Indians confident they’ll contend and maybe do more in 2015

CLEVELAND (AP) While their AL Central rivals jockeyed during the offseason, one trying to outdo the other to improve their chances of winning a World Series title, the Indians watched.

That was the plan.

No, they didn’t make any blockbuster trades, sign a big-name, big-ticket free agent or overhaul their roster with new faces. The Indians, who somehow stayed in contention last season until the waning days of September, didn’t feel the need to make radical changes. It wasn’t necessary.

The pieces are in place for Cleveland to have a special 2015 season.

”The team knows it,” said second baseman Jason Kipnis. ”We got two winning seasons in a row. We had an 85-win season when we had about three guys playing good. The possibilities are there, the potential is there. That whole last year we never had more than a seven-game winning streak, never really got hot.

”We got the same corps. Same group of guys. We kind of want another chance at this again – and we’re getting another chance.”

The Indians return virtually the same team that went 85-77 last season, finishing third behind division champion Detroit and wild-card winner Kansas City, which ended a postseason drought dating to 1985, won the pennant and pushed San Francisco to seven games in the World Series.

Watching the Royals inspired the Indians. And as he prepares for his third season in Cleveland, manager Terry Francona senses a different drive in his players.

They’re hungry.

”Our veteran guys are trying to get better,” he said. ”Our younger guys are excited to prove what they can do. I didn’t see anybody just kind of go home and want to kind of keep the status quo. We’re all excited about that.”

Francona said they’re upping expectations both on performance and results.

”They’re kind of at a stage where they’re embracing trying to see if we can go up against some of these teams and, not only maybe hold our own, but maybe do a little more than that,” Francona said.

There’s no denying Francona’s magical touch. The man who helped end Boston’s supposed baseball curse, who got the Indians to the postseason in 2013, has an uncanny ability to convince players buy in to his program and get them to believe they can overcome any obstacles: injuries, payroll, low expectations, the Tigers lineup.

This spring, Francona didn’t have to sell the Indians, who haven’t won a World Series since 1948, on the idea they can compete. They already know that. Now it’s a matter of taking the next step.

”When guys believe they can do it, and then they start to do it, then you see the confidence take over and guys take off, and you can accomplish a lot,” he said. ”That’s part of the fun of the season, to see how good you can get. I’d rather enjoy, as much as we can, the journey.”

KLUBER UBER ALLES

All Corey Kluber did in his first major-league season was win 18 games, re-write some record books, dominate almost every time he pitched and win the AL Cy Young.

The 28-year-old could do it again.

Seemingly programmed because of his consistent performances and composed demeanor, Kluber gives the Indians a long-needed and legitimate No. 1 starter capable of winning every time he gets the ball. He scares opponents and makes his teammates better.

The Indians have discussed a long-term contract extension for the right-hander, who isn’t even eligible for arbitration.

YOUR TABLE, MR. BRANTLEY

Michael Brantley just might be baseball’s most unassuming star, and he plans to keep it that way. The 27-year-old’s breakout 2014 season – he batted .327 with 20 homers, 97 RBIs and a third-place finish in MVP voting – was followed by obligatory can-he-do-it-again questions.

Francona thinks Brantley might be poised for bigger things. The spotlight will find Brantley, but he’s not craving it.

”He’s so consistent at a high level that I don’t see that going away,” he said. ”He’s so confident in what he’s doing that I think he enjoys playing the game and the other things that come with it, I think he could take it or leave it. He has a really good understanding of who he is.”

BETTER BE BETTER

For the Indians to get where they want, Kipnis (.240), CF Michael Bourn (106 games) and DH Nick Swisher (offseason knee surgeries) need to bounce back and produce more than they did in `14.

No position player is more important than Kipnis, a 2013 All-Star who was injured most of last season.

”He can affect the game so many ways – steal a base, get a bunt down, hit a ball in the gap,” Francona said.