Tribe Happenings: It's time for Chris Antonetti to lead
As I take the reigns of Tribe Happenings this Sunday, it's not hard to see the irony in today's forecast on the North Coast. It promises to bring a bit of an Indian Summer, with temperatures scheduled to hit the low 70's, which is no small feat here in Cleveland in mid-October. Of course, with the warm weather comes a 50% chance of thunderstorms. Yeah, Indians and thunderstorms in the same paragraph...nothing changes, does it?
The playoffs are in full swing, and I find myself once again in that position of pure disgust, while watching the Yankees win a game five behind the hefty CC Sabathia, and see the Tigers follow suit with the overpowering Justin Verlander. That leaves me forsaking the ALCS this year, as watching either team play in the 2012 World Series would be equal to peeling all of my fingernails off. Of course, in game one, the Yankees pulled off more of their ninth inning garbage by tying it with two home runs, and of course, Raul Ibanez continues his dead-on impression of Babe Ruth, with another game-saving dinger. Alas, it wasn't to be for the Yankees, as they both lost the game, and lost Derek Jeter to a broken ankle.
The National League is a bit more palpable, as the San Francisco Giants face off against the Steven Strasburgs...er...Washington Nationals St. Louis Cardinals. In all seriousness, you do have to wonder if there are any other players on that rather impressive Nationals team. Sure, Steven Strasburg was a fairly important piece. It's unfortunate that we're going to have to listen to why they didn't start Strasburg for the entire offseason. Here are the facts as I see them: this was a crazy-talented ballclub. They didn't win, and Strasburg is clearly an important talking point, but that would largely discredit the rest of the Nationals.
I was hoping for a Washington vs. Detroit scrum in the series, but you have to watch out for those Yankees. Even with Jeter gone, they are the best club money can buy a solid ballclub led by a manager that recently lost his father. That can't be easy. Still think the Tigers pull this one out though. Call it the Justin Verlander factor (remind myself to call Jim Piascik and let him know I'm changing my A.L. MVP vote to Verlander).
So picking two teams out of the four that are given are akin to choosing which tooth you want pulled. All four of the teams involved are in the top nine payrolls in baseball, and all have a payroll of at least $110 million. That doesn't give the Indians a lot of hope going forward, as the baseball hierarchy becomes more and more skewed. It does give a little bit of insight into what the front office here in Cleveland has to deal with in a day in, day out basis.
What's my call on the World Series at this point? Truth be told...I don't care. I spent the entire day yesterday thinking that the Nationals had won their series, and would have gone their route. Unfortunately, due to my Saturday sports blackout, and my fastforwarding through the Yankees/Tigers game, I had no clue until I actually watched the end of the game this morning.
So we're left with St. Louis, San Francisco, Detroit and New York. I'll go with San Francisco, as I suppose they are the darkest horse of the bunch, and most palpable. I'd still rather watch football...
With all of that said, let's talk some Tribe...
The Indians are already heading full steam ahead into the murky waters of the 2012-2013 offseason having already answered some questions with regards to where they are heading with the sensational signing of Terry Francona. The 2012 season has far too many warts for one bottle of Compound W freeze off, and to be quite honest, it’s time to put the bed the failures of that team.
I’ve documented on more than one occasion just how bad the 2012 season was, and that’s become increasingly apparent, as news of the team has become much more intriguing since the firing of one Manny Acta on September 27th.
Generally speaking, the fun of the game of baseball is watching the play on the field. In a best case scenario, baseball is about watching a lineup that has been put together to win games. This starts with a fantastic starting rotation and a bullpen to support them, an outstanding defense, a nice mix of offense, and a coaching staff that understands the game in a way that translates to the players.
In the land of the Cleveland Indians, we call this a fairy tale.
You can legitimately make the case that the Indians failed in nearly every instance mentioned above. Sure, the bullpen was solid, but ultimately the bullpen resembled a teeter totter, with some really good (Perez, Pestano, Smith, Allen and Rogers) mixed in with some really bad (all the rest). While the good outweighs the bad, there was definitely room for improvement, and on a team that seemed to fail in every other category, a few good bullpen pitchers barely make a difference.
