11/11/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
By marshaling Tribe to playoffs, Tito vying for AL MOY
Skipper led club to 24-win improvement in first season at the helm
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- To understand how difficult it was for things to go right this past season for the Indians, it is best to examine how much went wrong. An assortment of issues threatened to send Cleveland into a familiar second-half tailspin, but the ballclub stayed afloat and made the playoffs.
Manager Terry Francona led the way.
"Terry Francona. Manager of the Year," Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said in September. "No doubt. Write that down."
Enough writers did jot down Francona's name to make him one of three finalists -- along with Boston's John Farrell and Oakland's Bob Melvin -- for the Baseball Writers' Association of America's Manager of the Year Award for the American League. The winner will be unveiled in an MLB Network special at 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
Each manager is worthy of the honor, but the case for Francona is especially strong.
It is too simple to point out that -- in his first season as Cleveland's manager -- Francona helped guide the team to 92 victories, after the franchise lost 94 games in the previous season. Noting that the Indians won 10 games in a row (and 15 of their final 17 contests) to secure the AL's top Wild Card spot does not go deep enough into Francona's impact.
Consider that three of Cleveland's top hitters -- Swisher, Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera -- endured down seasons by their career standards, or that the back end of the bullpen could have fallen apart in wake of the struggles of closer Chris Perez and setup man Vinnie Pestano. The Tribe's planned No. 3 starter, Brett Myers, and planned source of right-handed power, Mark Reynolds, were both released by August.
The Indians had five losing streaks of at least five games, including an eight-game drought in June, and finished with a 4-15 record against the AL Central-rival Tigers. The Tribe also ended with no hitters having at least 25 home runs or even 90 RBIs, and no 15-game winners on the mound, as well.
Who was Cleveland's most valuable player?
"I don't know if we have one," Francona said in September, "because I could name probably 15, 16, 17 guys where, if they weren't on our team, we wouldn't [have made the playoffs]. I don't know if a lot of teams can do that. We don't have the 100-RBI guy. We don't have the 20-game winner."
Francona's influence was felt before the 2013 Indians even played a game. One of the main reasons Swisher signed as a free agent with Cleveland was a desire to play for Francona. If the Indians did not land Swisher, perhaps the club would not have also reeled in Bourn, who signed his contract after the Tribe had already undergone a massive offseason overhaul.
Francona played a key role in Cleveland's targeting of utility men Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn, who developed into integral players off the bench. Veteran Jason Giambi also brought strong leadership to the clubhouse and heroics to the batter's box. But that came after he fulfilled a career goal of playing for Francona.
"It was evident last offseason, as we were talking to free agents," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said, "how much people and players wanted to play for Tito."
During the season, it was clear that the players were willing to "run through a wall" for Francona, as Aviles put it toward the end of the year.
The 24-win improvement from 2012 to '13 tied the largest one-year win jump in franchise history, excluding strike-shortened seasons. Francona is one of 10 managers since 1969 to guide a team to a one-year improvement of at least 24 wins in his first season at the helm, and one of six to notch at least 92 victories in the process.
Dating back to his time as manager of the Red Sox, Francona has now won at least 86 games in nine consecutive seasons, the sixth-longest streak of its kind in baseball history. He has won at least 90 games seven times in his 13 managerial seasons, and his nine straight winning seasons represents the longest streak among active managers.
"The thing that I always felt comfortable about was the resiliency of the team," Antonetti said, "and Tito's consistency."