Buoyed by fruitful offseason, Tribe eager for opener

New-look Indians skipped long-term rebuilding in favor of rapid reloading

Buoyed by fruitful offseason, Tribe eager for opener

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Spend a morning inside the Indians' clubhouse this spring and it feels like it has been years since August. Half the men inside the room were not even around for the month that derailed the team's season last year and sent the club into an uncertain winter.

Glance around the locker room and see how much things have changed.

There has been a sweeping transformation.

There is Nick Swisher, smiling ear to ear and slapping a teammate on the back. There is veteran Jason Giambi, leaning back in his chair, chatting with Jason Kipnis. There goes Michael Bourn, his head bobbing to the old school rap Swisher has blasting from the clubhouse stereo. Brett Myers is over in the corner, talking to rotation leader Justin Masterson.

New manager Terry Francona is making the rounds, visiting with multiple players before heading back to his office.

"A lot of these guys weren't there for it last year," Kipnis said. "So they don't know about it. They don't have that in their back pocket. They're not looking to bounce back from that. They have a fresh start going into this one, so I think that's why it's kind of been a good change for us -- where we've gotten over it so fast."

A clean slate. And it begins with an Opening Day matchup against the similarly revamped Blue Jays in Toronto at 7:07 p.m. ET.

Some of the players were there, though. They were there for the 94 losses and the worst showing in a single month (5-24 in August) in the long, storied history of the Indians franchise. They were there in first place in the American League Central on June 23, and there for the fourth-place finish that had Cleveland's players wondering if another rebuild was coming for this seemingly snakebitten ballclub.

"I was there," Kipnis said.

The Indians' front office hit the reset button, but did so in a way no one could have predicted. Ownership freed up the financial resources to pursue some top free-agent talent, and general manager Chris Antonetti pulled the trigger on a flurry of transactions aimed at turning his team into a contender in 2013, while balancing a long-term plan for success.

More than 50 players either came or went, and Cleveland's Opening Day roster will include a dozen new faces. Through free agency, the Indians added more than $30 million in payroll for the coming year, more than $115 million for the next four seasons, and more than $150 million when option years are taken into account.

"It's from top to bottom, from ownership to Chris going out and getting the guys," said Giambi, who signed as a non-roster invitee and won a job. "For ownership to really give Chris the green light, to say, 'Hey, let's go get some guys. Let's make a run at this,' the hats go off to them first. Chris can't make any moves without them.

"And then the guys that he got, they really put together a special ballclub."

The Indians have a dynamic leadoff man and center fielder in Bourn, who inked a four-year pact worth $48 million (plus a $12 million option for 2017). The team has a vocal leader, not to mention a cleanup hitter, in Swisher, who signed a four-year contract worth $56 million (plus a $14 million option for '17). Mark Reynolds, signed as a free agent for the 2013 season, can supply right-handed power, and Myers can chew up innings.


"I'm excited about where we
are right now. I think we have a roster that's very capable of competing."
-- Indians GM Chris Antonetti

In December, Antonetti also played a key role in pulling off a blockbuster three-team trade that saw nine players change hands. Cleveland sent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati as part of the package, and netted right fielder Drew Stubbs (from the Reds), relievers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw (from the D-backs), as well as highly touted pitching prospect Trevor Bauer (also from Arizona).

It was an example of balancing competing now with attempting to build a sustainable model for success.

"We infused more talent in the organization, and it's not just for the now," Francona said. "That's what I think is such a hard balance. You're trying to get better, but you want to get better for the future and for the present. That's where it gets difficult, and that's where I thought [Antonetti] aced it."

"If they gave an award for the offseason," Indians closer Chris Perez said, "he probably would've won it."

Super utility man Mike Aviles -- acquired from the Blue Jays in November in a trade that also brought catching prospect Yan Gomes to Cleveland's system -- agreed with Francona's assessment. When Aviles joined the Indians, he was still unsure what approach the club was going to take leading up to this season.

Looking around the Tribe's clubhouse, Aviles can't help but smile.

"When I first came over, it was so early in the offseason," Aviles said. "I didn't know what direction we were going. I was excited anyway, because I'd played against a lot of these young guys and I knew there was some talent here. I knew it was going to be fun. But then as the offseason went on -- signing Reynolds, signing Swish, getting Bauer, Drew Stubbs, and all the little Minor League signings -- this team was starting to get put together really well.

"It's going to be a really exciting year. Sometimes when you have a situation like last year, you can go one of two ways. You can either go out and buy everybody or you can go out and rebuild. I think they did a great job of not necessarily going out and buying everybody and not necessarily rebuilding. There's a very good core of players here, and I think the biggest thing was keeping that core and adding to it."

In the field, that core group includes Kipnis, left fielder Michael Brantley, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, catcher Carlos Santana and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. On the mound, Perez leads a strong bullpen that includes setup men Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith, and a bevvy of young arms. The rotation is led by workhorse Masterson.

"I'm excited about where we are right now," Antonetti said. "I think we have a roster that's very capable of competing. It's a more balanced roster. Position player wise, I think we've got the ability to score runs in a variety of ways. We should play some good defense. I think our bullpen will continue to be a strength, and we've got a lot of potential in our rotation.

"Now, it's one thing to feel that way and it's another way to go out and execute and win games. But we feel like we have the potential to do that."

Look around the room.

Witnessing the change is inescapable.

"It's definitely a different atmosphere, a different mentality coming into Opening Day than in years past," Perez said. "The front office stepped up and did their job. They put together a good staff for us. Now, it's up to us to go out there and do what we're supposed to do."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.