Goodyear, Arizona, may be 2,000 miles removed from Progressive Field, but that hasn’t stopped the Cleveland Indians from feeling the positive vibe from Cleveland.
“Absolutely, bro,” new signee Nick Swisher said. “We’ve been leading the charge.”
Translation from Swisher-ese: The players are well aware that there are good feelings about the team as spring training winds down.
Spending more than $100 million in free agency and adding three position starters in Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds was a start. But the Indians were able in the offseason to keep some of their key players, while retooling a team that lost 94 games a year ago.
“With (Lonnie) Chisenhall and (Carlos) Santana and some guys on the mound, they could have easily just milled it around and thrown guys out there and see what transpired and seen how those guys turned out,” said veteran Jason Giambi, brought in as a left-handed DH and clubhouse leader. “But they decided not to. They decided to go after it. They decided to try to make a run at this.”
It did not go unnoticed in the city, with the fans or with the team.
“It’s been a tough time the past few seasons,” starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez said. “But the front office is doing everything possible to bring people back.”
“We’re just excited about what ownership has done, what management has done, what guys they’ve brought in,” said Opening Day pitcher Justin Masterson “Good players, good leaders and really special people. I think this could be a really special year for us.”
“Special” may be relative, but given where the Indians have been it also might be accurate. Cleveland lost more than 90 games three of the last four seasons. The Indians haven’t been above .500 since 2007. That was the season they went to the American League Championship Series and blew a 3-1 lead to the Boston Red Sox. The following five seasons have produced a collective record of 363-447 (.448). Fans grew more and more disenchanted with a team that either started poorly and finished decent, or started fast and faded.
Last season the team plummeted like an anvil that was dropped off a cliff. It featured the worst month in team history and the firing of a manger.
That change spurred an offeason that produced what had been missing for so many years: Hope.
Hired as manager was the guy who beat the Indians in that ‘07 ALCS, Terry Francona.
His addition brought excitement, but also the question: What’s he going to do with the same players?
The front office, with Francona as the catalyst, saw to it that didn’t happen. First they traded a guy who would not re-sign (Shin-Soo Choo) for young starter Trevor Bauer, outfielder Drew Stubbs and bullpen depth. They tried to add Shane Victorino, but were outbid. They did add Swisher, an Ohio State grad and prime offseason target. Next came Reynolds, and pitcher Brett Myers, and just before spring training came Bourn. His signing really seemed to ignite fan interest, because it was a guy most teams in the league would like to have.
“They told me a little bit about it a few days after I signed,” Bourn said of the buzz. “I became aware of it. I wasn’t aware from the beginning. You always want excitement around when you’re playing, and that’s a good thing for our team.”
The outlook almost seems to differ based on who’s talking. The new guys are riding the wave — as Swisher might say — while the guys who were with the team a year ago are almost as excited as the fans.
Late last season, reliever Chris Perez voiced the frustration of many fans when he said one of the Indians issues was the front office didn’t spend for players. If he said it, others on the team felt it. This offseason, the team acted, starting with the manager.
“You bring in Tito and that changes everything,” Masterson said. “That uplifts a lot of spirits. Then everyone else coming in. I know fans are excited to see a little bit of money thrown around here and there. Now they want to see that money do something, and that would be everyone going out performing the way they’re supposed to.”
The feelings about the team are not unrealistic, though. Detroit is acknowledged as the division favorite. Too, fans are wary of the starting pitching, and the way some of the starters have ended the spring they probably should be wary. The team is not hiding its head in the sand on that issue, but it also knows it has a lineup that can be pesky and productive with outfield speed and RBI potential.
“We’re not exactly a monster, high-caliber team,” Swisher said. “But we’re going to be able to win some ballgames. … We got some speed at the top and bottom. We got some boppers right through the middle there. We need to utilize the speed at the top and bottom of the lineup, steal some bags, make some things happen.”
Do the players feel optimism is justified?
“Hell yeah,” Swisher said. “You don’t?”
That’s the unbridled optimism of a newcomer. Players who suffered through the last two seasons of second-half collapses are just as eager to get going.
“I don’t know if (fans are) talking World Series or what,” Perez said. “We’re definitely going to have a better year than we had last year. Is it good enough to make the playoffs? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But we’re going to have a better product on the field.
“We should. We have the players to do it. We have the staff to do it. There’s no excuses not to. The last couple years we always had that crutch of being a younger team with a much smaller payroll. Our payroll’s pretty much the same, but the makeup of our roster is totally different.
“Those young guys aren’t so young anymore. They’re going into their second, third and fourth years. They’re starting to feel comfortable about where they are in their careers and what they can do for the team.
“The veterans that we added, they’re not 37, 38, 39. They’re 30, 31, 32, right in the prime of their careers.
“It’s definitely a different atmosphere. Definitely a different mindset.”
And definitely has the team thinking far, far different than when 2012 ended.
“I tell ya,” Masterson said, “it should be special.”