Indians are confident contenders
Once the swelling subsided and the bumps and bruises healed, the Cleveland Indians reflected on their injury-scarred 2011 season with surprising affection.
Sure, it was cruel and painful. Disappointing for the team and its fans? Better believe it.
But in the end, it was worth it.
The spectacular start and the improbable come-from-behind wins that were overshadowed by a disastrous finish made the Indians better, stronger and ready for more.
''This team is built to win now,'' said All-Star closer Chris Perez. ''That's the way we look at it. We know from a year ago how tough it is to win for an entire season. We're better prepared to deal with that.
''It's playoffs or bust.''
The Indians led their division for 95 days last season, but October baseball went on without them in the lineup. They've been hardened by the experience from last year, and after adding some veteran depth to plug some holes and handle injuries this time around, the Indians believe they can chase down Detroit in the AL Central and make the postseason for the first time since 2007.
''A year ago, we were supposed to be the worst team in the world,'' said Justin Masterson, who went 12-10 last season and earned the opening-day start against Toronto. ''Well, we believed in ourselves and snuck under the radar on some teams. We're out to do that again. Why not? It's like the NCAA tournament. A lot of the big teams end up losing to the guys who are hungry.''
The Indians made an 11-win jump in 2011 and they'll need to make a similarly large leap this year to make up a 15-game deficit to the Tigers, who made a $214 million investment in slugger Prince Fielder this winter and have been penciled in to repeat as Central champs.
Cleveland's not ready to concede anything just yet.
''Last year, the Tigers weren't predicted to win our division and the White Sox were. How did that work out?'' said Perez, who had 36 saves last season. ''Media predictions are like weather forecasts - seldom right.''
Beyond staying healthy - Cleveland used the disabled list 22 times in 2011 - the Indians need some of their core players to have bounce-back seasons. There's not a comeback more vital than one by Ubaldo Jimenez.
Acquired at the trading deadline by general manager Chris Antonetti in a bold trade with Colorado, Jimenez went just 4-4 in 11 starts for the Indians, who hoped his addition might be the boost they needed to make the postseason. Instead, they went in the other direction and the right-hander failed to be Cleveland's answer to Detroit's Justin Verlander, the reigning Cy Young and MVP winner.
Jimenez hasn't eased any concerns with a sluggish spring, but the 28-year-old believes he'll be much better following a season where injuries and a scenery change took their toll. He's in better shape physically after conditioning during the offseason under the supervision of an Indians trainer in the Dominican Republic. Jimenez said he's in a better mental state as well.
He's worrying less and said he's in a ''peaceful place.'' But Jimenez also understands that every time manager Manny Acta hands him the ball this season, the Indians expect him to pitch like a No. 1 pitcher, like the one who won 19 games for Colorado in 2010 and one who was worthy of swapping two top pitching prospects to get.
''The Indians gave a lot for me,'' he said. ''As a player I understand that. Every time I take the mound I'm trying to give 100 percent. I wasn't healthy last year. This year, if everything goes wrong, I'm going to be like, `OK, that was me. Sorry.'''
Sorry won't be good enough, and the Indians shouldn't have to apologize for a four-man rotation of Masterson, Jimenez, Josh Tomlin and Derek Lowe, a veteran picked up at a bargain price in October from the Braves to provide leadership, devour innings and hopefully post double-digit wins.
Lowe, who won at least 12 games for nine straight seasons before going 9-17 last season, was impressed with the Indians while watching them from afar in Atlanta last year. But now that he's part of the Indians, the 38-year-old believes he has joined a team with a legitimate chance to contend.
''It is not a fluke when you lead a division for as long as they did last year,'' he said. ''This team can do it again, and hopefully go all the way. I'm energized coming to this club. I'm excited with this team.''
The Indians' outfield remains a dilemma. The club re-signed center fielder Grady Sizemore in November, hoping his recent string of injuries was over. Sadly, Sizemore hurt his back early in spring training, underwent surgery and won't return until sometime in June - if at all. Michael Brantley will move from left to center and will bat leadoff. The 24-year-old could be poised for a breakout season, assuming he stays healthy.
For right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, last season was a personal and professional mess. He went on the disabled list three times, endured wrist surgery and a prolonged slump and was arrested on drunken driving charges, an incident that deeply embarrassed the South Korean, who is regarded as a hero by his countrymen.
But three weeks of military basic training with the South Korean Army allowed Choo to clear his mind, and he's determined to get back to his 2010 form, when he batted .300 with 22 homers, 90 RBIs, 22 steals and had MLB-high 14 assists. The Indians need Choo to produce in a lineup lacking pop and too reliant on Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner to carry the load.
''Getting Choo back is huge for our offense,'' said Hafner, who hit 13 homers last season and is now more of a doubles hitter than long-ball threat. ''If we keep everybody healthy, we can be much better offensively than we were a year ago. Everybody is optimistic that we will score more runs.''
Optimism is flowing through all the Indians.
They're out to prove last season was no fluke. They want to be taken seriously, as contenders.
This time, from beginning to end.
''When I came to Cleveland, I was very excited because it was a pennant race,'' Jimenez said. ''It didn't work out, but why can't it this year? When the Rockies kept winning in 2007 to get into the playoffs and then the World Series, nobody believed in us but us.
''Why can't that happen here?''