With that said, it’s time to put the 2012 season to bed as the cautionary tale that it has become. The ownership has clearly failed to support the team with worthwhile cash, which was to be expected. Because of that, the front office failed to both map out a successful strategy to put together a winning team in a small market and failed to enhance the mismatched group that they did put together.
From there, blame can certainly be levied at a few underachieving players on offense and in the pitching staff, as well as the field manager that seemed to lack any sort of conviction. You can even point fingers at the fan base, for their lack of support. Of course, it’s hard to say that and mean it when the fans that were preaching the ultimate failure of this roster were proven correct.
It’s a vicious cycle of ownership not spending the money and the fans not supporting the team infusing it with the money it needs. In other words, it’s small market baseball at its finest. In a market like this, the front office needs to hit homeruns more than once or twice.
Which brings us to today’s topic at hand: Where in the world is this Chris Antonetti-led front office going to take us in 2012 and 2013?
Clearly, Antonetti made the first salvo with the hiring of his “good friend,” Terry Francona. While you certainly can’t look at the employment of Francona as bad for any reason, it hardly is time to ring in the cheer just yet. This move is, as all Indians’ moves are these days, extremely complicated.
Take, for example, Chris Antonetti’s role with regards with the team. While a case could be made that two years at the helm as the general manager of the Indians is far too short a tenure for a guy who has 13 years with the organization, you could also make a case that he has 13 years with the organization. Granted, Antonetti has only been the GM for three two official years, but he has been a driving force with Team President Mark Shapiro in the building of this team since Acta’s hiring in 2009, if not before. You can make a pretty good case that Antonetti should have been canned with Acta.
Antonetti’s first call after he fired Acta was to one Terry Francona, who was out of the blue, interested in the Cleveland Indians, and this is where things start to get cloudy.
You see, Terry Francona was interested in the Cleveland Indians. If you read a couple of my pieces about Francona, I’m downright ecstatic that Francona would find a home here on the North Coast. Here was a manager that won two World Series in the past eight seasons. He won two World Series over the span of four seasons. That equals the Indians total amount of World Series since becoming a franchise. And he wanted to come to Cleveland?
It’s clearly an indicator of just how burned Francona was in Boston. Francona had done the improbable in breaking the ‘Curse of the Bambino,’ and in my estimation, had earned enough credibility to write his own ticket in Boston for as long as he wanted. Of course, if Joe Torre could wear out his welcome in New York, so could Francona in Boston.
This interview really says it all. Francona, who isn’t known to wear novelty tees, discusses his dismissal with the Red Sox, while wearing a very interesting novelty tee. He was clearly agitated, clearly supported most of his players, and clearly enjoyed his relationship with GM Theo Epstein. His final comments in the second part of the interview are the most interesting of all.
Now, the point of that interview is that if you really were looking at the message Francona was sending there will truly let you know his state of mind at the end of his tenure, and what it would take for him to come back.
The Indians provided him with that situation.
But the real questions that have to be asked are what is Terry Francona really looking for, and is he the right manager to re-boot this Indians franchise? I’m not saying that he was hunting for a scenario in which he could get back into the dugout and kick back and relax, and I’m not saying that Francona can’t be the perfect guy for a rebuild. What I am saying is that the Francona hire isn’t as sure-fire as people are making it out to be.
I repeat: I’m ecstatic that the Indians hired Terry Francona, but there are clearly questions with regards to the hire that will need to be answered, including the two that were listed above.
I just don’t know that there’s a perfect fit for this Indians team. What I do know is that a general manager was feeling the heat of a potential loss of a job, and Terry Francona provided him with his most stone cold lock for not getting axed. Francona signed on to a four-year deal, and in doing so, provided Antonetti with some coverage. Incorporated into that deal is a rather standard clause that allows Francona to leave the Tribe should Antonetti get fired, and/or Shapiro. Is this job security? Sure. Is it a brilliant move for Antonetti going forward? Sure. Is it a move that is also beneficial to the Indians going forward? Absolutely.
