CLEVELAND — The Indians have signed their biggest star to a contract extension.
It’s the least they could do, after stripping away half of his lineup and two of his key bullpen pieces.
So let’s call it even?
With the most challenging season of his Indians career less than a week old, Terry Francona can no longer count on Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Yonder Alonso, Edwin Encarnacion, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, but he can count on being the Indians manager through the 2022 season — if not longer.
“I have no ambition to work somewhere else,” said the best manager in the major leagues, who gives his team and its fans hope simply by showing up in the dugout, with his tub of bubble gum, at the start of every game.
On Wednesday, the Indians extended Francona’s contract, which ran through the 2020 season, another two years, through the 2022 season. There are rough waters ahead, and the Indians know it. But at least they’ll have a skipper’s skipper at the wheel.
By the start of the 2022 season, Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Santana, Brad Hand and Jason Kipnis will all be gone — in some cases long gone — from the roster.
The only significant Indians on the roster this year whom the team will still have under control in 2022 — assuming they don’t trade them — are Jose Ramirez, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco.
So the time to swing for the fences is now. But instead, ownership decided to play small ball financially. That being the unfortunate case, who better to manage the best team limited money can buy than the best manager in the majors?
The Indians need Francona more than he needs them — and they’re lucky to have him. His Titoship likes it here so much he, apparently like his two immediate bosses, president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff, has no desire to seek employment with a fully funded organization.
“I love working here,” Francona said. “We’re going to get challenged, and I’m not afraid of that.”
That makes one of us.
It’s a curious and, for Indians ownership, a fortuitous dichotomy at work within the friendly confines at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Three men at the top of their professional games, willing to compete with one hand tied behind their back, against organizations capable of paying the going rate for greatness every year.
That the Indians can hang with the big boys is both impressive and frustrating. Because they can only hang for so long. That’s where they are now. They’ve built a consistent contender, but don’t have the funds to sustain it.
So what looks like a window of opportunity is actually a keyhole of opportunity.
At some point they have to ease off the gas, which is what they did in this payroll-slashing winter.
Antonetti said when there’s adversity, “that’s when Tito’s at his best.” That observation could be tested this year more than at any point in Francona’s six years as manager.
“We had exceedingly high expectations when we hired him, and he has exceeded them,” Antonetti said.
Since Francona was hired on Oct. 8, 2012, the Browns have had five head coaches and the Cavaliers have had five head coaches. The Indians over the last six years have had one manager, who has led them to four postseason appearances, including the last three years, plus one trip to the World Series.
Francona’s reputation in the game is stellar. Players want to play for him. Probably because he never forgets, while toiling under the mushroom cloud of analytics that umbrellas the game these days, that “we’re still in the people business.”
He’s universally recognized as the template for what teams seek when they go looking for managers.
He’s a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts, all-for-one, one-for-all manager who builds and fosters a group mentality, not just from those on the roster, but from those above him who acquire the players on that roster.
“He’s a teammate to everyone he’s around,” Antonetti said.
He’s also a celebrity manager, not afraid to jump out of an airplane for a little skydiving relaxation, which he did in spring training this year, probably thinking as he hurtled toward terra firma, “This can’t be any worse than a lineup without Lindor.”
He’s been named the American League or Major League Manager of the Year by various voting bodies four times in his six years as the Indians manager.
He has the third-highest winning percentage (.562) of any manager in Indians history, and sometime late in the 2020 season he will pass Lou Boudreau (728) for the most wins by any manager in Indians history.
In his six years here he’s done it all, except for two things:
Win a World Series, and complain.