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Francona once again holds key to Indians offseason

After a successful first year, Francona proves valuable this winter

Francona once again holds key to Indians offseason
November 6, 2013
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Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda once said, “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it; not hard enough and it flies away.”

Terry Francona seems to have the perfect grasp when it comes to holding the Indians together. Leading Cleveland to the postseason for the first time in six years, the two-time World Series skipper couldn’t have made a better first impression.

“Without his leadership, we would not have had the success we had this year,” General Manager Chris Antonetti said. “His passion, his work ethic, his commitment to the players and helping put them in a position to be successful—the environment he creates in the clubhouse and helping us reestablish a winning culture, I think all of those things were so evident in working with him throughout the course of the season.”

It was Francona who was at the center of the Indians 24 win improvement, managing the club to a 92-70 record and ending the regular season on a 10-game winning streak. Just two years removed from being fired by the Red Sox, the Indians are lucky to have Tito on their side once again.

“Everything that I said in my first press conference when I came here, we lived that for one full year,” Francona said. “That’s probably pleased me the most. Everybody normally says somewhat the same thing the first day they’re hired, but Chris [Antonetti] and I, his guys and the coaches lived that out every day. That will only continue to get better and stronger and that feels really good.”

So, as Francona and the Tribe organization gear up for their second offseason together, what can fans expect under their Christmas trees this winter?

A right-handed slugger? A veteran starter? How about a closer?

Cleveland shocked the baseball world last offseason emptying out their piggy banks on the free agent market for a club record, $117 million in guaranteed contracts.

It’s no secret expectations for the 2014 season are at an all-time high. The fans know it, Francona and the Indians organization certainly know it as well.

But will the forecast for this hot stove winter call for flurries of snow and more dollar bills?

Not likely to the extent of last year, but there’s no question the Tribe will look for ways to improve and spend given the chance.

Echoed out of every corner of the Indians clubhouse after losing the A.L. Wild Card game was the notion that most of this team would be back for the 2014 season. While this holds true, it also sounds familiar of where the team was six years ago.

Coming just one win shy of a date in the World Series back in 2007, Cleveland finds themselves almost in the same situation they are today. Having just been eliminated by Francona’s Red Sox that year, the Indians lost only two players to free agency in veteran outfielders Kenny Lofton and Trot Nixon. Most of the team was indeed coming back in 2008, hungrier than ever.

There was just one problem.

Before reaching the ‘08 season, the Tribe did very little in addressing needs and finding ways to improve the team. They added just one Major League contract through free agency that of Japanese reliever Masahide Kobayashi, while also trading for utility man Jamey Carroll.

Well, a dismal start to the 2008 campaign by Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia and an injury to Fausto Carmona (now Roberto Hernandez) left Cleveland in the cellar of the American League Central. Before the All-Star break that year, the team had no choice but to trade Sabathia just nine months after being eliminated from the 2007 playoffs.

Fast forward six years and expectations today are what they were heading into that 2008 season, but this time, they must do it right.

On the position player side of things, virtually all the starters and Goon Squad will return barring any offseason trades. Things get cloudier in terms of pitching, where the Indians may lose two starters in Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, both of which are in line for huge pay raises.

They are also without a closer, and more than likely will lose their late-inning bullpen specialist in sidearm reliever Joe SmithThen there’s ace Justin Masterson, having just one more year left on his contract before he hits free agency. The Tribe would be wise to shell out some cash and sign Masty to a long-term extension this winter.

Yes, keeping most of team and core intact is a good thing, but there's also a flipside.

The Indians cannot think for one second they can go into 2014 bringing back virutually the same team and expect and punch their ticket to October once again. Things like that just don’t happen.

Like any sport, nothing is guaranteed. Players have down years and can prove inconsistent from one year to the other. This holds true for next season, where a guy like Asdrubal Cabrera needs to be better. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn also need to be better.

Then there’s the worry of the dreaded sophomore slump for players like Yan Gomes or even Danny Salazar, not to mention injuries, something Cleveland was fortunate enough to not to endure many of over the course of their playoff run last season.

