Posted October 06, 2012

Indians hoping Francona can deliver familiar magic

Cleveland Indians, Terry Francona

The job description of 2013 Indians manager is hardly comparable to 2004 Red Sox manager, but Cleveland’s front office is hoping that a proven winner can find success anywhere. Thus, the Indians have decided to hire former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona as their next manager.

Francona, who has worked as an analyst for ESPN this season, will be introduced at a news conference Monday at Progressive Field.

Francona will be taking a departure from the situation he is used to, namely a clubhouse stocked with a big-moneyed players and the pressure of a major media market. He will, however, get a redemptive shot at managing after his name was unfairly besmirched through anonymous leaks to the media after he was out Fenway Park’s door last fall.

He will have a new challenge in terms of the market size he works in and the financial resources his front office has at its disposal, but the root challenge will be the same: end a long-standing World Series drought.

And for a franchise that could use an injection of a proven winner after two late-season slides, Francona is the best option on the market.

The 53-year-old Francona first managed in Philadelphia from 1997-2000 without much success, but he led Boston to a 744-552 regular season record from 2004-11 and won the franchise’s first two World Series titles in nearly nine decades.

He inherited a 95-win Red Sox team that was one run away from an AL pennant the previous season and guided them to their breakthrough title season. Francona succeeded for 7 3/4 of his 8 years in Boston — the historic 2011 collapse was the notable exception — by building relationships with and respecting his players, by being a calming dugout influence, by interacting professionally with the media and, at times, charming them with anecdotes and affability and by getting the most out of his team.

The Indians, however, have averaged just 74 wins the past two seasons, though they had a winning record at the All-Star break each time. Cleveland is in the bottom third of the majors in payroll, having spent barely half as much on player salary in 2012 (about $65 million) as Boston did in Francona’s first year there in 2004 (roughly $127 million), according to data from Cot’s Contracts.

One of Francona’s former Red Sox bench coaches, DeMarlo Hale, who is now the Orioles’ third-base coach, said on Saturday afternoon that he hadn’t heard any news about Francona accepting the Indians’ gig, given his focus on Baltimore’s playoff run. But Hale added that, if true, Francona would do well in his new location.

“He’s a really good major league manager,” said Hale, noting that Francona’s “passion is still there.”

After Francona’s experience in Boston, he may not want to work in the same scathing environment. While there is less daily coverage and smaller daily attendance in Cleveland, the expectations remain the same, of ending that championship drought. The Indians haven’t won a world title since 1948.

Cleveland doesn’t seem to have the A-list talent to contend next season, but Francona must be sufficiently convinced that the club will be good in the near future for him to take the job. There are a number of good or improving core position players — Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall — but the pitching staff is lacking. There are fewer prospects waiting in the wings, too, after the club made a deadline deal in 2011 for the disappointing Ubaldo Jimenez.

Even the offense underachieved in 2012, scoring only 667 runs and ranking second-to-last in the AL. The team is largely dependent on players who, based on age, should be entering the primes of their careers. Francona may not have needed to be a player development manager in Boston but clearly Cleveland thinks he has the skills to extract that talent from its roster.

The prospect of this job is promising for Francona, however, given his connections to the city — he played for the Indians in 1988 and worked there as a special assistant in the front office in 2001 and his father, Tito, played for Cleveland from 1959 to 1964 — and to the front office. During that year as special assistant, he became friends with Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti, who are now the team president and GM, respectively. It would be “almost a family feeling,” Francona said of the relationship, in comments the Indians made available after his managerial interview.

The Indians hope the familiarity doesn’t end there, and that Francona is again responsible for bringing a World Series to a town starved for one.

– By Joe Lemire

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