CLEVELAND — The Indians qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2007, matching the franchise record for increased wins from one year to the next.
Now the task gets tougher.
Sustaining that success and building it into something bigger than a one-game wild-card loss is the next challenge for manager Terry Francona and the Indians as they look toward 2014.
“Our goal now is to continue to get better,” Francona said Monday to a group of beat writers at Progressive Field. “That will be harder, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
The majority of Cleveland’s roster, which finished atop the American League wild-card race just a game behind Central Division champion Detroit, is under contract for next season.
But despite the Indians’ accomplishments this year, there is room for improvement on a number of fronts.
Cleveland struggled against top talent for much of the season, with one of its top offseason additions, Nick Swisher, failing to produce for much of the year before turning it on down the stretch to hit .246 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs in 145 games.
“I thought, which isn’t atypical of guys that try to come in and try to do too much because they’re conscientious and they want to live up to the contract, whatever, being new, I thought he tried to do too much early,” Francona said of Swisher, who also dealt with a sore shoulder for much of the season. “And then when he was trying to dig himself out of it, I don’t think the shoulder helped him. And then towards the end of the year, he actually picked it up pretty significantly.
“I would think you’d see a more consistent player next year, which will probably lead to slightly better numbers.”
The Indians overcame multiple collective offensive struggles and bullpen performance issues from closer Chris Perez and setup man Vinnie Pestano in large part due to a surprisingly effective effort from its rotation — a perceived area of weakness to start the year.
That’s where most of the team’s contract decisions will be made, with Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir able to opt for free agency and Jimenez having the power to void an $8 million option for next season. Veteran slugger Jason Giambi can also become a free agent and wants to play in 2014.
All have expressed an interest in returning.
“I think with all of our free agents, they all made a favorable impression on us and we’d like to have them all back,” general manager Chris Antonetti said. “Now, how all the pieces come together and what their alternatives will be, what our alternatives will be, that’s hard to forecast at this point.”
Yan Gomes is expected to play a more prominent role, with the Indians still lacking a big bat in the middle of their order. The team could shop Cabrera ($10 million in 2014) this offseason, and is expected to part ways with Perez, who is eligible for arbitration after making $7.3 million this year.
If Cleveland does lose Jimenez and Kazmir, they will have phenom Danny Salazar to take one of the starting spots, with Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister set to return.
“Our goal every night, it will never change, we’ve got to be one run better than the other team,” Francona said. “However we do that, that’s what we have to figure out.”
Though the Indians probably won’t spend like they did last winter, Antonetti is still predicting a busy offseason. Overall revenues were up 20 percent this season despite a lack of attendance.
“I think we’ll be aggressive in looking at ways to improve the team,” Antonetti said. “Exactly where things fall economically and how our payroll will look, we’ll have a much better sense in the coming months, but I know we’ll be aggressive in trying to improve.
“We’re going to look to try to improve every aspect of the team, offense, defense starting pitching, relief pitching, that’ll be our goal as we go into the offseason. But on the position player side, we have the ability basically — other than Jason Giambi, Jason Kubel and Kelly Shoppach — to bring back the entire group that was fourth in the AL in runs scored and fifth in all of baseball, so that’s a good foundation to start with.”
All of the Indians’ coaches will return next season, but Francona announced there would be changes to some of the roles. Third base coach Brad Mills will move to bench coach, with Mike Saurbaugh moving from first third, and former bench coach Sandy Alomar moving to first base.