Terry Francona was the best manager available, and fit or not, it’s a move that is both a PR-coup, and a credibility boost to the locker room and the rest of the league.
Still, it leaves questions that need addressed. Just because Chris Antonetti brings in Francona doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have been fired. It doesn’t mean that he’s all-the-sudden going to become the perfect general manager, making the right moves to make the team a good one. In his two official years as general manager, and in his one unofficial year prior to that, you could make a very winnable case that Antonetti hasn’t brought in one new player via trade or free agency that has been a major factor with this team.
As of now, Terry Francona is it, and he’s not even a lock to be the manager he was in Boston. He could just as easy be the manager he was in Philly, since these Indians more closely resemble those late 90’s Phillies. Of course, that’s like saying Francona was in a bubble for the past 12 seasons, and didn’t learn a thing winning World Series titles in Boston, but the possibility is there…especially when you connect Francona to Antonetti.
With all of that said, and for whatever the reason behind it, as of now, the hiring of Francona is a clear home run, and a fantastic way to start the 2012-2013 silly season. But it’s only the first step.
With Tony in Arizona as we speak, it will be interesting seeing what he has to say with regards to the relationship between the new field manager and the front office personnel. Clearly, Francona has the clout to start reshaping the roster a bit to his liking. The question is, which direction with the Indians go, and more importantly, which direction will Terry Francona want to go?
The first direction is that Antonetti will not only bring in Terry Francona, but he will allow him to dictate to a point the direction in which this team goes.
Tito has stated many times that his job is to direct his players on the field, and Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti have both preached the same philosophy over the years with regards to their job versus the job of their manager. This relationship, at least on the outside, feels very different, and you do have to wonder what kind of influence he will carry, and if he’ll utilize any of that going forward.
The bottom line is HE SHOULD.
I just don’t know if he will, and that scares me a bit. Francona is very much an old school manager. He very much has the authority that comes with a manager that the rest of the league suggests. He very much is THE GUY that could change the direction that this franchise needs to go in. No, it’s not something that will happen in a day, or a week, or a month, or even a season. But, it will happen…if he forces this issue.
I just don’t think he will.
Chris Antonetti is his good friend, and so is Mark Shapiro. Now, that doesn’t guarantee that they will remain friends, and that doesn’t mean that they can’t remain friends and create an outstanding work environment where Francona can use his MLB-street cred to reshape the team, and Antonetti will use that blueprint to bring in the players to build a Francona-skewed team. That would potentially be the change that this team needs. No, it wouldn’t be a top-down view that most teams take, but it would equate to that if Francona has some authority. Antonetti could make it happen, if he was smart. So would Shapiro. My hope is that they will allow Francona to have a say, and if they don’t, my hope is that Francona will force his points across, the way that “friends” can.
I’m just not sure that’s what any of the members of the Three Amigos are looking for that type of relationship.
This leads us to the second direction for this team. This is the one in which the Indians remain rudderless, but are much happier to follow that path because they are all pals, have a four-year deal in place, and will wait it out, hoping and praying a fantastic manager will carry the day.
While saying that out loud makes me chuckle as ridiculous, I can’t help but think back to the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. Antonetti made that deal, and while many of us here at IPI panned him for it, I praised the risk-taking thought process that allowed Antonetti to finally jettison a couple of prospects for a major player. It was an all-in move that the GM followed up with…well…nothing.
Could Antonetti actually follow up this signing with…well…nothing?
It’s hard to fathom, but it’s a distinct possibility. And my fear is that nobody will say a thing in either the front office, or the field office. Shapiro is clearly in the corner of Antonetti, and Francona is clearly in the corner of Antonetti and Shapiro. Could these three Amigos just continue down the path of “Happy Together,” even if it means making the wrong moves?
