CLEVELAND (AP) – Indians manager Terry Francona doesn’t like being an October outsider. This is his month.
Over the past decade or so, Francona exorcised demons and ended a celebrated curse in Boston, winning two World Series titles. But despite a second-half surge, Cleveland didn’t make the postseason for the second straight year and Francona hasn’t quite come to grips with it.
“You wanna know what still sticks with me?” Francona said Tuesday as the Indians boxed up a disappointing 2015 season. “It’s that four-game series with the White Sox. If we would have won a couple games, we wouldn’t have been chasing that group at the end.”
The Indians dropped four straight games to Chicago in late July, a slide that essentially put Cleveland out of contention in the AL Central, triggered the trades of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and made the climb toward a wild-card berth steeper than the club could handle.
Despite high expectations, and even predictions they would end a title drought dating to 1948, the Indians came up short, finishing 81-80 – in the middle of the division and five wins shy of the second wild-card spot. A slow start and inconsistency for much of the season doomed the Indians, who failed to build off a promising 2014 season and will spend this month as postseason spectators for the seventh time in eight years.
“There was a lot of frustration this year,” Francona said.
Just two days after the season ended, the Indians shifted their front office, promoting general manager Chris Antonetti to president of baseball operations, Mike Chernoff from assistant to GM and Derek Falvey to assistant GM. The moves came in the wake of president Mark Shapiro’s departure to take over in Toronto, and Antonetti said Cleveland’s new structure is similar to those already in place with the Red Sox and Cubs.
Antonetti will remain as the primary baseball decision-maker with Chernoff and Falvey taking on more responsibilities. Both have assisted Antonetti in recent years on contract negotiations, the makeup of Cleveland’s roster and other decisions.
Owner Paul Dolan will assume Shapiro’s duties on the business side.
The promotions won’t have much impact on Francona, who couldn’t resist joking about the team’s first moves of the offseason.
“It just gives me a couple more people to harass,” he said.
Antonetti didn’t reveal much about the Indians’ plans this winter or whether Dolan might be willing to spend in free agency to add a power right-handed hitter, a glaring need for a team with one of baseball’s best starting rotations and a core of young players already locked into long-term contracts.
Antonetti said the multiyear, multimillion signings in 2013 of Bourn and Swisher that backfired won’t alter the team’s philosophy toward free agency. There is always risk, and the Indians won’t shy away from pursuing players in free agency, but the priority is on drafting and developing players internally.
When Bourn and Swisher were traded to Atlanta on Aug. 7, the Indians had dropped to 49-59 and there was no sign of an imminent recovery. But Antonetti credited a meeting he and Francona had with core players Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes in triggering the turnaround.
“We talked with them very candidly about what are we going to get out of the second half?” Antonetti said. “What’s our team identity going to be? Those guys really took ownership of it. We started to play a little bit better and we started to form an identity from that point forward.”
It helped, too, that 21-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor came up from the minors and showed why he’s been projected as a star.
Lindor batted .313 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs in 99 games. He made jaw-dropping defensive plays and endeared himself to his teammates with his attitude, work ethic and exuberance.
“He was the consummate teammate,” Antonetti said. “He was the guy who after he strikes out, instead of going down the tunnel to watch video of his at-bat and see why he got out, he’s on the top step cheering for the guy behind him.”
During the season, Francona carefully chose his words when praising Lindor, who will get strong consideration for AL Rookie of the Year along with Houston’s Carlos Correa.
As he sees a case being built for Correa, Francona isn’t holding back any longer. If the Indians are going to win any rings, he wants to make sure his young shortstop gets rewarded.
“Some of the things I’m reading are starting to aggravate me,” he said. “I’m missing something somewhere. This kid is rookie of the year.”
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