Wednesday, March 27, 2013 1:14 pm
Francona, new faces bring hope to revamped Indians
By TOM WITHERSAP Sports Writer
His new challenge is ending a 64-year championship drought.
And this time, it's personal.
Refreshed from a year away from the game's ruthless grind following a messy exit in Boston, Francona has come "home" to try to take the Cleveland Indians to the top. Chosen as the club's manager in October, Francona has invigorated a franchise he has known since childhood, when his father, Tito, played for the Indians.
"This where I wanted to be," Francona said. "This was the only job I wanted."
Loving every minute so far, he even agreed to dress up as a baby for his players this spring.
The Indians, who collapsed last season under Manny Acta, have been overhauled for Francona. Cleveland owner Paul Dolan, criticized for penny-pinching in the past, spent $117 million on free agents this winter, a striking, big-ticket spending spree that brought All-Star center fielder Michael Bourn, first baseman Nick Swisher, pitcher Brett Myers and slugger Mark Reynolds to Cleveland. The club also traded for outfielder Drew Stubbs and infielder Mike Aviles and signed Jason Giambi, Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir.
Cleveland got real serious.
"You don't bring over a guy like Terry Francona if you don't expect to win, and win soon," said Swisher, who signed a four-year, $56 million contract - the largest for a free agent in Indians history - after playing the past four years with the Yankees. "Not only bring over Terry, but you bring in all these other high-profile guys and all of a sudden this young core of guys you have here are like, `All right, here we go, this is what we needed.'"
The Indians needed an infusion of something, anything, following their disappointing 2012 season, when they were in contention for four months before going 18-45 after July 27 and finishing fourth in the AL Central.
Francona's arrival has changed everything. The Indians sold out their home opener in 6 minutes and predictably pessimistic Cleveland fans, who have seen many promising and pennant-winning seasons end short of a first World Series championship since the last one in 1948, are beginning to believe this could be a magical year.
The outlook is bright, but there's also reason for caution.
With the speedy Bourn in the leadoff spot, Cleveland's lineup should score. The Indians were second from the bottom among AL teams in runs last season, but in Swisher, Reynolds and the 42-year-old Giambi, who will serve as a part-time designated hitter and clubhouse leader, Francona believes his club has some proven middle-of-the-order run producers who will not only rack up RBIs but take pressure off Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana.
Bourn was the cherry on top of general manager Chris Antonetti's scrumptious offseason overhaul. In addition to giving the Indians a needed base-stealing threat, the 30-year-old changes the dynamic of Cleveland's outfield with his Gold Glove. Bourn takes over in center field with Michael Brantley moving to left and Stubbs playing right, giving the Indians perhaps baseball's fastest outfield.
"I just hope we don't run into each other," Brantley joked.
But the trio should be able to run some potential doubles into outs and save runs for Cleveland's staff, which will hold the key to the Indians' chances of closing the gap on defending division champ Detroit.
Pitching, or more precisely, the lack of it, is a major concern. The Indians' rotation is a little rough around the edges.
Justin Masterson, who will start on opening day and is considered the ace, won all of 11 games in 2012 with a 4.93 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez led the AL with 17 losses and has been a major disappointment since coming over from Colorado in 2011. Myers pitched in relief last season and was battered around in spring training. Zach McAllister won six games as a rookie last season and Scott Kazmir pitched for the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent team.
"Over the course of a long year, if you don't pitch, you get exposed," Francona said more than once this spring.
The Indians, though, do have a solid bullpen anchored by charismatic closer Chris Perez, who has promised Francona he will be better behaved following a tumultuous 2012 during which he criticized Cleveland's fans and Dolan, exchanged profanities with a fan and taunted opponents.
Perez is one of the many Indians players who said Francona didn't have to earn their respect. It arrived before he did.
"He's has instant credibility," said Perez, a two-time All-Star who had 39 saves last year. "He's going to tell you something, and it's, `OK, how high do you want me to jump, sir.' With what he's done, somebody like that could be a complete jerk and say `I want to do it this way, I've done it this way.' But he's working with guys he's asking, `Hey, how have you done it in the past?' He's still learning and for a guy who has won two World Series already sometimes you don't see that. It's really great."
When the Indians filmed their version of the "Harlem Shake" during camp in Arizona, Francona not only agreed to participate but became the video's star, shimmying across the clubhouse and dancing in a baby's bonnet.
His willingness to be open yet firm has already won over his players.
"His boundaries are perfect," Giambi said. "Look what he did in Boston. To win two World Series there and the guys loved him. He's fired up to be here, and it rubs off downhill."