CLEVELAND -- Winter has arrived a little earlier than expected for the Indians. A ballclub that entered the year with aspirations of playing deep into October is instead heading home after a disappointing summer of baseball.
Cleveland closed out its 2012 campaign with a 9-0 defeat at the hands of the White Sox on Wednesday night at Progressive Field, and is now entering a critical offseason. The decisions made over the next few months could very well set the direction for the next few years.
"I think there's going to be a lot of new faces coming in next year," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "Just by the way the organization is headed, with contracts coming up to an end and stuff like that, there's going to be new faces in here.
"There's going to be some changes, but I think they're all going to be made for the better and I think they're all going to be trying to get this organization going the right way. I'm excited."
That process officially begins on Thursday, when Cleveland will hold a formal interview for interim manager Sandy Alomar Jr. One day later, Terry Francona will be in town for an interview for the Tribe's vacant managerial role. Naming a full-time replacement for Manny Acta will be the first step in what is sure to be a busy offseason.
Alomar took the reins for the final six games of the season, giving him a taste of managing the team he starred for during the '90s. It would be a dream come true to earn the permanent job, but Alomar is trying not to think too much about that possibility right now.
"I have plenty of time to think about that," Alomar said. "I gained a ton of experience in six days. This was a wonderful experience for myself. I'm kind of glad that I had the opportunity to manage a team. I learned a tremendous amount about what being a manager is all about, just in six days."
The players feel that either choice -- Alomar or Francona -- will be good for the team.
"Both candidates they have are exceptional," said veteran designated hitter Travis Hafner. "And [would] be great leaders of the organization. We'll just kind of see what happens with the roster."
One pending decision involves Hafner's future.
After spending parts of 10 seasons in a Cleveland uniform, the 35-year-old Hafner might have played his final game for the Indians, who will likely decline his $13 million club option for 2013. In the ninth inning on Wednesday, the fans at Progressive Field rose to their feet and offered Pronk a standing ovation.
Hafner -- touched by the gesture -- stepped out of the batter's box, raised his helmet in the air and waved to the crowd.
"It was a special moment to have the fans do that," Hafner said. "It was a great moment. It's something I'll remember forever. I kind of wanted to acknowledge it. They've been great to me. This city has been great to me. I kind of wanted to thank them for everything."
The game itself seemed more like a footnote on this night.
Dan Johnson led the White Sox with three home runs -- a pair off Tribe lefty David Huff in his 4 2/3 innings -- and Paul Konerko and Dayan Viciedo added blasts of their own. Cleveland's lineup did little against lefty Gavin Floyd, who breezed through seven shutout innings to notch his 12th win of the season.
"That's definitely not the way you want to go out," Huff said.
Plenty of his teammates shared that sentiment.
There is a long list of things that went wrong this year.
The rotation labored mightily and there was a revolving door in left field. Many of last offseason's moves backfired, leading to a steep second-half slide. For the first time since 1972, the Indians did not have a player with either 20 home runs or 80 RBIs in a season.
"Every offseason," Alomar said, "everybody has their goals in mind, what to improve to help any franchise you play for. You have to look yourself in the mirror and look at the things that you have to improve on. Hopefully, you're able to get your thoughts together and fix those things."
The team did like the seasons turned in by the likes of Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley. The back end of the bullpen -- led by Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez -- remained a strength, and many of the team's youngsters showed promise.
That is what the Indians' decision-makers will focus on as the team maps out its plan for the 2013 season and beyond. There are multiple holes to fill and the organization must decide whether it is best to try to reload, or if it is in the club's best interest to enter another rebuilding period.
"We've got a lot of young guys that are hungry to play for next year," Huff said. "The Indians need to make some decisions this offseason. Hopefully, we're all back here again. We're all like a big family."
First and foremost, Cleveland needs to figure out how to avoid another season such as this one. The Indians were in first place through 70 games, and within 3 1/2 games of the American League Central lead on July 26, before the bottom fell out. The Tribe endured two losing streaks of at least nine games, went 5-24 in August and limped to fourth place.
The Indians ended the season with a 68-94 ledger, marking the third time in the past four years the club finished with 90-plus losses. It is the fifth season in a row Cleveland has finished without a winning record.
The Tribe's task this winter is finding a way to fix things.
"We played good baseball for a lot of the season," Hafner said. "I don't feel like we're that far off."