If that’s the case, then the Indians should have just hired Sandy Alomar Jr. Now, I’m not trying to be unfair to Alomar Jr. In all seriousness, who knows how he would have managed the team, or managed his relationship with regards to Tribe ownership and the front office? Could he have been a bit demanding with regards to the players? Yep. Could he have been a vocal dissent to the make-up of the team? Sure. But at the end of the day, you have to believe that he would have been much more inclined to work with a young line-up…build them up, and not make a stink about how weak the talent level is.
For Francona to be a better hire, the Indians need to ‘let Francona be Francona.” There has to be a general acceptance that there will come points in the season when Francona’s going to give Antonetti a call and say, “We need to get so-and-so here,” or “This guy is terrible, we need a new right-handed reliever,” or “You better not sign this guy, because he was ten years past his prime when I managed him in 2006.” If he can’t do that, than I have to question the thought behind making Francona the guy.
So I have to believe that Terry Francona is going to have a clear and present voice with the Indians.
Even then, there’s no sure thing with regards to the Indians becoming a good team in the short term, or even the long term. This market is just too finicky.
If you’re a small-market team, you hope that you become the Oakland A’s. They are a small market team that hits more often than they miss. When they do miss, they continue to make the types of moves that keep them above the 70-win valley. As a matter of fact, the last time the A’s lost more than 70 games was in 1997. After that season, Billy Beane took over.
The key with Beane’s philosophy is that he is a merciless researcher and evaluator. He never stops, and he never stops getting ahead of the curve. When other teams caught up to his philosophy, he changed tacks and started evaluating high school players in the draft, and defense on the major league level. Beane’s brilliance is that he recreates his vision when it needs tweaked. He stays ahead of the curve, instead of waiting for everyone to catch up to his.
No, it hasn’t brought the A’s a major league title since he took over, and that’s certainly one way to look at things, but you can also make the case that his teams are much closer year-after-year, and while their 2012 visit to the playoffs was their first since the 2006 season, they’ve just been closer from year-to-year.
I think teams can do better.
The problem with the Indians is that they rarely take the risks that are involved in taking that next step, and until they do, there aren’t enough Terry Francona’s in the world to save this franchise from seeping into the great abyss of ‘never contention.”
The big evaluative piece is figuring out when it is time to make that big move, and doing it. For example, when you make a move at the trade deadline, does it make perfect sense, even if it is for a guy that is controlled for two more seasons, as Ubaldo Jimenez was.
When you are sitting around during the offseason, is it okay to walk into a season without a clear-cut choice in left field, even though you tried to bring in two or three guys via trade and free agency?
When you are sitting around during the offseason, is it okay to walk into a season with a guy at first base who doesn’t project to have any offense, especially after you didn’t address the left field issue?
When you are sitting around during the offseason, is it okay to get stuck with a near complete left-handed line-up, with no true viable right-handed options, especially without a left-handed option that can carry a team?
Is it equally okay to perhaps form the notion that you’ve done all of this on purpose, as a sort of strategy?
The answers to all of those questions are easy, but the truth of the matter is that the Indians are in a market where they are going to miss in some of these scenarios. When you incorporate a draft year-after-year, and one that gets increasingly more difficult because of the change in the rules, and a general front-office base that are more in tune with the line of thinking that the Indians took in Shapiro’s earlier years, and this job of general manager gets more and more complicated.
Misses are expected from time-to-time, especially when you don’t have money like Boston and New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and the Detroit ownership to overshadow those misses with massive signings. Misses are expected, and understood from time-to-time. It happens, we are all just human beings here.
But, to miss on everything is far less acceptable.
That has to change, and it has to change in 2013.
The first move was a good one, and it clearly was an easy one to make. Terry Francona felt like he could go “all-in” on the Indians, as he stated at the end of the second part of that CBS Interview. Now it’s time for Chris Antonetti and the Indians front office to follow suit. Begin winning next season.
