Pitching kept Tribe in hunt for postseason return

Kluber emerges as staff ace for promising rotation; injuries hamper offense's output

Pitching kept Tribe in hunt for postseason return

CLEVELAND -- The Indians made their goal known from the early days of Spring Training. Cleveland's players made it clear that complacency was not an option and that there was unfinished business to take care of this year.

The injuries, inconsistencies and trades that altered the shape of the roster over the season's six months could not be predicted. In that sense, what Cleveland accomplished -- falling just short of a second straight trip to the playoffs -- was impressive. Then again, coming close is not what the players inside the Tribe's clubhouse had in mind.

"If you don't get into the postseason, it's disappointing no matter what," Indians closer Cody Allen said. "To not be playing in October is a disappointing thing."

Kluber-led staff fuels Indians' hopes | 2015 schedule

There are an assortment of reasons that tripped up the Tribe.

The Indians opened the season with sinkerballer Justin Masterson atop their rotation, but his struggles hindered the staff early on, and before the end of July, he was traded and in a Cardinals uniform. Cleveland's defense was perplexingly bad, putting far too much pressure on the pitchers and forcing the lineup to play from behind throughout the year.

Key offensive players such as Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis and Michael Bourn dealt with a variety of injury issues that in turn affected their on-field performance. Those issues, along with other developments over the course of the year, led to a reliance on a handful of rookies, forcing Cleveland into the tough position of trying to contend while developing young players.

Through it all, the Indians stayed in the hunt for the postseason.

"It's gratifying," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I don't think it's any secret how I feel or how we feel about our team. One of our biggest goals is for us to feel like we're going in one direction. Sometimes it's the wrong direction, but we do it together and we work really hard to get there. You get reminders every day."

That Cleveland finished within earshot of October was largely a credit to the club's pitching staff.

Led by right-hander Corey Kluber, who turned in a campaign worthy of serious consideration for the American League Cy Young Award, the Indians' rotation evolved into a stalwart cast of arms by the second half. Down the stretch, Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and T.J. House formed a strong five-man staff that consistently put Cleveland in position to win.

While the pitching soared in the second half, though, the offense faded.

"You want to click with all of it," Bourn said. "You want to have good pitching, timely hitting, hitting with runners in scoring position, stuff like that. ... It would be very tough, I think, to beat us in a [playoff] series, the way our pitching has been [in August and September]."

When it was all said and done, the Indians enjoyed breakout seasons from Kluber and outfielder Michael Brantley, enjoyed solid years from Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes and the bullpen as a whole. It all added up to a winning record, marking the first time since 2000-01 that Cleveland enjoyed consecutive winning seasons.

Of course, simply having a winning season was not the Tribe's goal.

"We're not looking for a participation award," Kipnis said. "We understand that wins are the most important thing at the end of the day. That's never been a question here in this clubhouse. We all know what needs to happen, but it's hard to not look around this locker room and at least be excited about this team, the future, what we have starting here.

"The players, the front office, we realize that we have the start and the making of a good team for a couple years or a long time."

Record: 85-77, third in the AL Central

Defining moment: Kluber hit his stride by July, piecing together a season that was already bound to go down as one of the best in several years by a Cleveland pitcher. The righty took things to another level on July 30 against the Mariners, who were dealt a three-hit shutout by Kluber on just 85 pitches. He threw just 16 balls in the entire nine-inning masterpiece. That stellar performance set the tone for the final two months, which were powered by pitching as Cleveland flirted with contention.

What went right: Kluber turned in one of the most dominant pitching seasons in franchise history, emerging as a surprising AL Cy Young Award candidate. In the process, Cleveland found a new leader for its staff for the foreseeable future. ... The rotation as a whole turned things up a few notches in the second half, giving the Indians one of the best starting staffs in the league. ... Carrasco moved out of the bullpen and back into the rotation in August and gave the Tribe a legitimate No. 2 arm down the stretch. ... Righty Josh Tomlin dealt with inconsistencies all year, but on June 28 in Seattle he spun a near-perfect game in one of the top highlights of Cleveland's season. ... Brantley made his first All-Star team, compiled one of the best all-around offensive seasons in team history and developed into an MVP candidate. ... Santana overcame a rough two-month start, finishing with 27 home runs and 113 walks in a solid season. The former catcher also found a full-time home at first base by the second half, ending a stint as a part-time third baseman and backup catcher. ... Gomes lived up to his contract extension, giving the Indians one of the top catchers in the game. ... Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall stormed out of the gates in a first-half showing that culminated in a three-homer, five-hit, nine-RBI outburst against the Rangers on June 9. He became the first hitter in Major League history to hit those plateaus in just five plate appearances in a game. ... Allen emerged as a trustworthy closer for a solid bullpen that became the first in AL history to feature four pitchers (Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw and Allen) with at least 70 appearances. ... Besides Bauer and House, rookies such as shortstop Jose Ramirez, lefty Kyle Crockett, outfielder Tyler Holt and infielder Zach Walters played key roles at times for the club.

What went wrong: Swisher dealt with knee issues since the end of Spring Training, taking a drastic toll on his performance. On Aug. 20, Swisher underwent season-ending surgery on both knees. ... Kipnis, who was an All-Star in 2013, was struck with an oblique injury at the end of April and, following his return in late May, his offensive output lacked the same kind of power he has displayed in the past. ... Cleveland's defense led the AL in errors, costing the team's solid pitching staff key runs throughout the season. ... Righty John Axford, who was signed over the winter to serve as the closer, lost his job by May and was traded to Pittsburgh in August. ... Masterson and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera struggled in the first half and were traded (to St. Louis and Washington, respectively) before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. ... Bourn was hindered by a left hamstring issue throughout the season, leading to multiple trips to the disabled list. ... Veterans David Murphy, Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles dealt with injuries at various points in the season, putting more pressure on younger players to help keep Cleveland afloat in the playoff race.

Biggest surprise: Carrasco. The big right-hander was given a spot in the Opening Day rotation mainly due to the fact that he was out of Minor League options. Then, following a rough showing in early April, Carrasco was sent to the bullpen. It was easy to think that Cleveland had given up on giving Carrasco chances to seize a starting role, but the club made a surprising decision to put him back in the rotation in August. Carrasco adopted a more aggressive approach, pounding the strike zone, overpowered hitters and gave the Indians one of their best stories of the season.

Hitter of the Year: Brantley. From start to finish, Brantley was the unquestioned leader for Cleveland's lineup. The left fielder hit .327 while piling up 20 homers, 23 stolen bases, 45 doubles and 200 hits in a special season for the Tribe. Brantley found a home in the third spot of the batting order and was worthy of being mentioned in the Most Valuable Player discussion by season's end. He also made the Indians look smart for signing him to a four-year contract worth $25 million during Spring Training.

Pitcher of the Year: Kluber. It's not even close. The right-hander won more games (18) than any other Indians pitcher in the previous five seasons and ended in the franchise's all-time top 10 for strikeouts (269) in a single campaign. Kluber not only developed into a clear-cut leader for Cleveland's rotation, but turned himself into a realistic contender for the Cy Young Award. Kluber pounds the strike zone, enticing early contact, but featured a cutter and slider that preyed on oppositing hitters, and provided perfect complements for his hard two-seam sinker.

Rookie of the Year: Take your pick between Bauer and House and you would have a sound argument for either pitcher as Cleveland's top rookie. Bauer logged more innings and shored up the middle of the rotation. House came up from Triple-A and gave the Indians a reliable fifth starter in the second half. A poll conducted among members of the Indians' coaching and player-development staffs was split between the pair. Ramirez and Crockett also played key roles.

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.