a tale for the leaders of the Indians' present and near future, a story about how Boston's season was falling apart in 2006, and Francona held a meeting with his leaders in the Red Sox's clubhouse. He spoke of fighting through the adversity and claiming the club as their own, and he told them that the trials at hand could lead to spoils down the road.

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"The next year, they led us almost wire to wire," Francona said of Boston's 2007 World Series championship run. "And I was convinced that it was because they had endured and did it right. I really felt like you could tell. And, you're starting to see that with some of these guys here now."

Francona pointed to that mid-season meeting as the most important moment of the Indians' turbulent 2015 season, one in which the team fell far short of preseason expectations. Following four months of subpar play, the Indians dramatically altered their roster through a series of trades -- most notably, parting with veterans Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn -- but were not trying to forfeit the future.

"They're always trying to find a way to help us improve," Kluber said of the front office. "They felt like, at that time, those changes were what we needed to take steps in the right direction."

That is why Indians general manager Chris Antonetti and Francona had a sit-down with the players who are inked to long-term deals. They wanted to convey the firm belief that the building blocks remained in place to help Cleveland return to the postseason -- and soon.

"It was a really important day," Francona said. "Because it was genuine and it was honest, and we wanted those guys to know how we felt."

After that meeting, Cleveland's revamped roster improved its play dramatically on the field. On the day the Indians dealt Swisher and Bourn to Atlanta, they fell to 10 games below .500 (49-59). From there, the Tribe took off, piling up wins and steadily climbing back into the American League Wild Card race, where the team remained until the final homestand of the season.

"We weren't going to quit," Kluber said. "There's that mindset that we're going to fight until the end. Just because we were a ways back, and things weren't going well, we weren't feeling sorry for ourselves or giving up or thinking that we didn't have a chance."

Rookie shortstop Francisco Lindor helped ignite the lineup and flashed stellar defense, putting himself in position for some offseason hardware, but also bringing energy to a team that sorely needed a boost. Rookie third baseman Giovanny Urshela helped in that regard, too.

Statcast: Lindor's diving stop

"You always want that spark out of your younger guys," Kipnis said. "You always want that ball of energy under the bright lights, where it reminds you just how exciting it is to be out there, and that it's still just a game. You see that more in the fresh faces of newcomers. Not only that, they played above expectations when they got here."

"It's obviously been a roller-coaster ride, where we're in it, we're not in it, we're in it, back and forth," he later added. "I think the end of the year almost shaped up like [2014], where we've ended on a high note, a positive note, and have some momentum to carry over into next season."

Record: 81-80, third in the AL Central

Defining moment: The press release on Aug. 7 looked like a practical joke. Instead, Antonetti had pulled off the improbable, trading veterans Swisher and Bourn and cash to the Braves in exchange for corner infielder Chris Johnson. Cleveland invested $104 million to bring Swisher and Bourn into the fold before the 2013 season, but injuries and diminished performance unfortunately defined their time with the Tribe. The deal created a dramatic shift in leadership in the clubhouse, and it helped initiate a turnaround on the field for the Indians.

What went right: For the third season in a row under Francona, the Indians enjoyed a second-half surge. This year, it pulled them back into the AL Wild Card picture for the final few weeks. That's hardly something to hang their hat on -- especially given the lofty preseason expectations -- but it does provide some hope going into the offseason.

"We're going to be a little more cautiously optimistic next year," Kipnis said. "We're not going to read into anything. We're not going to expect anything. I think that's how it should be. We're going to go out and play hard. That's the best way to go about things."

Much of Cleveland's success rested on the arms in the rotation. While Kluber was plagued by poor run support in a pile of tough-luck losses, he turned in a solid season. Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer also had flashes of success. Down the stretch, right-handers Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson helped shore up the back end of the staff, too.

Kluber and Carrasco flashed their dominance in brilliant performances during the year. On May 13, Kluber struck out 18 in a one-hitter against the Cardinals. Carrasco followed suit with a pair of near no-hitters (on July 1 against Tampa Bay and again on Sept. 25 against the Royals).

Kluber strikes out 18

The midseason acquisitions of Abraham Almonte and Johnson were a success, and the rookie duo of Lindor and Urshela helped solidify the defense. As a whole, the Indians' defense over the final three months was dramatically improved by the personnel changes around the diamond. A major boon was the impressive switch from third base to right field by Lonnie Chisenhall.

Kipnis rode a hot start to his second All-Star appearance, and he turned in a season worthy of consideration for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Brantley was solid again in the heart of the lineup, Cody Allen was overpowering in the ninth inning, and Lindor gave the Indians one of baseball's top rookies this year.

What went wrong: The Indians limped out of the gates, turning in a 7-14 April record that created an uphill battle the rest of the way. A major issue early on was offensive run support to back the starting pitching, though the fifth spot in the rotation was also a revolving door for the first few months.

The overwhelming struggles of the first half triggered trades that shipped veterans Swisher, Bourn, Brandon Moss, David Murphy and Marc Rzepczynski out of town. With those moves, the Indians made it clear that they were keeping an eye on 2016 and beyond, and the club embarked on a two-month evaluation period.

The Opening Day combination of Chisenhall at third and Jose Ramirez at short did not pan out and they both needed trips back to Triple-A before being recalled in the second half. Gomes sustained a right knee injury in April that hindered his offensive production all summer, too. Bauer, while impressive in spurts, faded badly in the second half and spent much of September in the bullpen.

Biggest surprise: When Chisenhall was shipped back to Triple-A on June 9, it was fair to wonder if his days with Cleveland were numbered. He had, at the very least, lost his footing for the starting role at third base. While in the Minors, Chisenhall floated the idea of trying his hand in the outfield, and the Indians allowed the experiment. What followed was an incredible transformation for Chisenhall, who returned to the Indians in late July and emerged as one of the league's top defensive right fielders by multiple metrics. Chisenhall's turnaround and position switch over the final two months put him back into the plans for 2016.

Chisenhall turns two

Hitter of the Year: With apologies to Kipnis, who won the AL Player of the Month Award in May and represented the Indians at the All-Star Game, Brantley was the team's most consistent and productive hitter across the 2015 campaign. The left fielder became the first player in team history to compile at least 15 steals, 15 homers, 45 doubles and 150 hits in consecutive seasons. Brantley did so while playing through a variety of health woes at various points throughout the year.

Pitcher of the Year: Carrasco gets the nod over Kluber, even though the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner's win-loss record does not accurately depict the strength of his season. Like Kluber, Carrasco inked a long-term contract before this season, giving Cleveland a solid one-two punch for years to come. Carrasco responded with career highs in wins, starts, complete games, innings and strikeouts. He and Kluber became the first Tribe duo to each top 200 strikeouts in a season since 1968.

Carrasco's 15-K, one-hit shutout

Rookie of the Year: Hands down, Lindor takes home this honor for the Indians, and the 21-year-old shortstop will surely garner votes for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Cleveland hasn't had a rookie win that accolade since Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1990. Lindor joined the Indians on June 14 and, following a slow start, developed into one of baseball's hottest hitters in the second half. With a blend of stellar defense, speed and solid hitting, Lindor helped spark the Tribe's late-season push.

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