Terry Francona Chooses the Indians—Why?

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

Terry Francona could conceivably have had his choice of jobs as the baseball managerial wheel spins. But, shockingly (to me at least), he decided to take over as the manager of the Cleveland Indians on a 4-year contract. The move is being lauded widely, but is it the right one for both sides?

Let’s see what this means for the Indians and Francona and why it might’ve happened.

Francona wants to prove himself

After his tenure in Philadelphia and in the throes of the Moneyball craze in which a manager was seen as little more than a faceless automaton whose prime directive is to follow orders from the front office, Francona took over as the Red Sox manager. He was hired because he was willing to do what he was told; would take short money; was agreeable to the players and especially Curt Schilling, whom the Red Sox were trying to acquire from the Diamondbacks; and he wasn’t Grady Little.

Even as the Red Sox won their long-elusive championship and another one three years later, there was forever an underlying feeling that Francona—in spite of his likability and deft handling of the media and egos in the Red Sox clubhouse—was along for the ride. Perhaps he’d like to show off his managerial skills in a less financially free situation such as that of the Indians. The Indians have some talent on the big league roster. Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Shin-Soo Choo, Justin Masterson, and Ubaldo Jimenez are the foundation for a decent club. They should also have some money to spend on mid-level improvements with both Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore coming off the books.

In order for a manager to eliminate the perception of what he was in his prior stop, he has to go to a totally different situation. Francona certainly has that with the Indians.

He enjoyed his time with the Indians, has ties to Cleveland, and misses the competition

Francona was a former front office assistant with the Indians and his father Tito Francona was an All-Star player for the Indians in the early-1960s. He knows the front office and there will be a cohesiveness that wasn’t present with the Red Sox. As successful as Francona was in Boston, there was a limit to his sway. With the Indians, his opinions will be heard and he must feel they’ll be adhered to.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. If a club is rebuilding and the manager is trying to justify his reputation, he’s going to want to win. There’s a tug-of-war at play when a manager wants to win and the organization is trying to develop. Francona might not be the same person he was when working for the Indians in his pre-Red Sox days and if the Indians aren’t willing to mortgage the future in a win-now maneuver, there could be unexpected friction.

Being around baseball as a broadcaster isn’t the same as being in the middle of the fight. Francona recharged his batteries, or may think he recharged his batteries after a year away, and wants to jump back into the fray.

He didn’t want to wait and see about other, higher-pressure jobs

The implication of Francona as the prototypical “nice guy” isn’t exactly accurate. He, like Joe Torre, has been a far more calculating presence than his portrayal and persona suggests. He played the martyr following the Red Sox collapse and became a victim to the players’ decision to disrespect him and the front office need to kick someone overboard as a show of “doing something.”

Was he innocent? It’s part of the manager’s job to be hypocritical, but if he was going to get the credit for being laid back when the team was winning and it was okay that the starting pitchers who weren’t working that day were off doing whatever, then he also gets the blame when clubhouse leaks and team fractures result in a disappointing fall. The idea that Francona wasn’t to be held accountable in any way for the Red Sox slide in 2011 (and in 2012 for that matter) is ludicrous. If his calm leadership was credited for them winning in 2004 and 2007, then his porous discipline is part of why they came undone.

Will there be expectations in Cleveland? Based on Francona’s reputation, there will be factions thinking the “proven manager” theory will work. But in the end, it’s about the players. Francona could have sat in the ESPN booth and waited for other jobs with more attractive on-field personnel—the Angels and Tigers specifically—to open. He wants to win, but with the Indians, he won’t get the blame if they don’t.

The Indians presented a plan to spend a bit more freely

As mentioned earlier, the Indians will be free of Hafner’s, Sizemore’s, and Derek Lowe’s paychecks and they may look to trade Choo. That should give them increased flexibility. If I’m Manny Acta, I would be offended if the Indians spend this winter, signing and trading for players who were off-limits due to finances simply because they hired Francona. Acta has been unlucky in his managerial stops. With the Nationals, he oversaw the breaking of the ground in their rebuild and was fired. He got the Indians job and did as much as he could with limited talent and again was fired. It’s a similar situation that we’ve seen with Art Howe and Torre. Howe left the Athletics for the Mets for many reasons. The Mets were going to pay him more than the A’s would have; Mets’ GM Steve Phillips wanted someone he could control better than the fired Bobby Valentine and another candidate Lou Piniella; and he also wanted to prove that his success wasn’t the fluke it was presented as in Moneyball.

