Sunday, October 14, 2012

Managing Expectations on a Lazy Sunday

How do you replace a legend? How does one go about replacing the best Indians writer in the business? I was wracking my brain for longer than I’d care to admit trying to come up with the best comparison for me taking over the DiaTribe from Paul Cousineau. Earle Bruce stepping in for Woody Hayes came to mind, but that wasn’t quite right, even if it did conjure up a pretty funny image of Pauly punching a Clemson football player. After quite a bit of deliberation, I decided that I’d rely on the somewhat obscure movie “Rock Star,” featuring none other than Mark Wahlberg himself. If you’ve never seen the movie (and I’m assuming most of you haven’t), Marky Mark is a huge fan of a rock band, and is the lead singer in a tribute band. In a very Judas Priest twist, the lead singer for the real band is replaced by Marky Mark for some reason. That’s the best way to describe the way I feel; I was and remain a huge fan of Pauly’s work, and no one want’s him back at the keyboard more than I do. To be given the chance to step into his shoes is both an honor and a pretty awesome responsibility, because the last thing I want to do is not live up to his impressive standards. I did briefly entertain trying to “tank” my columns to try and infuriate Paul to the point that he was forced to come back to save the DT, but ultimately decided against it. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know Paul over the past several years, and really enjoy trading e-mails, sharing links and the Indians games that we’ve attended together. The outpouring of support on both the DiaTribe, Cleveland Fan and elsewhere across the interwebs from his devoted fans has been both well-deserved and great to see, and I’m really glad you all appreciate his work as much as I do. I’ll do my best to replace him, and thanks for sticking with me here on another Lazy Sunday.

With all that said, new Indians manager Terry Francona has the luxury of stepping into much smaller shoes than I as he takes over for departed skipper Manny Acta. From the moment the season ended, it became clear that not only was Francona a candidate for the position but the frontrunner for the job. Many of the Cleveland media seemed almost reluctant to believe it was possible until it actually happened, continually insisting that Sandy Alomar was the likely 2013 manager. Alomar did of course interview for the job and was offered a position on Francona’s staff, but he’s also considered in the running for the Rockies job and even for Boston’s vacant managerial seat, so he may have a better opportunity than to remain a bench coach in Cleveland. If Alomar does remain on as a part of the Indians coaching staff, it would likely be a short-term stint as when a guy starts getting to the final interview stage for numerous managerial openings it’s really only a matter of time until he gets a shot to captain a team of his own. Francona signed a four-year deal, and I’d be surprised if Alomar is around in the Indians dugout at the end of that original contract. If Sandy does jump ship this offseason, the recently-fired Brad Mills is a candidate to join Francona’s staff as bench coach.

With or without Sandy, there’s little doubt that the Indians hit a home run with this hire. Francona spent eight years at the helm of the Boston Red Sox, making the playoffs five times and of course winning two World Series titles, the first in Boston since 1918. Maybe you’d heard something about that on a certain 4-letter national sports network. His worst record as Sox manager was a very respectable 86-76 in 2006. Before you point out the Red Sox payrolls and tell me that an idiot could have gotten 80+ wins out of that club, take a look at what happened to the (still very expensive) Red Sox this season while Francona was in the broadcast booth. There has been a lot of talk about the type of players and the roster that Francona had at his disposal in Boston, and folks are wondering how he will respond to managing a much younger, cheaper team in Cleveland in 2013 and beyond. While it’s true that Francona’s Boston teams had veterans like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Bill Mueller and others on those successful teams, he also successfully worked youngsters like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Paplebon, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Jarrod Saltalamaccia into the fold, and saw the likes of Justin Masterson, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Josh Reddick and other youngsters begin careers that have varying degrees of success today. So while it was pretty easy to tell Pedro and Schilling to go out and dominate every 5th day, Francona was still responsible for shepherding the development of plenty of young, (and some) homegrown talent as they came up through the ranks in the Red Sox organization. Did the veteran presence and massive payroll help? Of course. But Francona probably doesn’t get enough credit for the job he did in Boston, managing the massive expectations that went along with the massive payroll, a usually-hostile media, set-in-their-ways veterans and still bringing along the talented youngsters to keep Boston at or near the top of the baseball world throughout his stint as manager. Bottom line, Francona has a better resume than any coach hired to take over in Cleveland…well, maybe ever.

Prior to his very successful stint in Boston, Francona managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997-2000, never winning more than 77 games in his four years in the City of Brotherly Love. Francona’s Philly rosters were far less talented that his Sox teams, with a couple of stars (Rolen, Abreu, Schilling) mixed with a couple of solid contributors (Lieberthal, Glanville, Byrd) mixed with a whole bunch of JAGs. This mostly reveals what we all already knew (or at least suspected); that a manager is really only as good as his players. Matthew Kory of Baseball Prospectus penned an article that talks about that, with a token “Francona could have done better, what was he thinking?” Cleveland reference thrown in. 

The difference between Francona’s average Phillies team and Francona’s average Red Sox team is 22 wins. While I wouldn’t argue if you said Francona was a more effective and smarter manager in Boston than he was in Philadelphia, did those accumulated managing smarts make a 22 game difference? I suppose you can’t know with total certainty, but it’s worth pointing out that major-league front offices don’t think so. If they did, Francona would be paid $20 million a season instead of just taking a job with the lowly Indians.


That all means, unless the Indians invent a new way to acquire talent, they’re probably looking at some leaner seasons on the horizon. Those seasons are likely going to be lean whether or not Terry Francona is the manager. That’s fine for the Indians, but it makes Cleveland an odd choice for Francona. Maybe he thinks he can coach ‘em up, or maybe he’s been assured the team is going to buy on the free agent market, or maybe he just wants to work. There’s nothing wrong with that, and picking a place he wants to be over one where winning is more easily attainable is admirable. But I’m surprised Francona isn’t able to do better. With his experience he should see the Indians job for what it is. In three or four years Francona will probably be back in the same boat he was in when he worked in Philadelphia, which is to say, not working there anymore.

