Cleveland Indians: Terry Francona an AL Manager of the Year candidate?
The great Sparky Anderson once said: “the players make the manager, it’s never the other way around”. Well, when you were manager of the legendary team known as ‘The Big Red Machine’, as Anderson was in the 1970s – replete with all stars, future hall of famers, and winners of two World Series titles – it is easy to buy into such a blasé attitude to the role of a baseball skipper.
But there is another side to that coin; a side that allows for the manager to serve as a catalyst for success. They can bring the best out of players who may not be blessed with the talent of the Joe Morgan’s, Tony Pérez’s and Johnny Bench’s of the world, and inspire those punching above their weight to impact a game, even a season. Managers can also steer a team through choppy waters during times of adversity; and captain a battered and beleaguered ship, full of leaky holes, safely to dry land.
The latter scenario would certainly encapsulate Terry Francona‘s stewardship of the Cleveland Indians through the first half of this 2021 season. The Indians began the season resembling a dilapidated, Mark Twain-era riverboat alongside the heavy steel battleships that flew the flags of their division rivals. Almost no-one in sports media was picking the Indians to do much in 2021.
And why would they? The Indians, aside from their rotation, looked awful on paper coming out of spring training. The offense was in all kinds of disarray following the departures of Carlos Santana and the trade of Francisco Lindor.
And the production on the field reflected the poor patch job the Indians front office made of trying to replace those bats. The relief corp, although possessing a lot of potential, contained a lot of young, relatively inexperienced arms.
To compound the problem, the back-end of the rotation fell to pieces in a hurry as the season got underway. young hurlers, who showed promise in limited innings during Cleveland’s 2020 season, had issues with command as well as keeping the ball inside the park.
They say bad things come in threes, and that then proved true for the Indians when, arguably, their two best starters – Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac – both succumbed to injury in the space of three weeks and now Aaron Civale has joined them.
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However, rather than implode, the Tribe sit nine games above .500 – a better win percentage than when both Bieber and Plesac were still healthy – and just 2.5 games back of the division-leading Chicago White Sox; a team blessed with a juggernaut offense and strong overall pitching. So how are the Indians managing to so stubbornly remain in the playoff race despite all of these challenges?
A big part of the conversation that answers that question must revolve around the manager, Terry Francona. Yes, the bullpen arms and some minor league call-ups have stepped in for a rotation that has been dismembered by injuries and disappointment. And yes, the offense has put up a better showing at the plate in recent weeks. But the linchpin holding everything together through this brutal period has been the two-time World Series winning skipper.
Francona’s leadership and mentoring of the junior guys on the roster has been invaluable throughout the tough stretch. He is getting the best out of young, and relatively inexperienced, players like Bobby Bradley and Harold Ramirez at the plate and Nick Sandlin and Cal Quantrill on the hill who have all made significant impacts in short periods of time.
Tito and his coaches have not panicked and have kept the Indians boat steady on its course for a playoff berth. Considering the patchwork of players that make-up large portions of Cleveland’s roster, the fact the Indians are even in the postseason conversation as the season nears the All-Star break is a spectacular feat.
Nothing much was expected of this team. The Cleveland Indians have the lowest payroll in baseball, they currently have nothing that resembles a major league rotation right now, and half of the lineup has been a hodgepodge of misfits, former top prospects, and professional journeymen.
But somehow the man they call Tito has taken what the baseball Gods have left him and put together a winning ball club. His performance this season is criminally underappreciated among Indians fans and sports media alike.
If votes were cast today, Terry Francona should be the runaway leader for AL Manager of the Year. The legendary Sparky Anderson may not have held the role of manager in high esteem; but the job done by Tito this season is proof that, in today’s game, managers matter, a lot.