September 23, 2014

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Indians: Terry Francona, improved roster put focus on playoffs

The Indians talk each year about contending in the American League Central Division and qualifying for the postseason. Maybe even winning the franchise’s first World Series title since 1948.

Manager Terry Francona brought instant credibility when he was hired by the Indians following a disappointing 2012 season. (AP photo.)

This year, they actually mean it.

A new manager in Terry Francona, who owns two World Series rings, and one of the busiest offseasons in franchise history have changed the baseball landscape in Cleveland, fueling optimism throughout the organization and fan base that this could be the year the team returns to the postseason.

The Indians mean business, and plan on proving it in 2013.

“Yeah, I feel right now like we’ve got the team that’s going to say, ‘This year, it’s Tribe Time,’” said shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a two-time All-Star and the lone player remaining on the roster from Cleveland’s last trip to the playoffs in 2007. “I’m serious. I feel we’re going to be in the playoffs this season. I think this is the year for the Cleveland Indians.”

It’s certainly conceivable, and that’s something that could rarely be said in a recent past that has seen the Indians lose more than 90 games in three of the last four years.

Nearly all of the positive vibes stem from Francona and the bevy of offseason moves the Indians orchestrated — most notably, the acquisitions of free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers.

Francona, who has Cleveland ties — he and his father, Tito, played for the Indians — brings a championship pedigree. His two rings came with Boston.

The substantial additions for a budget-conscious organization — Swisher and Bourn signed the two largest free-agent contracts in club history — provide instant credibility.

“They never signed free agents like that when I was there,” Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia, a longtime ace in Cleveland, told reporters during spring training.

“Wow, I guess they’re serious about winning,” said Detroit’s Victor Martinez, another longtime Indian.

It’s been close to a total makeover. Four new players are in the starting lineup — Swisher (first base), Bourn (center field), Reynolds (designated hitter) and Drew Stubbs (right field) — and Myers and left-hander Scott Kazmir were welcomed into the rotation.

There will also be three new faces in the bullpen — right-handers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw and lefty Rich Hill — as Cleveland will open the year with only 10 players remaining from its Opening Day roster in 2012.

The acquisition of Swisher, an Ohio native who lived in Columbus for a spell before starring at The Ohio State University, made the biggest splash. In addition to a big bat in the cleanup spot, Swisher is expected to provide valuable leadership on a club that is loaded with veterans for the first time in years.

“I’ve always been kind of a hometown guy,” Swisher said. “To be able to come over and help an organization like Cleveland, especially with the Ohio State presence that’s in the state of Ohio, being a hometown guy in a sense, (I want to) bring a little pride back, bring a little passion back and make being a Cleveland Indian cool again.”

“That was our first big signing,” Francona said of Swisher. “It was big, ’cause things kind of fell in place since then. It was a good winter, but nothing’s happened in the summer, yet.”

More than anything, the wealth of moves strengthened the offense. Bourn, left fielder Michael Brantley, second baseman Jason Kipnis and Stubbs have speed, and Reynolds and Swisher head the team’s collective power. So Cleveland is expected to score runs in more ways than one.

“Just to have (Swisher) in the middle of the lineup, then you have Mark Reynolds,” Brantley said. “Cleveland’s a tough ballpark to hit in for right-handers with that big wall (in left field). But with his power, that wall’s not going to stop him too much.

“To have those guys in the middle of our lineup that can really do some damage late in games is going to be really beneficial to us.”

But as is the case nearly every season, pitching is likely to decide the Indians’ fate.

They appear to be covered in the bullpen. Headlined by All-Star closer Chris Perez and setup man Vinnie Pestano, the Indians have boasted one of the American’s League’s top relief units the past two seasons.

Starting pitching is where the concerns lie.

The top two pitchers in the rotation — right-handers Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez — are coming off down years. They combined to post only 20 wins, as Jimenez struggled for the second straight year after arriving in a much ballyhooed trade.

Behind those two are more question marks.

Myers pitched out of the bullpen all of last season. Right-hander Zach McAllister lacks experience. And Kazmir is a former Cy Young candidate attempting to make a comeback after spending 2012 in an independent league and making just one appearance in the majors over the past two seasons.

“(Starting pitching) is really going to dictate where we’re at,” reliever Joe Smith said. “We’re definitely strides above where we were coming into last season.”

Francona thinks the defense, which should be one of the best in the majors — especially in the outfield — will benefit his thin rotation.

“If you’re a Cleveland Indians pitcher and you’re not excited about the guys playing defense behind you, you don’t have a pulse,” he said.

If the rotation keeps Cleveland in games, this could be a memorable season on the lakefront.

“I hope (we’ll be) a good (team),” Francona said. “I know we’ll compete. I think it will be a fun team to watch.”

One that takes care of its business?

Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.