Things did not go the way the Indians would have liked in 2012 to say the least. The same core of talented players that has been together since the Indians were the best team in the AL in 2007 was finally healthy all at the same time and looked poised to take a run at another Central Division title. Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Rafael Perez, Fausto Carmona, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera have all been around since at least 2007 and were poised for career (or contract) years, while the recent addition of Ubaldo Jimenez looked to shore up the pitching staff. The young players were also promising, especially the bullpen including Vinnie Pestano, Chris Perez and Joe Smith and the two young infielders in their second seasons, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall.
Things started falling apart early with Carmona turning out to be Roberto Heredia Hernandez and Sizemore injuring his back (and his knee), ultimately ending his season before Spring Training even started. Within the first two weeks Rafael Perez joined him on the out for season DL, removing three important veterans from the Indians clubhouse within the first month of the regular season. Then the Indians made a huge mistake by signing Johnny Damon as an outfielder to replace the presence of Sizemore. Damon was later released when the Indians fell out of the race. Lonnie Chisenhall also missed most of the season, the first part due to a poor managerial decision to keep him in AAA and the latter part after he was hit on the fore arm by a pitch.
Despite these issues, and massive drops in production from the entire starting rotation, the Indians remained in contention through the All-Star break. Jimenez was the biggest disappointment on the staff, since his price for acquisition was the Indians top two pitching prospects, both of whom would have been playing for the Tribe this season otherwise. Nobody should forget another mistake made by management, however, that saw Derek Lowe continue to make starts long after his effectiveness has waned. Justin Masterson saw a huge drop off from last years break out performance just when the Indians were expecting him to move onto the next level and become the teams ace. When Jimenez and Masterson struggled it left the Indians without an ace after they went into the season thinking they had two.
In August, all the Indians problems aligned. Every starting pitcher struggled, even Zach McAllister, who was the most consistent starting pitcher all season. This lead to a pitching staff that allowed an average of 6.2 runs per game. The offense, which was without power all season, was brought down even further by the absence of Hafner (on the DL with a bulging disc), the only true power hitter on the team, and scored just 3.3 runs per game that month. When you put those two numbers together, the surprise should be that the Indians were able to win even the five games they did. Going 5-24 over the span of any month during the year is enough to keep any team out of playoff contention and it did just that for the Indians.
This was about the time when Manny Acta fell out of favor with the team. A few players have come out since his firing with comments that he simply didn't care enough when the Indians season was falling apart. Acta never really pressed his players to push themselves harder to win, instead taking a more laid back approach, feeling they were already pushing themselves too far. It's impossible to tell which is the truth, but the players on the field certainly looked as if they had given up.
Going into next season, the Indians cannot just be complacent and let the world move around them. Sandy Alomar, Jr. was named interim manager for the last three games of the year and is one of two applicants for the job in 2013, along with former Red Sox (World Series winning) manager Terry Francona. Both are former Indians players with great credentials to be the next Indians manager and either would be a fine choice. The more important moves will be in player development, retention and procurement.
The most important thing for the Indians to work on in the off season is getting the players that are staying around either back to the form they once had, like in the case of Masterson and Jimenez, or pushing them to the next level in their development, like with Kipnis, Chisenhall and Ezequiel Carrera. The Indians should accept Jimenez's option as it is still cheap for a player of his caliber. This doesn't mean he can sit where he is right now and just wait for next year. He has great "stuff" and needs to work on maintaining a consistent delivery along with keeping better control over the strike zone. Jimenez was burned by base runners that got on base via the walk many times this year, and that should be something that is completely within his power to stop. Masterson is in a very similar situation and needs to work in the off season to get back to his 2011 form. It will be interesting to see now if the Indians go looking for a new pitching coach after the manager is signed or if they will stick with the in house option of Ruben Niebla.
The younger players like Kipnis, Chisenhall, Carrera and possibly Russ Canzler all need to work on avoiding the regress that has affected many young Tribe players over the past few years. There is a good chance that all four of these players could not just be on the 25 man roster next year, but could be starters integral to the Indians success. Kipnis' first two seasons are comparable to some of the best by any Indians rookie ever and could be very special if he continues on this path.
Personnel decisions are going to be incredibly important in the upcoming off season, especially the signing of Shin-Soo Choo to a long term deal. What the Indians do with Choo this off season will be the most telling aspect of the off season as far as their expectations and plans for the future. If he is traded, it will signify giving up on the next two seasons, while signing him long-term (3-5 years) would be a show of confidence in the current team. Three players that need to be said good-bye to are Hafner, Sizemore and Hernadez. These players are simply too high an injury risk to deal with their limited abilities at any price. While all three are very talented and could possibly produce more in their careers, it simply isn't worth the roster spot or money that could be given to a younger player with higher prospects.
Finally, the Indians need to sign players that are not currently involved in the organization. Whether this means veteran free agents (the Prince Fielder variety, not the Trot Nixon type), through trade (the Indians could spare to part with a left-handed reliever or two and those are always in demand) or on the international market. The Tribe really missed out this year by not signing Yeonis Cespedes, a player they were linked with before he signed with the Athletics (and helped them to a playoff spot) and they need to be more vigilant in the future. With the expiring contracts of Hafner, Sizemore and Hernandez, the Indians should have plenty of extra money to go after one or two players. With most of the roster already set for next year, the highest priority needs to be finding a designated hitter with significant power. After this, left field and first base are undecided positions as well that have possible fillings from within the Indians system, but could definitely be improved from the outside. While the starting pitching was terrible this year, the Indians still have a potentially decent five man rotation with Masterson, Jimenez, McAllister, Carlos Carrasco (coming back from Tommy John surgery) and a choice between David Huff, Corey Kluber, Jeanmar Gomez or Chris Seddon. Even T.J. McFarland or Eric Berger, currently in the minors for the Indians, could be ready for their debuts in 2013.
The 2013 Indians could be very good. A disappointing 2012 season will make them extremely underrated going into next year, an aspect that worked in their favor in 2007 and 2011, when they finished much higher in the standings than they were expected to. Any additions to the team, along with a new manager that will automatically be a fan favorite, would be a huge step in motivating a fan base that is jaded and tired of the same lack of inspiration, year after year. The change in management in addition to a fantastic bullpen and a young, talented core of athletic fielders (Choo, Cabrera, Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana) put the Indians in a prime position to make a couple moves to get them back into first. The winner of the central division ended the season with the worst record of all the AL playoff teams, showing just how winnable this division is. There is no reason at all for the Indians to not go all in for 2013.