Torre was fired by the Cardinals in 1995 and this was well before he became “The Godfather” of baseball and St. Joe—both images promulgated by Torre himself. He was considered a retread who knew how to handle the clubhouse, but wouldn’t do much to help the team one way or the other. If you examine the 1995 Cardinals team that Torre was fired from 47 games into the season, they weren’t very good and didn’t spend any money (20th in payroll that season). They’d allowed Gregg Jefferies, one player who had blossomed under Torre’s gentle hand where he’d failed everywhere else, to depart to the Phillies without replacing him. Back then, Tony LaRussa was viewed as the Mr. Fix-It who could win anywhere by sheer force of will and strategic brilliance. LaRussa was hired as Cardinals’ manager that winter after he left the Athletics as a managerial free agent and, lo and behold, they imported players LaRussa wanted because he had a power that Torre didn’t have and for him to take the job, that guarantee had to be made. A bad team was transformed into a club that lost in game 7 of the NLCS.

Torre, to put it mildly, landed on his feet with the Yankees.

Howe, on the other hand, took over a Mets team in disarray with a power struggle at the top and awkwardly moving on from the late 1990s-2000 years of contention. The 2003-2004 Mets under Howe had a misleadingly high payroll because of prior financial commitments they’d made to declining players. When Omar Minaya took over as GM late in the 2004 season, it was announced that Howe would finish the season and not be retained. The Mets hired an inexperienced Willie Randolph and opened the checkbook in the winter of 2004-2005 spending big money on Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. They finished at 83-79 in 2005 and would’ve finished with pretty much that same record under Howe. An in-demand manager can say what he wants and have it done. A retread can’t. Torre was a retread; Howe was a bystander; with the Phillies, Francona was a shrug. LaRussa was LaRussa and got what he wanted.

Will it work?

In the end, it’s the players. If Francona’s going to succeed in Cleveland, it won’t be through some “magic” that doesn’t exist. His reputation might be conducive to players wanting to go to Cleveland; his laid-back demeanor will be easier for young players to develop without someone screaming or glaring at them; but it won’t be due to the simplistic, “He won with the Red Sox so he’ll win here.” He didn’t win in Philadelphia because the team was bad. Does that factor in? If not, it should.

If the Indians toss the same roster in 2013 as they did in 2012, they’re not going to be all that much better under Francona than they were under Acta and Sandy Alomar Jr.

If that’s the case, then Francona wouldn’t have taken the job. The “name” manager gets his way, justified or not. If it fails or succeeds, we’ll know why.

//

Advertisements

Bryce Harper’s Tantrum

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

In a Mötley Crüe retrospective, lead singer Vince Neil recounted how he threw a hissy fit because his preferred mustard hadn’t been provided for his sandwich. He broke the jar against the wall, it exploded and he wound up cutting his hand so badly that he severed an artery, tendons and nerves and almost cut a finger off completely. He called it his “Spinal Tap” moment in honor of the deadly accurate satirical heavy metal band of the same name.

Bryce Harper had his Spinal Tap moment last night when, during an 0 for 5 performance in the Nationals’ 7-3 win over the Reds in Cincinnati, he slammed his bat against the runway wall, it rebounded and hit him near the left eye. He needed 10 stitches to close a cut—ESPN Story.

He was beyond lucky.

The bat could’ve hit him in the eye and ended his career. Easily.

Is this cause for more ridicule on the 19-year-old or is it a moment of anger gone wrong?

Harper’s been called arrogant. His life-story is laced with exaggerations like passing his GED without studying, and made-for-public-consumption assertions such as his favorite players being Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle. There have been heavily viewed YouTube incidents of self-involved behavior from the minor leagues. When let out of his cage to do interviews without filter and cliché, he’s come across as obnoxious.

But he’s 19.

In spite of all his talents, that should never be forgotten.

In general, 19-year-olds are arrogant and obnoxious.

Amid all the expectations and eager anticipation of his first meltdown, he’s also shown an amazing talent for the game and baseball-savvy beyond his years. Cole Hamels intentionally drilled him with a fastball and Harper, rather than do the teenage tough guy thing by glaring at Hamels and possibly starting a brawl, went to first base without complaint. Once he got to third base, he stole home on a Hamels pickoff attempt of the runner on first base.

