The Indians had a busy offseason last winter, acquiring 11 new players who've made significant contributions in 2013. Many of those moves were second guessed at the time, or ignored outright as insignificant, but there's zero chance the Tribe is playing in tomorrow night's American Wild Card game without them. GM Chris Antonetti and his front office team are to be applauded for the work they did in identifying and attracting these players to the organization.
The first major addition of last offseason came just days after the 2012 season ended, but it wasn't a player the FO brought onboard, it was new manager Terry Francona. It's hard for fans to know what all impact a manager has on a team, but between free agents mentioning him as part of Cleveland's appeal, the excellent platoon splits shown by many Indians as their playing time has been juggled and massaged, the team's sterling record in close games, and the harmony that's seemed to emanate from the clubhouse all season, I feel confident saying Francona has made a major difference for the Tribe.
EDIT: I was remiss in not also mentioning the promotion of Mickey Callaway, who was moved from the minor league system into the position of pitching coach for the Indians. He seems to have worked wonders with Ubaldo Jimenez, and deserves some of the credit for the fine seasons put in by other starters as well.
The next move didn't seem all that significant at the time, but in early November the Indians traded Esmil Rogers, a relatively young pitcher who'd done well during the second half of 2012, for utility infielder Mike Aviles and backup catcher Yan Gomes (who was almost an afterthought in the minds of most fans). Rogers has regressed and been a below average starter for Toronto. Meanwhile, Aviles has been a solid bench player, and has filled in around the diamond, starting more than half the team's games, fighting his playing time to a draw. What of Gomes, the afterthought? All he's done is take over as the team's primary catcher, while playing probably the finest defense of any AL player at the position, while putting up offensive numbers few backstops in baseball can match.
Later in the month, the Indians signed a guy named Matt Carson. He'd been in the minors since 2002, and had gotten only 174 MLB plate appearances in his career. The Tribe called him up near the end of August. Mostly he served as a late-inning replacement, but he did manage to get a few at bats. He made the most of them, going 7 for 10 and hitting a game-winning single in the 11th inning on September 19th.
The Indians traded away Shin-Soo Choo, a year before they'd lose him to free agency. In return , they wound up with uberprospect Trevor Bauer, outfielder Drew Stubbs, and relief pitchers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw. Bauer hasn't developed as quickly as the team would have liked, and contributed little to the big league team (losing the confidence of many fans along the way), Stubbs has been been nowhere near as good as Choo, but he's been a reasonable bottom of the lineup hitter, while playing a solid (if also inconsistent) right field. Albers and Shaw have been two of the four busiest members of the Tribe bullpen. Shaw has been arguably the team's best reliever since the All-Star break.
Two weeks later, the Indians surprised the baseball world by landing Nick Swisher, one of the biggest free agents on the market. Swisher's production wasn't as good for most of the season as it was during his four years in New York, but he's been the team's best hitter in September, tying for the league lead with 7 home runs, with a wRC+ of 142 (that's very good). He's also brought a tremendous energy with him. How much of an impact that has on anyone's production is impossible to say, but his teammates would tell you it makes a difference, and fans have certainly taken to him.
The Tribe also inked Mark Reynolds to a small deal. He was dreadful for most of the season before being released, but let's not forget that he was the team's second best hitter in the first few weeks of the season, leading the team with 10 home runs by May 6.
In a move that received considerably less fanfare (and understandably so), the Tribe also inked Scott Kazmir to a minor league deal. Kazmir had made exactly one appearance in MLB during the previous two seasons, and hadn't been anything close to even an average player since 2009. I thought maybe he could be a decent middle reliever, which would make his signing quite a success. I wasn't holding my breath for that, or even considering the possibility of anything more. What do I know? What do any of us know? Kazmir has thrown 158 innings this year, his highest total since 2007. He's struck guys out at nearly the same rate as in his peak seasons, while walking the fewest of his career. Instead of running out gas (as many expected), September was his best month, with a 2.57 ERA in five starts.
In an even bigger surprise than the Nick Swisher signing, the Indians added another one of baseball's top free agents, center fielder Michael Bourn. He was one of the most valuable players in baseball in 2012, but he hasn't been anything like that in 2013. His hitting, fielding, and base running have all shown decline. Some believe that's due in large part to the change in leagues, adjusting to new ballpark and pitcher. Me? I've got some serious concerns about his production going forward. That said, he's still been a pretty good player this year, and his signing has allowed Michael Brantley to move to left field, replacing the ongoing horror show the Indians have been running out there for years.
Like every team, the Indians signed a number of formerly solid to great player to minor league deals during spring training. Most of these contracts don't amount to anything (such as the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing), but this year the Indians managed to ink minor league deals with two players who've player major parts in this play. Jason Giambi hasn't hit all that well over the course of the season, but he hit two walk-off home runs, including one in the final week of the season, after the Indians fell behind in the top of the 9th, at a time when any loss could have meant the difference between the playoff and going home. Ryan Raburn was one the worst hitters in baseball in 2012, with a line of .171/.226/.254. This season his line is .272/.357/.543, good for an OPS of .901. He's performed beautifully in the part-time role Terry Francona has carved out for him.
That's 9 hitters who mattered this season, 2 of the team's most important relievers, a valuable starting pitcher, and perhaps the American League's Manager of the Year. Not all of them have played up to our expectations, but collectively, they've done far better than we had any reason to hope.