It doesn’t seem possible, but this will be Terry Francona’s seventh year as manager of the Indians. Seven years ago, the best manager in the game fell into the Indians’ lap, because he wanted to get back into the game after spending a year as an analyst on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
Francona specifically liked the idea of working for and with Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti, whom he worked under from 2001-03 as a special assistant to baseball operations.
It was a most fortuitous confluence of events that led to the best manager in baseball wanting to work for a team in desperate need of a manager.
The year before the Indians hired Francona their record was 68-94. In Francona’s first year as manager they went 92-70 and reached the playoffs as a wild-card team.
The Indians have made it to the playoffs in four of the six years since Francona motor scootered into town. But now, in 2019, Francona faces his biggest challenge yet since coming to Cleveland.
After winning three consecutive division titles, the Indians are downsizing. They can no longer afford to maintain the elite team they built. They have made trades in order to reduce their payroll. They allowed their best outfielder, and one of their best hitters, Michael Brantley, to leave uncontested as a free agent. Their best reliever, when healthy, Andrew Miller, also left as a free agent, because the Indians felt they could no longer afford him.
Edwin Encarnacion, the team’s highest paid player, was traded. So was All-Star catcher Yan Gomes, in a salary dump to Washington.
Rumors persist that the Indians are listening to offers for Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer.
A lot can happen between now and opening day on March 28 in Minnesota. But it seems likely that the 25-man roster the Indians start the season with will be significantly diminished from the ones they used over the last three years, when they won the AL Central by a combined 31 games, finishing a combined 89 games over .500.
The Indians still have a loaded starting rotation — assuming they don’t trade Kluber and/or Bauer. They still have perennial MVP candidates Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, plus returning favorite son Carlos Santana.
But teams rarely downsize as a prelude to winning it all.
That’s not to say it can’t happen. But that IS to say that the Indians in 2019 may have to Francona their way to a fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs.
The manager’s manager is going to have to manage a lesser team to a better season. Or to at least an as-good a season as last year, but with a better postseason ending.
Predictably, the leader of the Franconamen sees the glass as half full.
“I don’t think we’re going to do anything to try to make us worse,” Francona told reporters at the winter meetings.
Better or worse is in the eye of the beholder, and Francona admits the Indians are trying to walk a fine line in maintaining a championship-caliber team, even if it means rearranging some of the furniture.
“They’re trying to balance some things,” he said of the Tribe’s front office. “But we’re never trying to not get better. Just try to do it in a different way.”
Being in the AL Central means the Indians do have some wiggle room. Most of the rest of the division is in rebuild-mode. Last year the Indians were 49-27 against the other four teams in the division.
But that was with a version of the Indians that on paper seems better than the current version of the Indians.
Francona acknowledges that the team has had some turnover, but quickly adds, “That will never be an excuse.”
Why? Because he’s as big a fan of his front office as they are of him.
“They’ve proven they’re good at it, and sometimes under some challenging circumstances,” said Boss Man Tito. “But they’re trying to keep us healthy and competitive for the future. For next year, the year after that and the year after that.”
He and his team should still be able to make it to the postseason with their current roster. The bigger question is how far can they go once they qualify for the October tournament?
The answer the last two years: Not very far. In getting bounced out of the playoffs in the first round the last two years the Indians have lost six consecutive postseason games.
Not that anyone’s counting or anything.
Barring a trade or a free agent signing that compensates for the downsizing by adding a difference-maker or two to their lineup, the Indians appear less equipped to end their World Series drought this year than they have in the previous three years.
On the other hand, they do have something that no other team in the majors has.