CLEVELAND (AP) — If manager Terry Francona could push rewind and replay Cleveland’s riveting 2013 season, he would in a second.
With one minor change.
“I’d like to go through next year with the same people,” Francona said. “Just play longer.”
With the sting from last week’s wild-card loss to Tampa Bay finally bearable, Francona and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti reflected Monday on the club’s startling turnaround this season — a 24-win jump over 2012 — while keeping most of their plans to alter the roster and lineup for next season under wraps.
Free agency is looming and the Indians intend to shop as aggressively as they did last winter when the signing of Francona was followed by the acquisitions of first baseman Nick Swisher and center fielder Michael Bourn.
During a one-hour meeting inside Cleveland’s clubhouse, Antonetti and Francona touched upon a variety of topics, including their hopes to carry the momentum created this season into next. Antonetti cited a return to the postseason for the first time since 2007 and “re-establishing a winning culture” as the club’s top accomplishments, and said the hope next season is to get deeper into October.
“It didn’t end the way we envisioned it,” Antonetti said. “But to get back (in the playoffs) is a first step. The only way you can win a World Series is to get into the postseason, so that was encouraging. But we want to continue to move forward. We want to continue to play in the postseason year in and year out and then progress through the postseason. A lot of things have to happen for that to come to fruition, but that’s our goal.”
Antonetti credited Francona for much of Cleveland’s climb in the standings. Hired on Oct. 8 last year, not long after the Indians slogged through a miserable season, Francona and his steady hand helped navigate Cleveland through a dizzying maze of losing skids and winning streaks that peaked with the club winning its final 10 games to capture one of the AL’s two wild cards.
Francona’s arrival may have ushered in a new era for the Indians, still seeking their first World Series title since 1948. With him, they believe it will be easier to land free agents. Cleveland has most of its position players under contract for next season, and Antonetti feels they’ll come back looking to do even more after playing in only one playoff game.
The sight of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera sitting at his locker unable to move long after last week’s loss to the Rays or All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis choking back his emotions, showed the Indians how much this season meant.
“I think one thing our guys will take from this, experiencing the postseason, although brief, seeing what that was like, that atmosphere, the feeling of what that was like to earn that opportunity to get there, I think guys will be exceptionally motivated to get back,” Antonetti said. “Whether that’s Cabbie who hadn’t been there since 2007 or guys like Kip who it was their first opportunity, those guys took it hard when we didn’t have the opportunity to play anymore.”
Although guarded about what they intend to do over the next few months, Antonetti and Francona outlined some of their ideas to strengthen the Indians. Among them:
— Francona has already shifted his coaching staff, moving Brad Mills from third base to the bench, Mike Sarbaugh from first to third and Sandy Alomar Jr. from the bench to first.
Mills spent four seasons (1997-2000) as Francona’s bench coach in Philadelphia and six (2004-09) alongside him in Boston.
“We want to try and take advantage of Millsie and my relationship in the dugout,” Francona said. “Sandy’s passion, a lot of it, is doing what a first-base coach does. I didn’t ever want it to be looked on as a demotion because it’s not. We talked about it the other day and Sandy was fine with it.”
Things could change again if Alomar gets a managerial job. He has been mentioned as a possible candidate with the Chicago Cubs.
— The club would like to re-sign starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who bounced back from a 17-loss season to win 13 games and anchor Cleveland’s much-improved rotation down the stretch.
Antonetti clarified that what was believed to be an $8 million mutual option actually belongs to the Indians, but that the right-hander, who came over in a 2011 trade from Colorado, can void the deal at any time. Jimenez has said he’s open to staying with the Indians because of the loyalty they showed when he struggled.
— Designated hitter Jason Giambi told the Indians he would like to play somewhere next season, and the club is open to having him back. The 42-year-old had a major impact in Cleveland’s clubhouse, and Francona said “we would like to continue our relationship with `G’ probably as long as he would like to.”
— Swisher does not need surgery on his left shoulder, which bothered him most of the season and contributed to him batting .246 — his lowest average since 2008.
Francona thought Swisher’s struggles were also tied to the pressure of living up to a four-year, $56 million contract.
“I think you will see a more consistent player next year,” Francona said.