I’m not quite as down on the Indians future as Kory, who is likely spending this weekend writing the outline for his article that will be posted upon Francona’s firing, I do agree that the team is going to need more talent to contend, especially starting pitching. Jordan Bastain posted a nice piece about Masterson reuniting with Francona that included this gem from Terry; "When you talk about pitching, you're going to hear me say this: 'When you think you've got enough, you go get more, or you try to.' You try to have depth, because no team has enough pitching." That’s his way of saying the Indians need at least 6 or 7 starters to get through the season, and they really don’t have even 5 to rely on at this point. Carlos Carrasco can hopefully provide some measure of relief when he returns to the rotation next year, but he’ll be just one year removed from Tommy John surgery at that point so it’s premature to count on him for too much. So barring a trade or free agent signing, the club will need some combination of Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Gomez, Slowey, Huff and maybe Roberto Hernandez to cobble together a rotation. Just typing that sentence mad my fingers, eyes, and heart hurt a little. If Francona can patch together a viable major league rotation out of those guys, he’ll have earned every dollar the Indians pay him and more.  

ESPN’s Buster Olney got some attention earlier this week when he tweeted that Francona has an “out clause” in his contract if certain members of the front office are relieved of their duties. The club has no official comment on the clause, and I’ve yet to see a local writer confirm the existence of it, but I have a hard time thinking Buster would just make it up. No details have been released as to just who those front office personalities are, but one can logically deduce that it refers to either Shapiro, Antonetti or both. Francona must have been the one to request this clause, as it wouldn’t make any sense for the Indians to have insisted on it. For now, I’ll just say that it speaks to Francona’s close personal ties with members of the front office, and not assume that it makes any sort of statement about the job security of his superiors. Francona’s dad, Tito, played for the Indians, and was so happy during his son’s press conference that he was actually in tears. Francona came to Cleveland after his stint in Philly to work in the Indians front office, and Shapiro and Antonetti actually helped him prep for his interview when he was gunning for the Boston job. As Anthony Castrovice detailed, Francona’s close ties to the Indians front office are what really made this deal happen. As always, he cuts straight to the heart of the issue with respect to what will really make the Indians a better ballclub (hint…it’s more than just $$):

What people need to understand is that a jump from the $60 million range to the $80 million range, even if applied appropriately, might only buy a club another win or two. Even a seismic increase in the payroll department -- and that's not going to happen in one of the game's smallest markets, unless there's some franchise-altering regional television deal on the horizon of which I'm completely unaware -- means nothing if it's not backed by solid baseball decisions.
Fact is, the Indians could have survived quite well (particularly in the AL Central) on their present payroll, had the personnel decisions -- from the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez trades to the First-Year Player Drafts -- not turned out so consistently unproductive in recent years.
So while a few extra bucks in payroll will certainly help, no amount of money will overcome poor personnel decisions. If the wrong players are continually drafted, traded for and signed in the free agent market, then the team is going to continue lose a lot more than they win. Francona though is comfortable with the front office, having worked with them in the past and worked in an organization with similar philosophies (albeit a far bigger payroll) in Boston. Francona won’t be fighting the front office on most of their decisions, and he’ll get a 25-man roster that he will have some input in the construction of. He’s definitely ready to work, and he’s happy to be working in Cleveland. Money alone does not beget success; it can help cover up failures, but continuing to harp on the team’s well-documented payroll limitations is misguided and short-sighted. The Indians can contend in the Central Division with a modest increase in payroll as long as there’s a significant increase in good personnel decisions.

My favorite line from Francona so far is this one, from another of Bastain’s pieces on; “I didn't come here to go to pasture," Francona said. "I was either going to work here or go back and work at ESPN. I came here again, because I'm not afraid of a challenge, and the people here that I'm doing it with.” Francona is happy to be working for Shapiro and Antonetti, happy to be in Cleveland, and he knows the challenge he’s stepping in to. Is that going to be enough to help return the Indians to contender status in the below-average Central Division? Time will tell, but I definitely think that the team made the right hire and that it’s at least a step in the right direction. Francona is not going to be able to transform the team overnight, and he’s not going to be able to do it without an influx of talent. With the state of the Indians minor league system, that talent is going to have to come from outside the organization if the club expects to contend in the near-term. Francona will be an important piece in the fight to throw open another “window of contention,” but he’s not going to be able to do it alone. But if the front office can put the right pieces on the field, I’m confident in Francona’s ability to manage them to a title. 


smaynor said...

"Money alone does not beget success; it can help cover up failures, but continuing to harp on the team’s well-documented payroll limitations is misguided and short-sighted. The Indians can contend in the Central Division with a modest increase in payroll as long as there’s a significant increase in good personnel decisions."

Great quote! I am feeling good about Paul's replacment this Sunday morning. I don't need to read a bunch of negative ownership and front office bashing. What I need is grounded optimism.

Elia said...

Excellent first effort, Al. You'll do just fine. Was thinking about the Indians situation and the Yankees situation and the money can cover up mistakes comment. Boy, if that isn't true. Not like the Yankees are teeming with their own draft picks, not much more than the Indians. And yet there they are playing in the ALCS, albeit now without their gold star draft pick, and the Indians seem far from it.

Al Ciammaichella said...

Thanks guys, glad you enjoyed the article. Really appreciate the kind words.

Prof said...

Good to have my Sunday back to some semblance of normality. Keep up the good work!