He won that battle and respect throughout the league for handling it right.

It would be a bigger deal if there weren’t players and managers who’ve done similarly absurd things when they were twice Harper’s age (and more) and been lauded for their intensity.

Lou Piniella demolished the old Yankee Stadium water cooler with his foot.

Paul O’Neill tells endless stories about the things he’s done in fits of anger.

Larry Bowa demolished a urinal in Philadelphia and blamed Jay Johnstone for it.

If Harper was behaving in an overt, on-field manner as one of his comparable talents—Gregg Jefferies—did when he was a Mets’ rookie by flinging helmets every time he grounded out, he’d need to be pulled aside and told in no uncertain terms to knock it off. He didn’t. He did this in the the runway where players go to vent their frustrations. In this case, his frustrations vented back and he hurt himself.

He won’t do it again.

//

Bryce Harper Tears the Cover Off Of Bryce Harper

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Umpires

GQ’s profile of Bryce Harper has made worse my prediction that he’s going to have big trouble assimilating to the big leagues.

The abrupt piece (its conclusion is hanging there and I was flipping pages wondering, “is that it?”) makes Harper look immature, arrogant, obnoxious and like he’s asking for trouble.

The comparisons to Gregg Jefferies are becoming more and more accurate. Jefferies was another phenom whose self-serving tantrums, self-containment and expectations of greatness from him and everyone else served to ruin his formative years with the Mets because of veteran hatred of the contrived nature of Jefferies’s biography.

Jefferies’s favorite player was Ty Cobb.

Harper’s is supposedly Pete Rose.

Ironically (or maybe not so much) Jefferies’s first big league manager was Davey Johnson.

Johnson is now managing the Nats and he made no secret of his desire to give Harper a chance to play in the big leagues. To make matters worse, he stuck the 19-year-old in center field.

The Nats resisted the temptation to promote Harper in part because he didn’t hit enough to force their hands and in part because they seem to be entertaining the idea of playing him in center field and giving him substantial time at the position in Triple-A.

Center field is a rotten idea on all levels because the mircorscope he’s currently under would be exacerbated. Even if he can play it adequately, it’s a bad idea.

His attitude is awful. I don’t care how talented he is.

Harper is rapidly becoming the Eddie Haskell-type player who utters the clichés to the media massed around his locker to put forth the pretense of humility, but when he’s alone—as he was with the author of the GQ piece Will Leitch—the real Harper comes out. It’s not an attractive picture; nor is it a positive portent for the future.

Of course Leitch and the other reporters don’t want Harper to change. It’s a juicy story when a young player draws the ire of everyone because of his personality. The target on Harper’s back will extend off the field with anyone and everyone trying to sabotage the image he’s trying to portray, but betrays when he’s alone as he was with Leitch.

He’s 19 and, thanks to his prodigious talents, has been enabled and catered to all his life. But when the real Harper comes out it doesn’t bode well for the future once he does get to the big leagues and is scrutinized exponentially to the way players were 20 years ago. Unless the Nats rein Harper in immediately, his behavior could ruin his career.

***

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections.

My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

It’s great for your fantasy teams and useful all season long.

//

Bryce Harper In Center Field is a Bad Idea

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Movies, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

It’s good to know that Davey Johnson hasn’t entered the realm of the elderly manager.

Given how thin he looks and that his voice seemed to be a shell of what it once was after taking over the Nationals last summer, it’s still a question as to how much of a managerial fastball he has left and if he’s going to maintain his energy throughout the season. I might be reminiscing about the manager of the 1980s Mets who dealt with a star-studded, young and out-of-control team that was lucky to stay out of jail while they were playing.

Their scrapes with the law (and more) had to wait until their playing careers were over: see Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Darryl Strawberry and Wally Backman.

Now he’s having a spring training look at Bryce Harper in center field and is insistent that there’s a legitimate chance that the 19-year-old will make the big league club to start the season.

Can Harper play center field?

Johnson thinks he can and the youngster played 20 games at the position in A-ball last season.

But is it a good idea?

Probably not.

Johnson doesn’t have the greatest history with adhering to reality when he believes in something strongly and that’s a detriment to being a truly great manager. In Johnson’s category of managers are Jim Leyland and Tony LaRussa who at times blindly stuck to failing strategies rather than acknowledge that they were wrong about anything. They clung to decisions they made even if they were hurting the team.

