Roster Transition to Challenge Even Francona this Summer

Through 62 games, the Indians season has not gone the way most have expected.

So far the Indians have played well below their own, and many national pundits, expectations. The team was expected to compete for a division title or World Series crown, instead they got off to an atrocious 10-19 start and have fallen as far as 9.5 games off the first place pace. Cleveland has buried themselves in the standings through poor defense and inconsistent hitting.

But in the last month the Indians have slowly started to climb out of their early season deficit. This morning they’re 29-33 and 6.5 games in back of first place. They’ve climbed as close as five games to the top spot in the standings before giving a game and a half back this week. Unfortunately, the Indians will likely spend the entire summer trying to make up for their early season struggles.

To the organization’s credit, they’ve made changes to the roster and to player’s roles in the last month. After early struggles, Zach McAllister was moved out of the starting rotation in favor of Danny Salazar. Michael Bourn has been moved out of the leadoff spot and had his playing time diminished, especially against left-handed pitching. Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez have each struggled offensively and defensively, and now are in Triple-A Columbus. For Chisenhall, the line may be out on the number of chances he has to be the team’s every day third baseman.

But now, some of the biggest challenges moving forward may rest at the feet of manager Terry Francona.

By all accounts Francona is one of the biggest player’s managers in all of baseball. He believes in communication with the players and giving them time and space to perform. For most of Francona’s tenure, it has been a welcomed change after the Manny Acta regime. Acta sometimes went weeks without speaking one-on-one with players.

For all of Francona’s communication and being a player’s manager, he is very much a veteran player’s manager. Almost every team Francona has managed has been full of veteran players in both Cleveland and Boston. You have to go back to Francona’s time in Philadelphia when he counted on a young Scott Rolen or Bobby Abreu to find young players expected to shoulder a large role. Even then, the Phillies did not carry the same expectations these Indians do. In four years under Francona’s tenure, they were never a .500 team.

Yet, here the Indians are with 100 games to play in a season with lofty expectations, now counting on 23-year old Giovanny Urshela and 21-year old Francisco Lindor to not just fill in, but man the left side of the infield. Lindor has been the heir apparent to the shortstop position since he was drafted in 2011. Urshela has emerged as the potential future third baseman moving forward. The two are very close friends and could be the Indians left side of the infield for several seasons to come. They will be a major defensive improvement, versus the Chisenhall/Ramirez combo from this season, and should be an offensive improvement.

Francona and his coaching staff’s ability to continue to develop these players and suffer through some early growing pains, while trying to make up games in the standings, could be one of his greater challenges in some time. Unlike Boston, the organization isn’t going to acquire more veterans to fill the weaknesses at the trade deadline. More probable, the improvements will have to be made from within. How Urshela and Lindor perform, and how much the Indians trust in them, will be a key to the team’s success and playoff aspirations.

Furthermore, the next challenge for Francona and the organization could be how long to stick with some other veterans before looking to other younger players. Bourn’s lack of defensive range continues to be a hindrance in center field. At some point the team has to consider a move to another center fielder like Tyler Holt, James Ramsey or Tyler Naquin. Long term, Holt is more of a fourth outfielder or bench type player and Ramsey has struggled at Triple-A this season. The long-term answer is probably Naquin, who was just recently promoted to Columbus after hitting .338 in 38 games to start the year at Double-A Akron. All three would provide the same struggling offensive production, yet a better defensive outlook in center field.

Meanwhile, Scott Atchison has looked like the clock may be ticking midnight on his ageless career. Sunday, fresh off a disable list stint for an injured ankle, he gave up a three-run home run to J.D. Martinez. Atchison, like Bourn and Nick Swisher, are veteran guys that Francona likes and respects. It’s easy to diminish roles, it’s another to consider moving them off the active roster. Swisher was placed on the disabled list on Sunday with left knee inflammation. It comes at a perfect time, as the Indians will play a pair of interleague series in National League parks over the next couple weeks and Swisher seems unavailable for more than designated hitter duty.

Shawn Armstrong, Jesus Aguilar and Cody Anderson are all players that could be in line for a promotion at some point this summer. Each have had success in the minors this year and all could be a necessary shot in the arm that replaces a veteran and infuses the Indians’ roster with new energy.

Contending with young players is a tough task. Winning with aging veterans, slowing slipping past their prime may be even tougher. For a player’s manager, dedicated to giving his guys the benefit of the doubt as long as he can, Francona’s transition—and his ability to communicate—could be one of the biggest challenges to watch and monitor if the Tribe is going to get back into the playoff chase.

Photo: Chuck Crow/

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