Francona Has Brought Winning Formula to Indians

Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.

The 2011 and 2012 Cleveland Indians were lessons in frustrations for Tribe fans.

Both squads, filled with good, young talent, appeared to be teams on the rise when those respective seasons began. Both years, promising starts fizzled at the end as the Indians would wind up under .500 and well out of first place in each campaign.

What the Indians of ’11 and ’12 looked like were teams that could make some noise in the American League postseason race, but needed the guidance of somebody who knew how to win and get a club over the hump.

The manager of those teams was Manny Acta. Acta had never tasted success as a Major League skipper. When things started to go bad for those two Indians teams, they snowballed. That had more to do with a lack of guidance in the clubhouse than anything.

That 2011 unit was 18-8 in April and 14-12 in May as the Tribe had hopes of contention through two months. The Tribe was 47-42 at the All-Star break and would eventually swing a big trade deadline deal to snag starter Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies for top pitching prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz.

Things fell apart in the second half as the club went 33-40 post-break to finish 80-82 and out of the playoffs.

Despite the lack of a postseason berth, the hot start and decent record of a young club with a strong bullpen had the Tribe faithful thinking the playoffs were a real possibility in 2012.

Much like 2011, the 2012 season got off to a solid start. The Indians were 27-23 through May and in the middle of the postseason hunt. They were a respectable 44-41 at the All-Star break. However, unlike the year before, Tribe management did not swing a deadline deal. After that, it appeared the Indians quit on Acta in suffering through a 5-24 August – one of the worst months in the history of the team. The Indians would end the year a disappointing 68-94.

After that meltdown, Cleveland cut ties with Acta. The determination was that Acta was a good mentor for young players, but not a guy who was going to lead a team through hard times. In short, Acta was not a winner. In two-plus years at the helm of the Nationals, he had gone 158-252. His three years with the Tribe were not as bad, but still a forgettable 214-266.

A team with a young core of Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and Justin Masterson had all the promise in the world but needed a steady hand to guide them and teach them how to win.

During the offseason following the 2012 campaign, Cleveland brought aboard one of the bigger winners in baseball’s recent history. The team hired Terry Francona.

Francona had spent eight years with the Boston Red Sox from 2004-2012. He guided the Sox to winning seasons every season, while winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007. The first World Series win was Boston’s first in 86 years.

After hiring Francona, the Indians did add veteran leadership in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. However, Francona was entering a situation in which the majority of the players that would make up the 2013 roster would be the ones who had lost their way in 2012.

What Francona did with that 2013 group was nothing short of remarkable. Consider that his closer, Chris Perez and setup man Vinnie Pestano both fell apart that season. Swisher and Bourn, the high-cost free agents, had mostly underwhelming seasons. Yet, the Tribe went 92-70 and reached the postseason, as a Wild Card, for the first time since 2007.

In 2013, Francona won because he was able to get Jimenez and Masterson back on track after they had been bad the previous year. He managed the bullpen as well as anyone could amidst the turmoil of his top two relievers being ineffective.

Francona also saw young players like Corey Kluber, Cody Allen and Yan Gomes make leaps from unknown players to key cogs in a postseason run.

This past year was almost as tumultuous and maybe more so than 2012.

The 2014 season saw Masterson struggle as the ace of the staff and eventually traded. Former All-Star Asdrubal Cabrera was jettisoned to Washington after another disappointing first half of the year. John Axford, signed last offseason to be the team’s closer, lost the job by May after getting off to a rough start. Swisher and Bourn suffered through injuries and struggled with poor performances. Cleanup hitter Santana got off to a miserable start to the year, while Kipnis never really got on track at the plate. Despite all that, the Indians still managed to go 85-77 and were in Wild Card contention going into the final weekend of the season.

Unlike 2012, the Indians didn’t quit when faced with adversity. Leadership would not allow it.

Under Francona’s watch in 2014, Brantley rose to MVP candidate while Kluber had a Cy Young-caliber season. Allen became a legitimate closer. Once again, Francona got the most out of his bullpen and allowed an offensive-challenged team to stay close in most of its games.

The underlying theme in both 2013 and 2014 is that when things got bad, they did not snowball into worse situations. Unlike 2011 and 2012 when the team folded when the going got rough, the most recent Tribe clubs seemed to get stronger when things looked their bleakest. Credit Francona for that.

Francona has brought a voice to the Tribe that few could. He has brought the voice of a winner. He has won championships. He has won when it seemed things could not get any worse. Take a look at the 2004 World Championship his Red Sox won. The team was down three games to zero in the American League Championship Series to the Yankees. It gets no more do or die than that. The Red Sox, of course, won four straight and went on to claim the title. His 2007 championship squad was down 3-games-to-1 to the Tribe in the ALCS before winning the next three en route to a second World Series crown.

In short, Francona knows how to win. He knows how to win when the chips are down and his team appears ready to fold. He is a master of getting the most out of his talent. That is why he has had 10 consecutive winning seasons.

Francona won in Boston with a talented, high-payroll club. There, he had to manage egos and bring together clashing personalities to win. In Cleveland, the payroll is significantly lower. However, there is plenty of talent on the team. It is young talent. In Cleveland, Francona has had to teach players what it means to win.

The difference between Acta and Francona is stark and shows what a difference Francona has made the last two years. He has taken guys who fell apart in tough times and turned them into a stronger-willed group. In baseball, the difference between winning and losing can sometimes be very small. In the case of the Indians, all they needed was someone to get them over the hump and teach them how to win in the face of adversity. Francona has done just that and more.

Last year, Francona one the Manager of the Year in the American League. He will not win it this year due to other surprising success stories. However, he has proven two seasons in a row that he is as good a manager as there is in the game.

If Francona can get a season in which his players do not get injured or underperform, it could very well equate to a special summer. We have seen what Francona can do with a club facing turmoil. Just think of what he can do with a group that stays healthy and performs to its capabilities.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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