When looking at the foundation of his Major League roster, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti sees promise amid the problems. And Antonetti firmly believes there is enough promise to lead to a rebound in 2013.
"I think there is," Antonetti said. "I think that there's a lot more reason to be optimistic than what might just be there on the surface."
Cleveland believes it is strong up the middle with building blocks such as catcher Carlos Santana, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, second baseman Jason Kipnis and center fielder Michael Brantley. The Tribe feels Lonnie Chisenhall is on the cusp of being an impact player at third base, and the club likes its young options in the rotation and bullpen.
There are certainly plenty of holes, and each area in need of attention was exposed through Cleveland's ugly 2012 campaign. There was a revolving door in left field and the top of the rotation labored at a historic rate. The production from first base and at designated hitter left something to be desired, and the middle-relief situation cost the Tribe a few ballgames.
Antonetti's task now is to address those holes with better options surrounding the core.
"For us to be the team we need to be and want to be and aspire to be," Antonetti said, "we need the guys who are here to play better than they have this year. That's going to be a big part of it. That's where it needs to start and then we need to add around that group."
The Indians took a big step toward changing the culture of the club by dismissing Manny Acta from his role as manager after three losing seasons. Sandy Alomar Jr. was hired as the team's interim manager, though he will be given strong consideration for the permanent role during the team's managerial search.
In a final conference call with Cleveland's beat writers, Acta stressed that the team's downfall was swifter than it felt.
"These last two months have felt like six months," Acta said. "It was a little bit draining. The guys responded well. They handled it and they're going to be better for it. I hope these kids understand that they're not bad, or that they didn't have six months of bad baseball."
It was just August and everything after.
The Indians labored through an 11-game losing streak that began in late July and carried over into an August in which the club turned in a 5-24 record. In the process, Cleveland fell from 3 1/2 games out of first place on July 26 to the American League Central cellar.
"It's shocking still," Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin said. "We had expectations this year of going to the playoffs and going as deep as we could, and trying to win a World Series. We thought we had the personnel to do that."
The players still believe they have a talented base to build on.
"If we start over," Indians setup man Vinnie Pestano said, "I don't think we go into Spring Training thinking that we're a 60-win team. I think the goal next Spring Training is the same one we had at the end of this year, to contend in the division and push for a playoff spot."
What follows is a position-by-position breakdown of how the Indians look heading into the winter and the current possibilities for the 2013 season:
Rotation: A perceived area of strength heading into this past season, the Tribe's rotation is now in clear need of a boost. Justin Masterson will likely return for 2013, but the Indians need to decide on club options for both Ubaldo Jimenez and Roberto Hernandez. Tomlin will likely miss most, if not all, of next year after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, but Cleveland will be getting Carlos Carrasco back in the spring from the same procedure. Rookies Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber showed promise in spurts, but the Indians will undoubtedly explore rotation upgrades through trades and free agency over the winter. Other in-house options include Jeanmar Gomez and David Huff. The Indians lack the kind of pitching prospects at the upper levels that would be ready to make an immediate impact.
Bullpen: Cleveland's late-inning trio of sidearmer Joe Smith, Pestano and closer Chris Perez were once again a strong combination. Smith and Perez are both arbitration-eligible this winter, and it would make sense for Cleveland to explore what kind of return either pitcher might net in the trade market. Pestano would be the logical option to move into the closer's role if the Indians parted ways with Perez. Lefties Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez will also be eligible for arbitration this winter. Behind that group, Cleveland has some promising bullpen arms in Nick Hagadone, Scott Barnes, Esmil Rogers, Frank Herrmann and Cody Allen, among others.
First base: Similar to last offseason, the Indians will venture into this winter without a clear solution at first base. Following a disappointing year, Casey Kotchman will once again hit the free-agent market. Time seems to have run out on Matt LaPorta, though he remains under club control. Cleveland took a long look at Russ Canzler in September, and might consider giving him a shot at the job next spring. Another option -- beyond pursuing an upgrade this winter -- would be asking Santana to move out from behind the plate. As of right now, the Indians have not said that is in the works.
Second base: The Indians appear set, possibly for years to come, with the up-and-coming Kipnis at second base. Kipnis endured his share of ups and downs in his first full season in the big leagues, but he was one of Cleveland's top offensive performers and displayed excellent defense all year. The Indians believe they have something special in Kipnis, who is viewed as one of the team's young core players.
Shortstop: Despite a second-half fade, Cabrera turned in another All-Star-caliber season for the Indians. Cleveland could test the trade waters to gauge Cabrera's worth this winter, but the organization has him under club control through the 2014 season. The Indians are also in need of a clear backup at shortstop. That role was filled by Jason Donald, Brent Lillibridge and Jack Hannahan this past season.
Third base: It might be time for the Indians to hand the keys to the hot corner over to the young Chisenhall on a full-time basis. Chisenhall missed a significant amount of time this year because of a fractured right forearm, but returned strong in September. The Tribe has the slick-fielding Hannahan under control, but he may be viewed more as a role player going forward given Chisenhall's potential as a franchise cornerstone.
Designated hitter: The Indians are expected to decline Travis Hafner's $13 million club option for 2013, opting instead to pay the aging DH a $2.75 million buyout. Hafner will be eligible for free agency, but Cleveland could explore retaining him on a lesser deal. It seems more likely that the Indians will move beyond the Hafner era with a different, more flexible approach for the DH role.
Left field: After falling short in their search last winter, the Indians never found a full-time answer for left field during the season. Cleveland cycled through 10 outfielders at the position and the group combined for one of the lowest outputs among the left-field casts around the American League. The Indians have in-house possibilities in Ezequiel Carrera, Thomas Neal or Canzler, but it seems more likely that the club will again try to find a solution over the offseason.
Center field: When Cleveland re-signed Grady Sizemore to a one-year deal last winter, the hope was that he would regain his form as the everyday center fielder. Instead, injuries kept Sizemore off the field all year, allowing Brantley to blossom in the full-time role up the middle. Brantley seems to have found a home in the field and he proved to be one of the Tribe's most consistent hitters. Sizemore will be eligible for free agency, and it seems highly unlikely the Indians will risk making the same mistake twice.
Right field: Shin-Soo Choo returned to a strong level of play in 2012 and is entering his final season of arbitration-eligibility, meaning he will be eligible for free agency next winter. Cleveland explored trading Choo in July and it seems a near certainty that the club will see what might be out there again this winter. The Indians do not have a clear replacement for Choo, but that could be solved via trades or free agency. At the very least, the Tribe knows it has Choo under control or one more season.