MLB | Indians preview: Francona, new players raise hopes for Tribe
CLEVELAND — Terry Francona helped exorcise the Bambino’s curse, bringing the Boston Red Sox a World Series title for the first time in 86 years.
His new challenge is ending a 64-year championship drought. And this time, it’s personal.
Refreshed from a year away from the game’s grind following a messy exit in Boston, Francona has come “home” to try to take the Cleveland Indians to the top. Hired as manager in October, Francona has invigorated a franchise he has known since childhood, when his father, Tito, played for the Indians.
“This where I wanted to be,” Francona said. “This was the only job I wanted.”
The Indians, who collapsed last season under Manny Acta, have been overhauled for Francona. Team owner Paul Dolan, criticized for penny-pinching in the past, spent $117 million on free agents — a striking, big-ticket spending spree that brought All-Star center fielder Michael Bourn, first baseman Nick Swisher, pitcher Brett Myers and slugger Mark Reynolds to Cleveland. The club also traded for outfielder Drew Stubbs and infielder Mike Aviles and signed reserves Jason Giambi, who is on the disabled list, and Ryan Raburn and pitcher Scott Kazmir.
“You don’t bring over a guy like Terry Francona if you don’t expect to win, and win soon,” said Swisher, who signed a four-year, $56 million contract — the largest for a free agent in Indians history. “You bring in all these other high-profile guys and all of a sudden this young core of guys you have here are like, ‘All right, here we go, this is what we needed.’ ”
The Indians needed an infusion of something after their disappointing 2012 season, when they were in contention for four months before going 18-45 after July 27 and finishing fourth in the American League Central.
Francona’s arrival has changed everything. The Indians sold out their home opener in six minutes, and predictably pessimistic Cleveland fans, who have seen many promising seasons end short of a first World Series title since 1948, are beginning to believe this could be a magical year.
The outlook is bright, but there’s also reason for caution.
With Bourn in the leadoff spot, Cleveland’s lineup should score. The Indians ranked next-to-last in the AL in runs last season, but in Swisher, Reynolds and Giambi, 42, Francona believes his club has some proven run producers who will rack up RBI and take pressure off Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana.
Bourn might have been the key acquisition. In addition to giving the Indians a needed base-stealing threat, the 30-year-old changes the dynamic of Cleveland’s outfield. With Bourn in center field, Michael Brantley moving to left and Stubbs playing right, the Indians might have baseball’s fastest outfield.
The trio’s ability to turn potential doubles into outs could be key to the Indians’ chances of closing the gap on defending division champ Detroit.
Pitching — or lack of it — is a major concern. The Indians’ rotation is rough around the edges.
Justin Masterson, who is considered the ace, won 11 games in 2012 with a 4.93 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez led the AL with 17 losses and has been a disappointment since coming over from Colorado in 2011. Myers pitched in relief last season and was battered around in spring training. Zach McAllister won six games as a rookie last season, and Kazmir pitched for the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent team.
“Over the course of a long year, if you don’t pitch, you get exposed,” Francona said. The Indians have a solid bullpen anchored by charismatic closer Chris Perez, who has promised Francona he will be better behaved following a tumultuous 2012 during which he criticized Cleveland’s fans and Dolan, exchanged profanities with a fan and taunted opponents.
Perez is one of many Indians players who said Francona didn’t have to earn their respect. “He has instant credibility,” said Perez, who had 39 saves last year. “He’s going to tell you something, and it’s, ‘OK, how high do you want me to jump, sir?’ With what he’s done, somebody like that could be a complete jerk and say, ‘I want to do it this way.’ But he’s working with guys (and) asking, ‘Hey, how have you done it in the past?’ He’s still learning, and for a guy who has won two World Series already, sometimes you don’t see that. It’s really great.”
AT A GLANCE
CF Michael Bourn
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
2B Jason Kipnis
1B Nick Swisher
LF Michael Brantley
C Carlos Santana
DH Mark Reynolds
3B Lonnie Chisenhall
RF Drew Stubbs
IF Mike Aviles
C Lou Marson
OF Ryan Rayburn
RHP Justin Masterson
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
RHP Brett Myers
RHP Zach McAllister
LHP Scott Kazmir
RHP Chris Perez
RHP Vinnie Pestano
RHP Joe Smith
Record: 68-94 (fourth in AL Central)
Batting average: .251 (ninth, AL)
Runs: 667 (13th, AL)
Home runs: 136 (12th, AL)
ERA: 4.78 (14th, AL)
Saves: 43 (sixth, AL)
Attendance: 1,603,596 (13th, AL)