It’s very important for the Indians to keep their unique team chemistry together, while bolstering the roster by adding guys that can fit right into the winning and team mentality.

Chris Perez did not fit in either category, and was quickly shown the door hours after the Major League Baseball season concluded last week. Sure, Perez he had his teammates between the lines, but off the field, he had very few friends in the locker room.

Watching the playoffs and World Series, there’s no question the Indians aren’t there yet, but add a few key pieces to fill in the gaps, and Francona may have his team back in the Fall Classic.

That dream begins and ends with the Tribe skipper.

“He’s the reason it’s a fun environment,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. ”He’s the one who sets the tone with how loose he is and how he lets his players go about and play the game. There’s not too much pressure coming from him, he’s an awesome guy and a guy you play alongside. He’s not in front of you, he plays with us.”

Knowing Francona, he will once again push for the guys he wants and keep improving. His title may be manager, but Tito has played a huge role in getting players to come to Cleveland already. Just ask Mike Aviles, Matt Albers and Rich Hill, all of whom played with the Tribe in 2013 and previously under Francona in Boston.

It has already been reported that Francona has had a lengthy phone call with free agent starter Tim Hudson this past week. Serving as the Oakland A’s bench coach in 2003, Francona knows all about Hudson who was also a member of the Athletics rotation that year.

Fans know how hard it is to repeat back-to-back championships in any professional sport, let alone making the postseason in consecutive years. Cleveland themselves haven’t made back-to-back playoff appearances since winning the Central Division in 1998 and 1999.

The game of baseball has become less predictable over the years than in other major sports. The Boston Red Sox proved that just this year by going worst to first after one season, under first year manager John Farrell.

It was also Francona’s first year in Boston when he broke the Red Sox 86 year championship curse back in 2004. The 2014 season will be a decade since then, and just maybe he can do the same with the Indians 66 year championship drought.

Swisher said it best the day he signed with Cleveland: ”You don’t bring a guy like that over here if you don’t want to win, and want to win now.”

He was right, and now it’s time for the entire baseball world and its fans to realize it too.

Swisher and Bourn were the first two to hop on board, the only question is, who's next?

Who that player may be only time will tell. The good thing is for the first time in a long time, Cleveland will be a hot destination for free agents even in the coldest of winter months, held together high by the hands of a champion.

Follow Jim on Twitter @JBirdman27 or he can be reached via email at jberdysz27@gmail.com.

User Comments

Rich
November 7, 2013 - 9:31 AM EST
I think the key to next season will be a combination of the young guys taking the next step (Chisenhall, Salazar, Gomes) and good rebound years from the vets who had below-average seasons in 2013 (Asdrubal, Swisher, Bourn, Pestano).

That, and finding replacements for Kazmir and Ubaldo, of course. Assuming Salazar is one of them, we just need either Tomlin or Carrasco to emerge, unless we can sign a free agent starter.

Francona's job will be to convince any free agent targets that are on the fence to come here rather than elsewhere.
Hiram
November 6, 2013 - 11:53 PM EST
Jim,

Dream offseason for me: Freese/Uribe/Betemit as a platoon with Chisenhall. Hanrahan/Veras/Balfour/Wilson as closer, Hart/Willingham/Cody Ross to be hitter in middle of order and Kazmir/Haren/Vargas/Johnson/Hughes and others to fill the 4th spot in the rotation
Bob
November 6, 2013 - 10:58 PM EST
Nice piece Jim. Francona is the savior of this franchise. Wow, for once the Indians caught a break with him being available last offseason.
Jim
November 6, 2013 - 8:24 PM EST
Birdman!!! Awesome stuff as always. Keep up the good work. I can't say it enough...the best damn beat writer in Cleveland.

If he can bring in even one big name, it could be the difference between skimming the playoffs, and contending for a series.

Francona seriously may be the biggest addition to the Indians in quite some time...
Hiram
November 6, 2013 - 3:40 PM EST
Jim,

Good article. I expect the Indians to make solid under the radar moves because with the farm system coming along, some improvement from regular players don't need many if any big ticket players. It's well known the guys I would like to see them with but I'm going to be interested to see if the Indians see it the same way or come close.

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