Terry Francona Chooses the Indians—Why?

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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.

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Your Final 2012 Manager/GM Hotseats and Predictions

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Some managers have already been dismissed and others will be gone as soon as the season ends tomorrow night. Let’s go through the list of the obvious and otherwise.

Manager Joe Girardi/GM Brian Cashman—New York Yankees

The Yankees are in the playoffs and barring a dreadful stumble in the final two games against a Red Sox team that’s waiting to be put out of its misery, they’re going to win the division. But, as the Yankees from top-to-bottom have repeatedly said, they’re not in it to make the playoffs. Anything short of a good showing in the ALCS and the manager could be in jeopardy. It’s not Girardi’s fault and if he’s going to be tossed over the cliff, I would advise him to handcuff himself to Cashman as they’re going over because it’s Cashman who should be in trouble.

From the trade that sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos (both on the disabled list), to his questionable development of pitchers (Manny Banuelos is going to have Tommy John surgery), and his off-field mishaps, there are many reasons to say enough’s enough with Cashman.

In an ordinary situation, firing the manager/GM for a team that has won 90+ games and made the playoffs would be ludicrous, but the Yankees have a World Series or bust attitude and a $200+ million payroll. Add it up and people will be held accountable for a fall.

Manager Bobby Valentine—Boston Red Sox; Manager John Farrell—Toronto Blue Jays

I’ll discuss them together since they’re all tied together.

Valentine’s putting up the front of expecting to be back because no one’s said anything to him directly and he has a contract for 2013, but he’s gone and he knows he’s gone. This Red Sox disaster was not due to the manager. He was part of the problem, but even had they kept Terry Francona or hired one of the candidates preferred by GM Ben Cherington, 2012 wouldn’t have gone much differently.

Farrell and the Red Sox are eyeing one another like desperately lonely singles at a middle-aged mixer and the Blue Jays will take advantage of that and get a player in exchange for Farrell. I doubt it’ll be someone as significant as Daniel Bard, but they might get something of use and not have to pay Farrell off if they wanted to fire him.

The Red Sox had better get Farrell better talent because his stoic countenance, handling of the media, and remembrances of years gone by as the Red Sox pitching coach aren’t going to yield any better results than what Valentine got without massive changes to the personnel. In fact, since Farrell’s in-game managerial skills are poor, the Red Sox might be worse with Farrell than they are with Valentine.

The Blue Jays know what Farrell is, are unhappy with his open flirtation with the Red Sox, and have seen his “strategery” on a daily basis for two years now. If there wasn’t this clear lust between Farrell and the Red Sox with the Blue Jays thinking they can get something out of it and not have to pay Farrell for 2013, they might fire him.

They need a manager who will handle the youngsters and correct mistakes as they happen; someone they can trust to make the sensible game decisions. I’d go with someone older and uncompromising like Larry Bowa, but if (when) Farrell leaves, they’ll hire a Don Wakamatsu-type. Most anyone would be a better game manager than Farrell. After a short honeymoon, the Red Sox will learn, much to their dismay.

The Blue Jays should wait to see what the Yankees do with Girardi. He’d be a great fit in Toronto.

Manager Jim Leyland—Detroit Tigers

Much was made of the Tigers underachievement and that Leyland is working under a 1-year contract with no deal for 2013, but the Tigers problems weren’t the fault of the manager and they came back to win the AL Central. He’ll be back if he wants to come back, but I’m getting the inkling he might retire. The Tigers are a great spot for Francona.

Interim Manager Sandy Alomar, Jr.—Cleveland Indians

The Indians are interviewing Francona, but the team is restarting their rebuild and won’t have the money to pay Francona or to bring in the players he’s going to want to win. It’s a no-win situation for him because he’d be risking his reputation by overseeing a team that’s starting over and would revert to the “nice guy and meh manager” rep he had with the Phillies before he wound up in Boston.

Alomar is a top managerial candidate, is popular in Cleveland and will get the fulltime job.

Manager Mike Scioscia—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels missed the playoffs after spending a ton of money on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson; GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not exactly buddies; and owner Arte Moreno is understandably upset.

They’re saying that Scioscia will be back, but I’m not so sure. This is another great situation for Francona.

GM Jack Zduriencik—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik should be safe to at least fulfill the final year of his contract and see if the team improves in 2013.

The entire Marlins baseball ops

From President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest on down to manager Ozzie Guillen, it’s been speculated that the baseball people in the front office were in trouble, then that was quashed after which it was said that Guillen is on the firing line.

I don’t see anyone as safe and I think owner Jeffrey Loria is simply going to fire everyone in a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort them out,” manner.

Team President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington—Pittsburgh Pirates

After the Pirates came apart in the second half and the scandal of putting young prospects through Navy SEAL training, Huntington’s and assistant GM Kyle Stark were rumored to be in trouble; Coonelly put the kibosh on that, but Coonelly himself isn’t all that secure.

I think they all get fired.

Manager Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

There’s an odd dynamic in Colorado in which everything is done in a friendly, agreeable manner. Former GM Dan O’Dowd willingly took a demotion in favor of new Bill Geivett wielding the power in the baseball ops. Manager Tracy has an indefinite, handshake agreement to stay as manager, but it sounds as if they’re going to make a change with Tracy staying in some capacity.

Presumably they’ll go with someone younger in the Chip Hale variety as the new manager.

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