Terry Francona's impact
The Cleveland Indians just made their biggest and best move off the offseason by extending manager Terry Francona through the 2018 season with club options for 2019 and 2020.
I know some will read that and groan at ownership for not spending money and rightfully so. In the five seasons prior to Francona the team averaged 72.6 wins, yet in the two seasons Francona has managed the Indians they have averaged 88.5 wins per season.
Think about that for a second and compare his success with what came before him. As much as fans may despise Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti, remember that Francona would have never come to Cleveland without their presence in the front office. From the day he got here, this implementation into the organization changed the entire philosophy and culture from the top down.
With Francona’s help the front office has placed a greater emphasis on developing the players within the organization which is essential for a small market team. That is something Francona accepts and understands. He welcomes it. The small market restrictions for the organization only allow the Indians to players in free agency for a few notable players every couple of years. He knows that the big time players have to come from the farm system and not free agency.
The Indians have always done their fair share of bargain bin shopping in free agency over the years, and that has continued during Francona’s tenure. But instead of spending on buy low candidates like Casey Kotchman,Shelley Duncan, and others in the past, their buy low candidates appear to be better and more defined thanks to Francona. They continue to target these what I like to call “bounce back candidates” as they went after Scott Kazmir, Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi with great success in 2013, and had some success last year with the likes of John Axford, Aaron Harang and Scott Atchison. Look for them to make several more of these low risk signings this offseason in hopes they hit on one or two.
There are a couple things I appreciate about a Francona led team. For one, I know they will always play hard and never give up. We witnessed this in the last few weeks of the season when the odds were stacked against them to reach the post-season. Even after losing two of three to the eventual American League champion Kansas City Royals, the Indians kept fighting even though they had about a one percent chance to get in the playoffs.
Tito just has an ability to bring the best out of his players. We have seen Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and Cody Allen blossom and have the best seasons of their respective careers under Francona’s guidance. Even when a player struggles, he has a knack of protecting his players and never gives up on them.
Another thing I like about Francona is the way he constructs and then uses his roster. We all know how much he loves and values his bullpen as a staple of the team, and he has proven to be a master at handling his bullpen and matching up late in games. When the rosters expand in September, it’s no coincidence that the Indians play some of their best baseball because Tito has more weapons to use out of the pen.
In addition to that, Francona also understands that his bench players are important, and in some cases as important as the regulars. In the past we saw the Indians not pay much attention to the bench as they would rely on the likes of Jason Donald, Ezequiel Carrera, Brent Lillibridge and others. While a guy like Mike Aviles isn’t the greatest player in the world, what he does provide is a consistent track record.
Francona preaches selflessness among his players especially when it comes to their positional versatility, something we see in Aviles last season as he played every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. Carlos Santana was even willing to try and play third base, a position he had not played since early in his minor league career.
The 455 consecutive sellout streak from the past and the top five TV ratings from last season prove that people have and will continue to pay attention to this team. Cleveland sports fans are among the most knowledgeable in the country and they recognize that the Indians have a young talented core with reinforcements readily available in the minor leagues to compete for a long time. They may even be on the cusp of greater things as former baseball analyst Steve Phillips and Mike Periello of Fangraphs have even gone as far as to say the Indians will win the World Series in 2015.
In the five seasons prior to Tito’s hire we all watched as injuries, youth, and poor signings derailed the team year after year. But Francona refuses to let the realities of playing in a small market be an excuse for not winning baseball games. We know baseball is completely unfair with the lack of a salary cap, but if the Rays and Athletics can consistently field winning teams year after year, then why can’t the Indians?
That’s why as the holiday season approaches, one thing I am very thankful for is that Francona is the manager of the Cleveland Indians. And now he will be the manager for a lot longer.
I completely agree w you that having Francona as manager is a huge plus and it was a great move to lock him up for more years.
I don't think we've seen a tremendous benefit in terms of free agents though. And your point about the improved quality of free agent signings is a very weak one. Giambi, Rayburn, Axford and Harang et al are really not discernably different than Kotchman and Duncan et al.