Johnson is the same man who, as manager of the Mets, stuck Kevin Mitchell and Howard Johnson at shortstop; continually wrote Gregg Jefferies’s name in the lineup when he needed to be sent down; put Keith Miller in center field; and absolutely refused to tell Strawberry to move from his Shea Stadium strawberry patch of faded grass which was his position—within a 15 foot radius—against every hitter on every pitch.

Johnson’s ego was part of the reason he was such a successful manager and able to keep that Mets group in line to a certain degree, but it was also part of the reason that most of his teams faltered at the end. Had the 1980s Mets paid a bit more attention to defense and fundamentals rather than starting pitching and home runs, they could’ve won more than one championship.

Johnson needs a rein on his over-the-top calls. It seems that the Nationals are entertaining the thought of having Harper break camp with the big league team.

If they deem him ready physically and especially emotionally; if they feel he can help the team contend, then by all means they should do it. But in center field?

No.

If they bring him North, Jayson Werth can play center field and Harper can play right. With all the scrutiny that will surround him, Harper doesn’t need to be learning a new position for a team that expects to win and a veteran pitching staff hounding him if he fails to make a play that an experienced center fielder would make.

Johnson needs someone to check him. In his other managerial stops, Johnson would be told to do something by upper management, then ignore it when he wrote the lineup cards.

He’s a great manager, but he’s made the same mistakes before. It shouldn’t happen again.

Click here to listen to my appearance with Les Norman on Breakin’ the Norm.

My new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide is available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

//

The Nationals Need a Pitcher More Than a (Prince) Fielder

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

Any team can use a bat that will hit 30-40 homers and get on base 40% of the time, but when that bat is attached to a body of jiggly flesh that’s going to grow larger and more jiggly as time passes; when the team doesn’t have the DH available to stash said player to account for his defensive deficiencies that are going to grow worse as he grows older (and larger); when the player is represented by an agent whose demands are starting at 10-years; and when the team has holes on the mound bigger than in their lineup, it makes little sense to spend the vast amount of money it’s going to cost to sign that player.

The Nationals have the money to sign Prince Fielder; they can certainly use his power; their ownership is very wealthy; and the team is on the cusp of legitimate contention, if not already there. But do they need him?

Their offense finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, but that’s misleading. Jayson Werth was awful in 2011 and will absolutely be better in 2012—in fact, I think he’ll have a very good year. Ryan Zimmerman missed a chunk of the season with an abdominal injury. They’re replacing offensive hindrances with occasional power, Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix, in the regular lineup.

If Adam LaRoche returns and hits his 20 homers, they’ll score enough to win if their pitching performs; the rotation as currently constructed is good enough to loiter around contention; the bullpen is shutdown with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shortening the game. But they need another starting pitcher who can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day and give them a designated number of innings. Mark Buehrle would’ve been perfect, but he signed with the Marlins.

The Nationals will eventually start to win as a matter of circumstance even as the front office does baffling things like trading a package for Gio Gonzalez that would’ve been suitable for a far better pitcher like Matt Garza; signing a good background player like Werth to a contract befitting a star; or seriously considering meeting agent Scott Boras’s* demands for Fielder.

*Do people realize that Boras was a minor league player before becoming an agent of evil? Click on his name above; he was actually a good hitter.

As much as the Nationals are playing up their starting rotation with the addition of Gonzalez, they don’t have a horse at the front. Stephen Strasburg is an ace talent, but your number one starter cannot be on an innings/pitch count—he’s not going to give them 200 innings next season. John Lannan is a good pitcher, but he’s not an every fifth day, “put the team on his back” guy either. No one can predict what Chien-Ming Wang is going to do. Jordan Zimmerman is in the same position as Strasburg.

The Nationals have talked about moving Werth to center field until next winter when B.J. Upton—in whom they’ve long had interest—will be available; Werth can play center field serviceably enough, but the smart thing for them to do would be to steer clear of Fielder; sign a pitcher who will give them 200 innings like Edwin Jackson; sign Cody Ross as a left field stopgap; and install Michael Morse in right.

Also, Bryce Harper is going to get a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training. The Nats have to be careful with Harper and manager Davey Johnson must learn from the mistakes he made with a similarly hyped prospect and immature personality, Gregg Jefferies. Johnson coddled Jefferies and enabled the diva-like behaviors exhibited by the then 19-year-old; when he stopped hitting and his self-centeredness drew the ire of the Mets veterans, Johnson continued writing his name in the lineup creating a fissure between himself and the players with whom he’d cultivated a relationship from their formative years.

