As a Cleveland sports fan, I’ve learned that it’s never wise to assume anything when it comes to topics relating to the Cleveland Indians, Browns, or Cavs. With just 1.5 games separating the Indians – who currently hold the last of the two AL Wild Card spots - from fellow Wild Card contender Texas, the Tribe merely need to hang onto one of the two spots (Tampa Bay currently holds a .5-game lead over the Indians for the top spot) for the remaining six games of their schedule. While some baseball analysts are looking at the Indians as a virtual lock to the make the postseason due to the ease of their remaining schedule (two games at home against the White Sox and four games in Minnesota against the Twins), I would rather not assume much of anything.
This is a team made up of a rather strange mix of veterans and youngsters who won’t blow anyone away statistically but, together, have created a winning atmosphere within the clubhouse and translated that aura into a consistently successful product on the field. Who should receive the majority of the credit for this Indians team’s turnaround from a year ago, in which the Indians produced only 68 wins? Much support can be provided for Nick Swisher, an Ohio native and former Yankee who came back to his home state to join the Indians as a free agent over the summer. How about the case for Jason Kipnis? The emergence of the young second baseman this season certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Kipnis’s strong first-half performance earned him a trip to the Midsummer Classic in July. Don’t forget the enigmatic starting pitching staff, who has proven itself to be the team’s biggest strength heading down the stretch.
The truth is that without the firing of manager Manny Acta at the tail-end of last season and the hiring of Terry Francona as the team’s new skipper early in the offseason, the 2013 Indians would still be the same, middle-of-the-road franchise with limited potential for future success that it appeared to be last season. What Acta lacked in terms of a fiery demeanor and a lack of a successful Major League managerial background, Francona has done much more than just fill the voids.
There’s no denying that GM Chris Antonetti did some of his finest work to date this past offseason by assembling such a uniquely balanced Major League roster, though bringing Tito on board was by far his best move. Francona was then able to assemble one of the league’s most underrated coaching staffs that includes a few noteworthy individuals: Former Indian and fellow managerial candidate Sandy Alomar, Jr.; first base/infielders coach Mike Sarbaugh, who has led numerous minor league championship squads; and pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who has transformed a ragtag group of seemingly washed-up former All-Stars and unproven young fireballers into a respectable pitching staff that now has a very promising future.
It’s no secret that, without the acquisition of Francona as the team’s manager, the Tribe’s likelihoods of signing free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (among others) would have decreased dramatically. Also, his relatively sporadic yet spot-on usage of some of the team’s role players (i.e. Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes) has helped make the Indians bench one of the leagues best. While some fans would still liked to have seen a few minor changes in the way Francona has gone about managing his squad, most can agree that his in-game management skills and ability to maintain a positive and upbeat atmosphere within the dugout and clubhouse (guys like Swisher and Jason Giambi deserve plenty of credit for that, as well) has pushed this team over the edge in 2013.
Fellow Manager of the Year candidate John Farrell of the Boston Red Sox (ironically) has accomplished an impressive turnaround with his team, as well. But, given the differing levels of talent that the two managers had been given to work with, there’s no denying that Boston’s talent level stands out above and beyond the Tribe’s. The Red Sox possess more than a few of the league’s better offensive talents, including standouts Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as the ultra-productive David Ortiz. The ‘Sox also own one of the league’s top starting rotations, which includes the likes of Clay Buchholz, who has an unfathomably low 1.60 ERA through 15 starts this season.
Meanwhile, Francona has pulled off a winning season with a roster consisting of many guys that the rest of the baseball world had given up on or passed over: Ryan Raburn, Scott Kazmir, Yan Gomes, and Jason Giambi, just to name a few, have all contributed in an array of varying aspects to form one of the league’s strangest yet most efficiently productive rosters. Not to mention, the Red Sox hold quite a large monetary advantage in the department of team payroll (Boston: roughly $150.6-million, Cleveland: roughly $77.7-million).
Overall, the main point to remember is this: Francona has been the glue that holds this eclectic mix of Indians players together. Currently, no qualifying hitter on the roster is batting over the .280-mark. There is no legitimate power threat in the Indians lineup, considering Swisher leads the team with just 20 dingers. The bullpen has been sketchy at best over the course of the season. These are just a few of the many components that have been working against the team’s favor all season long. Despite all of this, Francona and his staff have been able to orchestrate one of baseball’s most surprising turnarounds this season. Whether the Indians endure a final-week collapse or not, Francona deserves some end-of-the-season hardware.