First-season success fuels Francona
Manager expects taking next step to be tougher challenge in second season
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Indians manager Terry Francona wasted little time in shedding the suit and tie he wore for the annual photo featuring American League managers on Wednesday at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort. Francona traded those threads for a long-sleeved shirt when the time came to sit down with reporters.
Keeping things loose is how Francona operates. That was apparent during his first season leading the Indians, just as it was throughout his storied tenure as manager of the Red Sox. Boston won a pair of World Series titles with Francona at the helm, and the Tribe collected the AL's top Wild Card spot in his opening act in Cleveland.
Francona believes last season's improbable run to the October stage is just the beginning for the Indians.
"I'm hoping that it's kind of a springboard into next year," Francona said, "as opposed to a nice little year that ended quicker than we wanted. It was still a fun year. Saying that, it's going to be hard to do. If anything, our goals are set higher."
Francona was honored with the AL Manager of the Year Award by the Baseball Writers' Association of America for the season turned in by Cleveland. One year removed from a 94-loss disaster, the Tribe's dramatically overhauled roster and coaching staff enjoyed a 92-win campaign, clinching a spot in the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
No one expected Cleveland to achieve that kind of success in 2012, but the secret's out on the team now. Francona has said on more than one occasion that jumping from 68 wins to 92 wins can sometimes be easier than going from 92 to 95 or more. That is the Tribe's challenge next season, and the club will be tasked with doing so without some key members of last season's cast.
Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir -- integral parts of the 2013 rotation -- elected free agency this winter, as did relievers Joe Smith, Matt Albers and Rich Hill. Cleveland also released former closer Chris Perez, creating more uncertainty for the bullpen. That represents a lot of experienced pitchers and innings (north of 500 frames in 2013) to replace.
"I think we probably need to supplement our staff somewhere," Francona said. "Whether it's in the bullpen or in the starting rotation, we probably need to get some help there. But it could be one or the other, because we do have some flexibility with some of those guys who could do both. We're definitely trying to get somebody.
"You don't know what's going to happen. But, going into the year, we have a Danny Salazar that we're going to have for a full year. Corey Kluber. Zach McAllister. There's some younger guys that should be better and, not only better, but have them for the whole year. I think we feel pretty good about things. We know we need to get better, but we have the guys that can do it."
Francona is also counting on better showings throughout his offense.
Cleveland ended the season tied for fourth in the AL in runs scored, but did so with down years from Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera. The Indians signed veteran David Murphy to help improve the production against right-handed pitching, but are hoping that most of the improvement comes from players already in the fold.
"[Jason Kipnis] had a very good year, but we all think he's getting better," Francona said. "Asdrubal, we think can probably do more. Bourny is probably going to do more. I think we feel like Swish will be more consistent. He had a great September, but, up to that point, it was kind of up and down. We feel like we should be OK."
Francona also feels the way the season ended will fuel the Indians to strive for more in 2014.
Cleveland rattled off 10 wins in a row to end the regular season, becoming only the sixth Major League team since 1900 to end a campaign with a winning streak of 10 or more games. The Indians won 15 of their final 17 games and ended with a 21-6 record in September, earning the right to host the AL Wild Card Game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Indians then experienced a 4-0 loss to the Rays, bringing an abrupt halt to the team's magical run.
"That lost to Tampa was crushing," Francona said. "It really stung. It was hard for me to talk to them after the game. It hurt so much, because we were having so much fun together, and we didn't want it to be over. I think the guys that got a taste of it liked it, and want it again."
The Indians will certainly not be overlooked, but they might still be considered an underdog when next season begins. Cleveland does not have a field full of All-Stars and does not boast the kind of payroll that allows for wild offseason spending sprees.
None of that matters to Francona.
"You're kind of playing in different neighborhoods in the winter," Francona said. "But then, when the season starts, you're in the same one. For me, it's more of a comfort zone of who I'm working with and things like that. We have our challenges, I knew that coming in. But I have enjoyed immensely showing up and trying to figure out how we're going to do it with these guys."