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Manager Terry Francona Leads Indians Into Third Straight Postseason

It’s been six years since the Cleveland Indians hired two-time World Series champion manager Terry Francona to lead their team and he’s been at the helm of a renaissance, a rebirth of the franchise that had so much success in the 1990’s.

Francona has six straight winning seasons as Indians manager, one American League championship, and perhaps one rain delay short of a World Series title in 2016. On Friday, he leads the Indians into their fourth playoff appearance under his leadership.

“I would say we had extremely high expectations for the impact Tito (Francona's nickname) would have on the organization when we hired him,” said Indians president Chris Antonetti. “But I think as high as those expectations were, he’s gone on and exceeded those expectations. And it’s not just the results on the field but the way in which he leads and has helped bring the organization together. He’s made an enormous impact.”

Francona’s Brand of Leadership

Often described as a players’ manager, he can be loyal to a fault according to armchair managers and critics. But what seems to resonate in the clubhouse is the way he communicates. Players always know where they stand. Francona talked about the veteran second basemen turned centerfielder Jason Kipnis’s slump earlier this season.

“We talked a couple times about it, not about giving up, but just talked through it,” Francona said. “I mean, we moved him down order. But I just think for us to be the team we wanted to be, running away from him didn’t help. It’s too easy to run. Same thing with (relief pitcher) Cody Allen. He’s had some ups and downs this year, it’s going to be hard for us to get where we’re going without him. So I think you just need to recognize that.”

Francona rarely, if ever, criticizes a player harshly in the media and loves to brag about his team. But when the topic turns to himself, and a heart condition and eventual procedure that forced him to miss nearly two weeks last season, Francona is much more reserved.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Francona said. “I don’t have to play. I mean, I worry so much about our guys, all I need is to make sure I can sign my name on the lineup card and pat them on the back when they do well.”

Francona has that self-deprecating humor. But he did eventually give some insight into how he’s feeling.

“I think I’m in a better place,” Francona said. “Last year was really hard. And I think anybody this time of year is tired, but it’s a good tired, because you get excited. And this beats the hell out of packing and thinking about what you’re going to do in the offseason.”

Between his improved health, and the team’s improved health after a season of injuries, Francona describes the Indians as much more settled heading into the playoffs than they were in 2017.

Aspirations and Arbitration

How long can this level of success continue? And how does a team with championship aspirations balance the need to add more talent against the long term health of an organization?

It’s Antonetti’s job to figure it out.

“There’s no magic answer to that,” Antonetti said. “It’s a constant push and pull. Part of our responsibilities in the front office is making sure we do the best we can to maximize our chances of winning a World Series and that often means weighing short term impact at long term expense and we’ve done that a number of times here over the last few years. In some cases that’s led us to make trades in which we’ve given up really good prospect value to impact our major league team, but there have also been other trades that we’ve just said, ‘No that’s too rich for us, we can’t compromise that much of our future,’ so it’s a constant balance.” 

In the coming months, the conversation will turn from playoffs to payroll, from batting averages to salary arbitration and a big raise due to young shortstop Francisco Lindor.

The Indians have made it clear they can’t spend like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox in the Cleveland market, and while they’ve locked up many players to long term deals, free agency awaits for Michael Brantley, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller among others. Antonetti has to keep his eye on the offseason.

“I think overall we’re in a very healthy spot organizationally because ultimately what determines that is what are the quality of players that you have on your major league team and throughout your minor league system,” Antonetti said. “And I still feel that our group, we’ve got a lot of really good players that will be here beyond this year. That still doesn’t mean we won’t be facing some very difficult decisions this winter and decisions that we’ll save for another day. But we’re in a healthy spot organizationally because of the quality of people we have throughout the organization.”

But the Indians obviously hope they don’t have to focus on those decisions until November after a World Series title. And for fans dwelling on the 2-0 series lead the Indians blew to the Yankees in the first round last year or the recent struggles of Jose Ramirez and others, Francona says it will all be erased Friday afternoon.

“Regardless of how you’ve done in September, you have to throw it out, because it doesn’t matter anymore,” Francona said. “Come that first pitch on Friday, that’s all that’s going to matter. You could win 22 in a row, as we did (in 2017). Once that first pitch happens, it’s the first team to win three. And that’s what counts.”

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