The clear moves that have to be addressed this offseason are the same as last year. They need to acquire a left fielder that can actually play the game. The choices available are a who’s who of ridiculousness that aren’t even worth mentioning in this column. They need a first baseman, and while defense is important, you should also be able to hit more than air. There needs to be starting pitching consistency, to go along with additions.
The Indians need to target free agents that fit the framework of a bigger plan, then do everything they can to get those players…even if it means offering up an extra year, or some extra dollars. Yes, they need fallback options, but EVERY free agent option should be either a back-up-to-a-back-up option, or a completely washed up player because NOBODY was targeted.
Think about it. The plan to start the offseason off last offseason was to acquire a left-fielder…and at the end of spring training, the Indians were trying to deal for Bobby Abreu from the Angels, then ultimately settled on Johnny Damon when the trade fell through after the season started.
This is after the Indians fall back to Casey Kotchman as their starting first baseman, and after the Indians brought in a slew of minor league free agent-types.
In other words, they struck out…on everything.
That can’t happen, because their one big get this year can’t make gold out of straw, and while I do think this roster has more merit than that, it’s not put together very well.
Changes have to be made, whether the Indians consider themselves potential contenders or not.
A manager does not make a season, but one of this magnitude can certainly give the team direction, if the players involved allow it to happen.
It’s time to take risks.
When Terry Francona was bantering about his belief system, he mentioned starting pitching and talked about depth. The Indians have depth, if you consider the eight or nine guys we’ve been mentioning all year as depth. It also likely means that Ubaldo Jimenez and Roberto Hernandez will be back in some fashion. With that said, the Indians will need to bring in some starters, and I really believe that if Francona were to exert a little force, the Tribe would go out and sign a free agent candidate, and acquire a starter in a trade.
This is absolutely key, since it’s clear the Indians are expecting Carlos Carrasco to return. While I believe this is a distinct possibility, there’s also a lot of unknown there. With Carrasco’s question mark on top of a rotation that returns in disarray, there has to be changes, and they have to be better than Kevin Slowey.
Part of that will be a pitching coach, as I mentioned this past Wednesday. The right guy could facilitate a return to form for Justin Masterson, and perhaps even a guy like Ubaldo Jimenez. Is that right guy Tim Belcher? I don’t buy it. I think he’s a better option than Radinsky, but I’m basing that entirely on the fact that Belcher preached hammering the strike zone, and the entire system listened. I’m sure that the philosophy is what made Masterson the ace that he was, and I think that sort of philosophy is what Ubaldo needed from the start.
I’m NOT saying that Belcher is the right answer though, as I’m sure that Francona will bring in a high quality guy here in Cleveland. He had above average pitching coaches over his entire tenure in Boston, so that’s important.
The other part of that is the three amigos getting together and committing to get at least one major pitching acquisition, and another of the lesser variety, then bring in a few minor league contract guys, and you have something building.
The other key will be a couple of right-handed bats that can get on base, hopefully have some power, and hopefully can play some first and some left. This is where the risk comes into play, and in my opinion, this is where you take high risk on some free agents that others may stay away from. Maybe it’s an age issue, or maybe there’s something else going on, but this is where the Indians have to show their feathers.
I think they can get pitching, but it’s the position players I worry about. It’s the make-up of the lineup that I am concerned with. It needs a fundamental change, and it will take some risk/reward type moves.
Will it happen?
That remains to be seen, but it has to, or Terry Francona becomes big league window dressing, and that’s a PR hit that this team can’t take right now.
What this team needs to be is proactive, whether they go into full-on rebuild mode, or try and contend in 2013. I say this team can do both, and with a GM/Manager combination that actually uses their brain, they can utilize the paltry amount of money that the team will have going forward to put out a contending team. It absolutely can be done, but there needs to be an alignment of though, and a distinct plan that isn’t only created, but followed through on.
And above all else, risks need to be taken. Without them, this team will continue to wallow in sub-mediocrity.