He cannot do that again.

If Harper is in the big leagues and Werth or Zimmerman feel the need to dispense old-school clubhouse discipline on the mouthy youngster, Johnson has to stay out of it; and if Harper isn’t hitting, he shouldn’t play simply because his name is Bryce Harper.

The one free agent bat at a key position they could’ve used was Jose Reyes; like Buehrle, he signed with the Marlins. Now the big offensive name remaining on the market is Fielder. But having a lineup inhabited by two players who are going to be contractually locked in for the next eight years limits flexibility and will result in diminishing returns quickly. If the Nationals have a budget, it will hamstring them financially as well.

They don’t need Fielder.

Signing him would be spending just for the sake of it and not help them achieve their goals any faster than they are now.

They’d be allowing Boras to play them just as they did last winter with Werth and it’s a mistake.

//

Colby Rasmus And Daddy Issues

All Star Game, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, Management, Media, MLB Trade Deadline, Players, Trade Rumors

During the Mets series against the Cardinals last week the broadcasters Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen were discussing Colby Rasmus, his father’s perceived interference and his relations with the club. To paraphrase Hernandez—whose own father was heavily involved with his career from beginning to end—it was basically, “my dad’s involved; my dad’s gonna be involved; deal with it”.

The Cardinals are apparently listening to offers for Rasmus. It’s largely irrelevant whether his father Tony’s interference in Colby’s career is a major part of that; that they feel trading him is their best possible bet to improve immediately; or that they simply don’t feel he’s as good as they thought he was when he was drafted.

The perception is that it’s because of his dad.

Teams are aware of a parent’s involvement when they draft him. Sometimes it works as it has with Tim Lincecum; other times it doesn’t with Eric Lindros and Gregg Jefferies.

Because Lincecum has been so tremendous, it’s somehow okay that his father set such ironclad decrees as to his the handling of his son. I’ve always been curious as to what Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti says to Lincecum on a trip to the mound when the pitcher is struggling. Do they talk about the weather? Lincecum’s shampoo of choice for his long, lustrous hair?

The Giants allowed Lincecum to be separate from the rest of the group because he did well and they had a lot of money invested in him. If he was bad in the minors or was in danger of becoming a bust, how quickly would they have started to tweak his perfectly honed mechanics from which he was never supposed to deviate?

Rasmus has been up-and-down in his brief big league career; manager Tony LaRussa appears to have had enough of him; Albert Pujols publicly called out the youngster a year ago. He seems isolated and worn down by the public spitting contest between his stage-father and the team.

But the Cardinals had to have known all this when they drafted him. If he was hitting as he did earlier in the year, it wouldn’t be an issue; but he’s slumping, so it’s a problem.

Like Hernandez said, the dad’s involved—deal with it.

And the Cardinals may deal with it by dealing Rasmus. Then someone else will have to contend with his dad. They too will know what they’re walking into and accept it as a matter of course for getting the young talent of Colby Rasmus. Just like the Giants did with Lincecum and the Cardinals should have—and presumably did—with Rasmus.

//

Bryce Harper’s Behavioral Issues Will Sort Themselves Out

Draft, Games, Management, Media, Players

I’m getting an entitled, Gregg Jefferies vibe from Nationals über prospect Bryce Harper.

Jefferies was a would-be superstar for the Mets in the late 1980s whose self-interested behavior and stage-father drew the ire of the old-school veterans in that wild, close-knit, woefully underachieving group. They picked on, harassed and abused him in a fashion that many later admitted was over-the-line.

Jefferies has said that a few have apologized to him when their paths have crossed.

In case you missed it, Harper hit a home run in a minor league game and, after cadillacing around the bases, blew a kiss to the pitcher when he was between third and home.

Here’s the clip:

Too much is being made out of this. Harper is clearly immature; he’s been coddled and allowed to skate on his behaviors because of his prodigious abilities.

Once he gets to the majors, it’s going to stop for two reasons: the opponents nor his teammates will tolerate it.

In fact, if he was in the big leagues now and pulled something like that, Jayson Werth would knock him out long before Nationals manager Jim Riggleman got his hands on him.

He’ll learn.

One way or the other.

//