Lost 2012 season prompts re-evaluation for Tribe
Club falls short of postseason contention expectations, but foundation in place
CLEVELAND -- There are years remembered for all that went right, and there are others burned into memory due to what went wrong. The past season turned in by the Indians fell into the latter category, creating an offseason of re-evaluation as the team looks ahead.
Cleveland headed into 2012 with aspirations of contending for a postseason spot with a young and up-and-coming roster. Instead, the Tribe stumbled to a disappointing 94-loss showing that left the organization with the daunting project of turning things around.
The Indians still believe in their young core group and feel that -- with the right mix of spending and creativity -- there is a foundation in place to spawn future success. In order to determine what steps to take now, though, the organization needs to analyze what went awry over the course of the past 12 months.
With that in mind, here were five of the Indians' biggest storylines from the past year:
5. Carmona's true identity
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti was in the midst of planning an anniversary getaway with his wife when he got the news last January. The pitcher known for more than a decade as Fausto Carmona had been arrested outside the United States consulate in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on charges of using a false identity.
That revelation on Jan. 19 -- that Carmona was actually Roberto Hernandez, and he was three years older than the Indians had thought -- began a yearlong saga that included a renegotiated contract, months of training on his own in the D.R., and a return in August that ended after three starts due to an ankle injury. It was also the first domino to fall in a season defined by starting-pitching problems.
The Opening Day starter honor went from Hernandez in 2011 to Justin Masterson in '12, and the sinkerballer labored through an extremely inconsistent campaign. Righty Ubaldo Jimenez -- a key acquisition in the previous summer -- also struggled mightily, setting a poor tone atop the starting staff. Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez each followed suit with performance issues of their own.
The end result was a pile of questions and little certainty surrounding the rotation as 2013 approaches. Masterson and Jimenez are expected to be back, but Hernandez (signed by the Rays), Lowe (free agent) and Tomlin (right elbow surgery) are not in the current picture. Instead, youngsters such as Zach McAllister, Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber provide a potential glimpse of the future.
4. The Verlander Game
Whether for better or worse, a turning point can usually be found for any given team in any given season. For the Indians in 2012, the critical turn came on July 26, when Cleveland pieced together a stirring comeback victory over ace Justin Verlander and the rival Tigers.
Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner launched consecutive home runs off Verlander in the seventh inning at Progressive Field, propelling the Tribe to an improbable 5-3 victory. With the emotional win, the Indians also pulled within 3 1/2 games of first place in the American League Central.
Both in the clubhouse and in the stands, this was a moment of hope. The Indians had played decent baseball for the first four months -- Cleveland resided in first or second place for 82 straight days from April 22-July 14 -- but had been waiting for all facets of the roster to reach their potential. Defeating Verlander in such dramatic fashion seemed like a potential turning point.
It proved to be precisely that, but not in the way Cleveland had hoped.
3. August, and everything after
Everything fell apart for the Indians in August. Over the course of Cleveland's 112 years of baseball, the franchise had never experienced a month as brutal as August 2012. For a single calendar month, the Indians' 5-24 showing marked the lowest winning percentage in team history and equaled the 1914 record for most defeats.
Immediately following their victory over Verlander on July 26, the Indians embarked on their first 0-9 road trip in team history within an 11-game losing streak. That fell one loss shy of the 1931 team mark for consecutive defeats. Later in August, the Tribe dropped nine in a row, marking the first time in franchise history that a team had two losing streaks of at least nine games in one season.
Veteran players such as Lowe and Johnny Damon were released during the drought, and youngsters were called up from the Minor Leagues at an increasing rate. There was growing discord in the clubhouse to go along with the wave of losses on the field. A change was clearly needed, and the Indians made a significant step in that direction by dismissing manager Manny Acta on Sept. 27.
2. Choo heads down I-71
Cleveland's collapse during the 2012 season forced the club to re-evaluate its approach to the coming season, as well as the years ahead. Antonetti has been put in a situation where he is trying to balance fielding a competitive club in the present with building sustained success, and the GM needs to be creative given the organization's limited resources.
That process began with making it known that the Indians are open to entertaining trade offers for star players such as Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez and Masterson, among others. Choo, who is a client of agent Scott Boras, is expected to test free agency next winter, so the right fielder was a prime trading chip for the Tribe this offseason.
On Dec. 11, Antonetti flexed his creative muscle, completing a nine-player trade involving both the Reds and D-backs. The Tribe sent Choo and Jason Donald to Cincinnati, and Lars Anderson and Tony Sipp to Arizona, while Didi Gregorius was dealt from the Reds to the D-backs. In return, Cleveland netted the highly touted Bauer, along with relievers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw from Arizona and outfielder Drew Stubbs from Cincinnati.
To date, this is the defining deal of the Tribe's offseason, and it showed Antonetti's attempt at tackling the present and the future at once. Combined with the club's decisions to part ways with Acta, and allow Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Hernandez to hit free agency, Cleveland appears to be heading into a new era.
1. Francona joins the Tribe
The assumption around baseball was that Terry Francona -- one of the orchestrators behind Boston's two recent World Series titles -- would not return to managing unless it was with a team on the cusp of title contention. The concept of him coming to Cleveland after Acta was dismissed by the ballclub seemed far-fetched.
Francona says those who felt that way don't know him as well as they thought.
In October, the Indians announced that Francona had indeed agreed to a four-year contract to be Cleveland's new manager. With his dad, Tito, on hand at his introductory press conference, Francona called it a feel-good story. Both he and his dad suited up for the Indians as players. Terry Francona also worked in the club's front office in 2001.
During that '01 season, Francona forged a friendship with team president Mark Shapiro and Antonetti. It was that bond that played a critical role in convincing Francona to once again work for the Tribe. It was the kind of commitment, from an impact personality, that Cleveland had been craving across all three of its professional sports teams.
The Indians are hoping the addition of Francona, and his coaching staff, will open the door for others to join in the re-organization going on in Cleveland.