“You can’t return to where you’ve never left”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Let’s do something completely bold and discuss why Terry Francona is such a big deal for the Cleveland Indians.

I know, I know. This is a topic nobody has had the courage to broach before, but I’m feeling frisky.

This is what Francona said in a video released by the Indians in conjunction with the announcement Tuesday that he has signed an extension through 2018 (with club options for ’19 and ’20, when we’ll all be wearing spacesuits and will be tended to by robot butlers):

“I really didn’t want to move on from here. .. You watch every manager in their first press conference, they say all these things — and they’re all true, they all feel them — but what’s really cool for me is, two years later, I’m getting to live them out. And I still feel the same way, two years [later], except maybe stronger, than the day I was hired. And for that, I’m very grateful.”

I know the Indians – from the guys in the front office to the players to the clubhouse staff – are grateful.

And I know fans ought to be grateful, because, two years later, it’s still pretty amazing that a manager of Francona’s caliber wanted to come here.

Now, I hate writing something like that, because it only propagates the notion of Cleveland as flyover territory, as small-market stepping stone. But it’s true. The Indians, after the 2012 season, were a project waiting to be tackled, desirable only by the default setting that there are only 30 Major League managerial gigs to go around.

I wrote at the time – and firmly believed – that Sandy Alomar Jr., who now functions as Francona’s first-base coach, was the man for the job, because, while I knew Francona and Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro were all close, it simply never seemed realistic to me that he would take less than his market worth to come to a situation with clear payroll restrictions and no real panache. Frankly, I didn’t know Francona well enough to appreciate how much he desired a situation purely about baseball, about development, about people. But when you look at the way things unraveled in a big market in Boston, with a Red Sox organization that admittedly strayed from some core development values in an effort to buy wins, it all makes sense. And here in Cleveland, Francona had the freedom to create a winning culture with people who respects and cares about. I suppose you can’t put a price on that (though I’m sure the Indians have tried).

Well, anyway, all of the above is empty talk if the Indians don’t win games. Under Francona, they’ve won more than they’ve lost, two years running – 92 wins in 2013, when they won the AL top Wild Card spot outright and lost the playoff game to the Rays (with Francona winning AL Manager of the Year honors), and 85 wins last year, with an injury depleted and defensively dreadful club.

We are groomed, in today’s game, to understand managers have only limited impact on what transpires on the field, but it’s hard to be around this club as much as I am and come away with the belief that either record would have been even remotely possible without somebody like Francona at the helm. I certainly don’t think a rookie skipper would have guided that 2013 club to the playoffs, and I’m doubly convinced that 85 wins, with a club playing multiple rookies down the stretch, would have been impossible had Francona not kept his clubhouse in order.

In terms of hiring practices, the manager role has largely been marginalized in today’s game. Teams aren’t afraid to entrust the inexperienced and unproven, so long as they have the respect of the guys on the roster. That’s why you see guys like Paul Molitor and Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny and Brad Ausmus and Walt Weiss (that one nearly went to Jason Giambi) getting jobs that used to go to veteran skippers or coaching lifers.

But we need look no deeper than October to see that managers still matter. Bruce Bochy cemented his Hall of Fame status with San Francisco’s third title in five years, and the consistency of that club’s key bullpen linchpins in each of those championship seasons is in no small part due to Bochy’s expertise in employing those arms. Buck Showalter completely changed the attitude of an Orioles team accustomed to losing, getting a guy like Adam Jones to buy into the “no man is bigger than the ballclub” mentality that would help propel the O’s to this year’s ALCS. Heck, even Ned Yost – for all the grief we’ve given him for some tactical decisions – deserves a big pat on the back. His young players praise him for sticking with them through their struggles. And let’s face it: The guy was right far more often than he was wrong on the postseason stage.

Again, managers matter. That’s why the Cubs showed no shame in dumping Rick Rentaria for Joe Maddon this past week. Maddon, Bochy, Showalter, Francona and Mike Scioscia are probably on the short list of guys who could claim any opening they desired, and the Cubs have become a desirable job.

The Indians after 2012? Not desirable. And with a static payroll and sagging attendance, perhaps it’s still not a desirable situation in the grand scheme. But whether it has put butts in the seats or not, the Indians have eked the most out of their talent with Tito. For one, they’ve exceeded their Pythagorean win expectancy both years. They’ve also been at the frontline of a couple trends — the aggressive bullpen usage patterns and the effective use of time-share situations to exploit matchups (and this stuff doesn’t work without proper ego-massaging by the skipper). Guys play hard for Francona, which sounds simple, until you remember the effort level (and results) in August 2012.

None of this means the Indians have it easy from here on out. Until further notice, I’m still not convinced this is going to be a dramatically better defensive team in 2015, even after Francisco Lindor gets promoted. That alone will pose a challenge to a team with a burgeoning, cost-controlled starting staff and some offensive upside if key guys stay healthy. But the window really could be wide open in the AL Central next season. The Tigers aren’t getting any younger, and the Royals will face the challenge all World Series clubs face in recovering from the October toll taken on their arms. On the strength of the rotation alone, the Indians have an opportunity here.

What they also have is a manager who is genuinely good at what he does and genuinely happy to be here, embracing every challenge that comes with this particular position. Two seasons later –with several more in store — that’s still a big deal for the Indians.

~AC

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