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After big year, Tribe still sees room for improvement

After taste of postseason, Indians more determined to make playoff push

CLEVELAND -- The Indians wanted more than a taste of the postseason. After everything the club went through this season and after exceeding all the external expectations, reaching the American League Wild Card Game only to head home served as a bitter ending for Cleveland.

The Tribe wanted to experience a deep run through October.

Instead, the Indians can only look ahead to 2014.

"That's one thing I think guys will take from this season," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "Experiencing the postseason, although brief, seeing what it was like, seeing what that atmosphere was, feeling what it was like to earn that opportunity to get there, I think guys will be exceptionally motivated to get back."

Antonetti was speaking for the players, but the same applies to Cleveland's front office.

Manager Terry Francona and the overhauled Indians roster are well beyond their introductory period. They went through six months of baseball and emerged with 92 wins, swiftly turning the page on the 94-loss nightmare from the previous year. The goal now for Cleveland is to supplement the talented core currently in place in order to build on what just took place.

Cleveland has key free agents within the rotation (Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir ) and bullpen (Joe Smith and Matt Albers ), and there will surely be trade rumors involving the likes of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and former closer Chris Perez. The Indians could look at the rotation, bullpen, right field and third base as the main areas in need of upgrades or additions.

Perhaps only a few minor adjustments will be needed to continue Cleveland's postseason quest.

"Our goal is, every night, it'll never change," Francona said. "You've got to be one run better than the other team. However we do that -- whether it's by running the bases, or by having somebody pitch or by having a bullpen -- that's what we've got to figure out."

The Indians are tied into center fielder Michael Bourn and first baseman Nick Swisher for at least three more seasons. The club also has an impressive young core in place with All-Star pitcher Justin Masterson, All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis, left fielder Michael Brantley and catchers Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana, among others.

That gives the franchise hope that its run to the AL's top Wild Card spot this past season was not a fluke, but an indication that the team is on the cusp of being an annual contender.

"Getting back to the postseason and re-establishing a winning culture," Antonetti said, "those are things that were really important for us. It was a long process and it's an ongoing process, but getting back to the postseason was meaningful for us as an organization.

"Obviously, it didn't end the way we envisioned it. But, to get back, that's the first step."

Here is a breakdown of Cleveland's offseason situation:

Arbitration-eligible: Brantley (first time), RHP Frank Herrmann (first), C Lou Marson ($1 million in 2013), Masterson ($5.6875 million), Perez ($7.3 million), RHP Vinnie Pestano (first), LHP Marc Rzepczynski ($1.1 million), RF Drew Stubbs ($2.825 million), RHP Josh Tomlin (first), RHP Blake Wood ($560,000).

Free agents: RHP Albers, DH Jason Giambi, LHP Rich Hill, Kazmir, C Kelly Shoppach, Smith.

Options: Jimenez, $8 million club option ($1 million buyout), pitcher can void option; OF Jason Kubel, $7.5 million ($500,000 buyout).

Rotation: Jimenez and Kazmir have each expressed an interest in re-signing with the Indians, but money talks come free-agent time. If that duo does not return, Cleveland likes the foundation of Masterson, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister. Tomlin will be back after spending much of 2013 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Carlos Carrasco will be given another chance and prospect Trevor Bauer could be knocking on the door soon. The Indians will likely look to add more to the mix over the winter.

Bullpen: Given Perez's expected raise through arbitration, and the late-season struggles that led to him losing the closer's role, he is a trade or non-tender candidate this winter. If he is not back, Cleveland will not have a closer set in stone, barring an offseason addition. Smith (the Tribe's main setup man) might also be gone via free agency. The Indians have a promising late-inning arm in Cody Allen, and some key returnees in Bryan Shaw and Rzepczynski, among others. Pestano will be aiming for a solid bounceback year, too. Cleveland will probably look to add some bullpen alternatives this offseason.

First base: The Indians ended the year by mixing both Swisher and Santana in at first base. If Cleveland wanted to add a first baseman over the winter, Swisher could shift to right field and Santana could continue to work as a catcher and designated hitter. This is a position that Cleveland could explore for an upgrade, but one that might easily remain unchanged (with Swisher as the starter) come 2014.

Second base: There is no need for the Indians to look for any help at second base next season. Kipnis has turned into one of the game's elite players when it comes to providing a combination of both speed and power. The second baseman made the AL All-star team this past summer and was slotted into the third spot of Cleveland's lineup for most of the year. Fans will be witnessing Kipnis for years to come.

Shortstop: Heading into the offseason, Cabrera is under contract for $10 million for the 2014 season. The switch-hitting shortstop endured a rough season by his statistical standards, but Francona raved about his leadership behind the scenes. The Indians will almost surely entertain trade offers for Cabrera, especially with the knowledge that top prospect Francisco Lindor is only a season or two away from being an option.

Third base: Lonnie Chisenhall remains the perceived future at the hot corner for the Tribe, but the club will likely look at alternatives over the offseason. Chisenhall continued to struggled against lefties (.111 average) and also experienced some woes on defense. Chisenhall, 25, is still young, but the Indians would probably like to avoid a platoon situation at third base, if possible. Mike Aviles provides the team with an in-house alternative at third base.

Catcher: Gomes opened the season at Triple-A, but a season-ending injury to Marson gave the young catcher an opportunity. Gomes seized his chance, performing well in a backup role and earning the starting duties by the season's second half. Heading into 2014, Gomes will almost surely be viewed as the No. 1 catcher on the depth chart, though Cleveland has a great alternative in the offensive-minded Santana as well.

Designated hitter: If the Indians decide to stick with Gomes behind the plate for the most part, that would open up the door for Santana to continue on as the primary DH. Santana does not want to be a regular DH, preferring to play in the field or behind the plate. The switch hitter did, however, post a .288/.380/.458 slash line at first/DH compared to .249/.370/.451 as a catcher in 2013. Swisher, Gomes or Giambi (if re-signed) could also see time at DH on the days that Santana catches.

Outfield: Two locks for returning next season are Brantley in left and Bourn in center. For right field, it might not be a given that Stubbs comes back as the full-time option. Stubbs hit just .216 against righties and utility man Ryan Raburn garnered more time in right down the stretch in light of his offensive showing. Swisher also manned right field at times. Cleveland could explore alternatives this winter, go with Stubbs again as the starter or utilize a rotation in right field come 2014.

Bench: The Indians have Aviles signed through 2014 with a club option for '15 and Raburn signed through '15 with a club option for '16. In that way, the team has two versatile players in the fold for the next handful of seasons. Antonetti and Francona have also made it known that they have interest in bringing the 42-year-old Giambi back for his clubhouse leadership and pinch-hitting ability. The bench could conceivably be unchanged come Opening Day 2014.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.
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