If it were not for the presence of Terry Francona in the dugout, the Cleveland Indians would not be playing meaningful baseball in September, even if the chances of a return to October are becoming more and more fleeting by the day.
It’s strictly opinion, of course, as there is no way of proving otherwise. Yet I feel justified about the statement, especially after years of watching younger and inexperienced managers at the helm of the Tribe fail to maximize on their returns from the club.
How many teams could have survived the midseason trades of two former American League All-Stars while still very much in the thick of both the division and wild card races?
I would presume that most teams would have folded, looking at the two moves as an indication the white flag had been waved and the addition of fire sale signs all around the franchise would be popping up.
Instead, this team, a mix of expensive veterans and young players, some just approaching the primes of their careers, has held together despite the steady stream of things that has gone wrong over the course of the season.
Justin Masterson was supposed to be good. In the final season of his contract, with millions of dollars at stake, he made Indians brass look like geniuses for passing on a lengthy and costly contract extension with the one-time ace. A 4-6 record with a 5.51 ERA in 19 starts, plus a trip to the disabled list, later, he is a member of the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen and another piece of “what if” about the 2014 season.
Asdrubal Cabrera was in the same boat. He clearly had no role with the franchise beyond this season with Francisco Lindor flying through the minor leagues and knocking down the door to Cleveland. His play had slipped last season, when he hit .242 with 14 homers and 74 RBI, just two years removed from his first All-Star nod and a 25-homer, 92 RBI season while hitting .273. This season, he had become even more of a liability in the field and his departure to Washington has actually been beneficial, as Jose Ramirez has filled in adequately in his place.
Something has held this team together. Maybe it is just the makeup of the players individually. Maybe the assortment of veterans, like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, have had a positive effect on potentially impressionable, younger, developing stars like Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, and Jason Kipnis.
Maybe it is just the Tito effect.
Francona has been around long enough now to know how to play the game. If he had not learned how to pull the best from those around him in his ten years playing at the Major League level, his 14 years of coaching in the Show would have given him plenty of chances to do so.
His first four years of MLB coaching in Philadelphia did not go quite as he hoped. But the Boston years, all eight with their highs and their lows, molded him into a force in the dugout. He has twice won a World Series and now seven times has taken his team into the postseason.
He had much more talent and potential on the roster with the Red Sox, made possible by the free and easy spending of the ownership there under John W. Henry. Regardless of the price of the players he had then, there was still a substantial amount of leadership required to deal with the personalities and sense of entitlement that bigger name stars, the likes of David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling, would have demanded. He made it work there and has not had a losing season since 2000.
With easily a less talented and polished group than those he fielded at Fenway Park for eight seasons, Francona led the Indians club into the playoffs in 2013. While the team disappointingly failed to add any significant pieces to the roster in the offseason, Francona has made the best of what he had to operate with.
He has had a slew of underperforming or injured veterans. Swisher could not produce even when in the lineup, batting a career-worst .208 with just eight home runs and 111 strikeouts in 97 games. His defense at first base had also become an issue. Bourn has struggled to keep the batting average over .260 and has missed large portions of the season for the second year in a row. The aging veteran Jason Giambi, a hero in limited action last season, has a batting average nowhere near the Mendoza line and has just two home runs and five runs driven in during minimal time on the active roster. Ryan Raburn played in just 74 games and hit .200 before being lost for the season.
Francona has had to supplement the healthy players with a mix of Columbus Clippers. The team has seen contributions from many, including Ramirez, Tyler Holt, T.J. House, and Roberto Perez. Francona has been patient with them throughout their early development and it has paid dividends down the stretch.
The youth movement infiltrated the bullpen too, as Francona had to make the tough choice early on to move away from the team’s bigger offseason bullpen signing of John Axford. The righty was wild on the mound, walking nine in his first 12 1/3 innings with a 4.38 ERA, two losses, and two blown saves, and the bullpen-by-committee approach was a dangerous thought a little over a month into the season. Cody Allen stepped into the role, not without some hiccups, but has done a solid job.
