MLB Team Report - Cleveland Indians - INSIDE PITCH

CLEVELAND -- One year after making the American League wild-card game, the Cleveland Indians were competitive again in 2014, remaining in contention until the season's final week.

While the win total fell from 92 in 2013 to 85 in 2014, the Indians made important progress in one essential area. The rotation emerged in the second half as one of the most productive and efficient staffs in the AL.

The starting-pitching transformation came about despite the decline and eventual trade of the Opening Day starter, Justin Masterson. Masterson's poor season, which resulted in him being dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals at midseason, was a big reason why the Indians struggled in the first half. An All-Star in 2013, Masterson was expected to be the ace of the staff this year, but that never happened.

Fortunately for the Indians, Corey Kluber blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the major leagues and a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young Award. Kluber went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts and was consistent from start to finish.

"It's not smoke and mirrors. Everything he's done is legit," manager Terry Francona said. "You talk to hitters on other teams about him, and they are like, 'Whoa!' Some guys, you watch them on tape and you say, 'How come no one can hit this guy?' But with Kluber, you watch him on tape and you can see why nobody can hit him. The way his ball moves, late. The location. He throws strikes."

The second-half rotation also included Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and T.J. House. Carrasco and House, in particular, flourished late in the season, but the group as a whole will all be back next year, which is encouraging news.

The bullpen was also a team strength, with Bryan Shaw appearing in a club record 80 games and three other pitchers, closer Cody Allen, Marc Rzepczynski and Scott Atchison all appearing in more than 70 games, all with ERAs under 2.80. That group will also be back next year, as will rookies Kyle Crockett and C.C. Lee, who both pitched well in 2014.

While the 2015 pitching staff will be solid, but the same cannot be said about the team's defense and hitting.

The Indians' defense made the most errors (116) and had the lowest fielding percentage (.981) in the major leagues. That combination led to an alarming number of unearned runs allowed, and in many ways sabotaged the team's great pitching, especially in the second half. In particular, the infield defense was troublesome.

"That was one of the head-scratchers all year," Francona said of the team's shoddy defense. "We shot ourselves in the foot a lot. We put ourselves in predicaments too many times. That's something we've got to improve for sure."

Another area of concern is the inconsistent offense. The Indians finished seventh in the league in runs scored, but in the second half, they were much worse than that.

Cleveland got productive years out of only three positions players: left fielder Michael Brantley, catcher Yan Gomes and first baseman Carlos Santana.

Brantley had an MVP-caliber season while becoming the first player in Indians history with 200 hits, 40 doubles, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a season.

Gomes was one of the top-hitting catchers in the league, batting .278 with 21 home runs and 74 RBIs. Santana only hit .231, but he had career highs in home runs (27) and RBIs (85), and he led the American League with 113 walks, the sixth-highest total in club history.

As the club looks ahead to 2015, two big keys offensively will be designated hitter Nick Swisher and second baseman Jason Kipnis, who of whom both had poor seasons in 2014.

Swisher hit .208 with eight home runs and 42 RBIs before undergoing season-ending double knee surgery in mid-August.

Kipnis, an All-Star last season, had the worst year of his career. After hitting .284 with 17 home runs and 84 RBIs last year, Kipnis tumbled to .240-6-42 in 2014.

"This is the first year he's struggled, and he didn't like it at all," Francona said, "but I bet he will come back next year with a vengeance."