Terry Francona has received much deserved praise this postseason for the way he has masterfully guided the Indians, with an injury-depleted starting pitching rotation, all the way to the World Series.
In watching the drama and excitement that has been a strong, three-week playoff showing, it is easy to forget the energy and excitement the Tribe brought to the 162-game regular season. However, that is where Francona’s mastery truly began this year.
In skippering a team, with numerous key injuries, to a 94-win American League Central Division championship campaign, Cleveland’s bench boss proved to be quite a few steps above the rest of his managing brethren this year in the A.L. While it is stunning that the group of Indians managed to win seven of eight games in the playoffs to earn entry into this season’s World Series, which starts Tuesday, it would be even more stunning if Francona does not earn his second A.L. Manager of the Year Award.
Francona won his first MOY in his first season at the helm of the Indians, with a surprising berth in the 2013 A.L. Wild Card game. His work that year, in leading a team its first postseason appearance in six years, was amazing, but it does not compare to the job he has done this year.
That season’s team won just a game less than this year’s club. However, the challenges that this year’s Cleveland team faced on the road to the playoffs would cripple a lot teams.
The Indians began the year without their superstar left fielder Michael Brantley, due to a shoulder injury. He made a brief comeback in May, but it was simply a cameo appearance. A guy who was third in the MVP voting just two years ago was lost for all but eleven games this year as he could never get the shoulder fully healed. He contributed but seven RBI in the Tribe’s magical journey to playoff qualification.
Starting catcher Yan Gomes never hit well this year and then he got hurt in mid July. While he came back for the final series of the season, hit a home run in the final game of the regular season and has been on the postseason roster, the contributions from a player considered a core part of the club and one-time Silver Slugger, were minimal. He has yet to see any action in the playoffs as Roberto Perez has handled the catching duties at a very high level.
The strength of the Indians, the starting five, was ravaged, especially at the end of the year. Number two starter Carlos Carrasco was injured twice this year. The final knockout blow was a broken hand two weeks before the end of the regular season. Number three pitcher and 2016 All-Star Danny Salazar started battling forearm issues just before the Midsummer Classic. He never did get right in the second half, spending two stings on the disabled list. His second one came on September 9 and he is just now at a point where he may be able to rejoin the Tribe roster for the World Series, possibly in an abbreviated role.
The Tribe did not have two of its top three starting pitchers as it closed out the regular season and closed in on a division title and the second-best record in the American League. Cleveland did not have its best offensive player of the past two seasons or its top catcher. Yet, the Indians thrived. Francona had to work with a makeshift outfield. Not one outfielder on the roster was considered an everyday player as the Tribe skipper platooned all over with the three positions. That sounds more like the makings of a team scrambling to play .500 ball, not one that had the league’s top record in it sights much of the year.
Francona did all of the things voters of the Manager of the Year award love to see. He guided a team past a point that seemed to have no business getting anywhere near where it was. Voters of the award love an underdog story. It is why Francona never won the award in eight outstanding seasons as Boston’s manager. The teams he oversaw there were loaded with talent and the expectation to contend for a title every season. That was not true of this year’s Indians.
The Indians of 2015 were picked by many to be a World Series contender, largely due to starting pitching. That club grossly underachieved for much of the year before a late run managed to get just above average at 81-80. Entering this season, Tito’s boys were pegged for a third or even fourth place finish in the A.L. Central. Yet there they were after 161 games – one rain out was not made up – standing tall over the defending World Champion Royals and their former nemesis Detroit Tigers.
The reality is no other manager in the American League came close to doing what Francona did with this year’s Indians team. The closest may be John Farrell, whose Boston Red Sox went from worst to first in the A.L. East. However, while the Indians swept the final regular season series against the Royals to earn home-field advantage in the ALDS, it was at the expense of those Sox, who failed to close out the season on a high note. Besides, the talent that Boston has on that roster should have been good enough to be a playoff team. The Red Sox underachieved more the Cleveland last year and played more to their abilities than this year’s Indians, whose record was certainly greater than the sum of its parts.
Of the other top A.L. clubs, the Blue Jays, Rangers, and Orioles were all supposed to be the playoff contenders they became. It is hard to say John Gibbons, Jeff Banister and Buck Showalter did anything all that extraordinary in guiding their teams to the playoffs.
Of the other teams in the A.L. with winning records, the Tigers, Royals, Mariners and Astros did not really meet expectations. The Yankees, skippered by Joe Girardi, were largely a disappointment for most of the year. Something no baseball fan could have ever expected to see happened. New York was a seller, shipping off high-priced pieces to smaller market teams, including the Indians, for prospects.
Girardi deserves some MOY consideration just because he guided that group of younger players all the way back to late-season Wild Card contention. Still, the floundering of the first four months will likely overshadow the surprise the Yankees became in the final two.
The AL Manager of the Year trophy is one Francona should win, hands-down. Farrell should be second, with Girardi third. Showalter could be in the mix because the Orioles went from 81 wins in 2015 to 89 and a Wild Card this year, but they played a lot closer to the sum of their parts this year than last.
Cleveland’s first division title in nine years, with key players missing significant time and a rag-tag group of journeymen and previously unknown outfielders, should be plenty to garner Francona his second MOY of his career and as manager of the Tribe.
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