Eighteen different pitchers have been used in relief efforts this season by Francona, who broke his own AL record for reliever use in a season on Friday night with his 541st trip to the ‘pen. It is a long known fact that Tito likes having as many arms in the bullpen as possible, and he has done exactly that this season. He has played the matchup card frequently, which was made possible by solid seasons from southpaws Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Hagadone, and rookie Kyle Crockett. All three have ERA’s under 3.00.
Allen, Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw, and Scott Atchison will likely all surpass 70 appearances on the season, with Shaw closing in on 80. While ideally, one would not need to use the bullpen so much, with the poor early returns from the starting rotation, it was difficult not to. Each of these four have been durable and reliable for Francona, regardless of the wear and tear on their body this season and potentially for the years ahead.
The team has found several diamonds in the rough and turned them into significant contributors on the team, either last season or this year. Yan Gomes went from an absolute unknown prior to last season to one of the best catchers in the American League, if not all of baseball. His bat has produced at a consistently high level, both in batting average and power numbers, and if he can control his arm a bit at the plate and not try to do too much to pick off runners on the base paths, he will remain one of the best of the best for years to come.
Atchison, a former Francona player in Boston from 2011, has revived his career with some of the best numbers he has posted at the Major League level. He has done it all at the age of 38, when most players’ dreams of staying relevant in the Bigs have long since passed.
Few could have held together a team like Francona has, amidst all of the injuries, the long hitting slumps (see Santana’s first two months of the season), the defensive lapses, and the loss of established veterans in the locker room.
Could Manny Acta have managed this team with these kinds of problems plaguing the club all season long? The Acta-led Indians in 2011 were leading the AL Central for almost the entire first half, despite awful months of June and July. That Actaball team crumbled down the stretch and finished 80-82, hurt by injuries to Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and Travis Hafner. With even higher expectations for 2012, they finished 68-94, with nearly the same roster and another batch of injuries.
Eric Wedge would not have fared any different. He posted winning records in Cleveland just twice and struggled again in Seattle with a young team with veteran components.
Other managers around the AL would have easily buckled under the pressure with the type of roster that Francona has had to juggle. Rookie Detroit skipper Brad Ausmus has a big spending budget to make mistakes with. Successful skippers like New York’s Joe Girardi and Boston’s John Farrell have come back to earth as injuries and age affected their clubs. Bo Porter and Ron Washington are both out of jobs after injuries and unknown youngsters altered their seasons. Toronto’s John Gibbons and Oakland’s Bob Melvin both have seen second half collapses, although Melvin’s has been far more devastating and surprising. Chicago’s Robin Ventura, Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire, and Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon have been unable to grow the talent on the roster to the next level. Kansas City’s Ned Yost was being so heavily criticized earlier in the season that some wondered if he would still be at the helm at year’s end. Mike Scioscia (Los Angeles) and Buck Showalter (Baltimore) are finally getting the results out of their bigger budgeted rosters, while Lloyd McClendon (Seattle) inherited a roster that spent heavily in the offseason.
Meanwhile, if Francona can push the Indians to the 82 win threshold, just two wins away, it will mark the first time Cleveland has had consecutive winning seasons since 2000-2001. Had the Indians been a bit more successful over the course of the season and laid an earlier claim to the division or wild card spots instead of playing from the outside, Francona would be in good position for a second consecutive AL Manager of the Year award. Despite that, he is still deserving of a fair share of votes.
Francona has surrounded himself with guys he trusts. Former teammate Brad Mills is his right-hand man in the dugout as the bench coach, reunited after time as players in Montreal and coaching in Boston. Sandy Alomar Jr. is a future coach in the making at first base. Third base coach Mike Sarbaugh has nine years of minor league managerial experience. Mickey Callaway may have coached himself into future managerial opportunities with his ability to turn around Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, and Carlos Carrasco over the last two seasons in his pitching coach role for the Indians.
Francona has gotten more from an average roster than other managers around the league have done with better talent and options. It is easy to criticize the man in the driver’s seat for the direction the club has gone this season, but I instead believe that Francona’s tutelage and leadership has gotten the Tribe exactly as far as they have gone. That place, just on the outside of the playoffs but still looking in, is a place this roster should not have been able to go to this season.
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