Tony will return next week after he returns from his run in Arizona…with a bunch of insight on Terry Francona’s first few days with the club’s front office, and with the organization as a whole. On a programming note, make sure you tune in to IPI radio, as the Steve Orbanek and I bring back another edition of Cleveland Sports Insiders. CSI will be on live at 11:00 tonight in two half-hour segments. The first will be at 11:00, and focus on the Browns, while the second will take place at midnight, and focus on the Indians and the Cavaliers. Of course, the podcasts will be available after the shows, but in two parts, so make sure you check them out. The show will be moving to its normal time on Tuesday evenings from 11:00-11:30, and 12:00-12:30.
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They've never stated it obviously, but I believe the Indians felt that ground ball pitchers were undervalued, as they definitely went after a lot of sinkerball pitchers in favor of high strikeout guys. Or perhaps it was more they thought sinker and command being undervalued and velocity being overvalued. Which would be going against a lot of sabermetric principles, but I believe they thought they'd found a pitching skillset that was undervalued. In any case it didn't work ... and they've moved in the last couple years back towards drafting more power pitchers.
I believe the Indians would be wise to sign some significant free agents this off season. The extra TV revenue all teams start receiving in 2014 means that a $65 million payroll now could be increased to $90 million the following year. This will inevitably drive up the cost of all free agents, rather than evening the playing field. However, there will be a gap. Guys they sign this year to long-term contracts will be at pre-TV-revenue value. Sign them to a multi-year contract that pays more in 2014 and beyond. Of course you still have to go after the rights guys, but, spending significant money on some longer-term contracts this year would be a smart move.
I hate moneyball...
And am fairly allergic to metrics...the best gms use both metrics, and actually use their eyes...and Beanevdoes that as well. While he's adverse to drafting highs hook pitchers, he's not adverse to trading for them...as his rotation exhibits that now...
And the A's do go after an occasional free agent that doesn't necessarily fit $ball criteria.
My point being...they don't sit on their hands, and rarely miss on too many deals...
The Tribe is the opposite...
Their Triple A team is here in Durham, and can safely tell you that their prospect pool is considerably different than it was three or four years ago. I don't believe the Rays have any prospects currently ranked in the top 100, that aren't already with the club...
but that's an incredible low to an incredible high theory...
I know the A's record...and know how many times they've been to the playoffs...but that's where the comparisons with the Indians end...
The A's worst record since their 97 loss season in 1997 was 74-88. That's fifteen years without 70 wins or less. Since 1997, their record has been 1300-1128. Granted, they have been fairly middling in recent years, but they have NEVER been at a point when they didn't have a chance at contending because of their ability to acquire and trade youth, and sign or trade for players mid-season.
The Indians record over that same stretch is 1219-1211, with four 60-loss seasons...
The Indians play for windows...the A's play to stay competitive, realizing their windows could come at any time. 81 wins over 15 years may not seem like a lot, but in the AL Central, that's a big deal...and I'm sure those mid 70 wins and loss seasons correlate with an uptick in the West competition, which the A's ultimately were able to match this year...
I'm NOT wanting the Indians to take a numbers approach, but simply take an approach where they are proactive all the time, and not talking about freakin' "windows." Even in this market, you can be competitive on a yearly basis...
The true measure would be the Indians incorporating a drafting strategy similar to the Rays...high risk/high reward, and continue a progressive front office movement.
IMO...the downfall of this club was when Shapiro starting his transition out of baseball operations...as Antonetti began taking over, this club began regressing. Now, he's essentially riding on the coattails of his friendship with Francona to keep his job...but I ask you this...
Who hired Francona in 2001? Who created that relationship?
I'm not a massive Shapiro fan by any stretch, but I do believe his understanding of how to run a team is a much more balanced approach than Antonetti's.
You have to hit on deals in this market...and you have to be proactive. Their models for pitchers and for offense were skewed for years, and it destroyed their drafts, and it kept them from attacking the free agent market for explosive players...
now they have nothing to show for it...
I walked into today thinking the Nats were still alive...obviously...too much wishful thinking...
Just watched the end of that game on MLB.com...unreal...and glad I missed it...