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View from the Porch: Does Tito Need To Go?

(Photo courtesy of Paul Sancya/AP)
I caused a little bit of a stir this past Tuesday when I ended a Tweet with #FireFrancona. Naturally, not a single person supported my desire to see beloved skipper Terry Francona sent to the unemployment line. Clevelanders tend to have a complex about people who want to be in Cleveland, or at least do a great job giving the illusion that they do. Francona is one of those people. It didn’t hurt that he drew instant favor (and large amounts of leeway) with the fan base after the Indians posted a 92-70 record in 2013, his first season, and participated in the first American League Wild Card Round.

Francona chose us. That’s the mentality that Indians fans have. The Indians had an opening after the firing of Manny Acta and Francona was hired on October 6, just three days after the conclusion of the 2012 season. Francona chose to manage the Indians because of his relationship with Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti. He wants to be here. He wants to bring a winner to Cleveland.

This is a fan base so jaded against ownership and the front office that fans continue to rally against Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro for any minor misstep, while the roster that you see was put together by Chris Antonetti. Antonetti pilfered Corey Kluber from the San Diego Padres in a three-team deal that included Jake Westbrook. He outright stole Yan Gomes (thank you Kevin Cash) from the Toronto Blue Jays for Esmil Rogers. He gave up a Single-A middle infielder for Marc Rzepczynski, a controlled LOOGY with good career splits in that role. He acquired Trevor Bauer and Bryan Shaw for one year of impending free agent Shin-Soo Choo in yet another three-way trade. It was Antonetti who made the final decision on the Cliff Lee deal that brought Carlos Carrasco to the Indians, even though it took a while for Carrasco to blossom into the pitcher we know today. He acquired Brandon Moss for Joey Wendle, trading from a position of organizational strength to add a power bat. James Ramsey is on the cusp of being a Major Leaguer after he was acquired for Justin Masterson. Zach Walters was a fine return for Asdrubal Cabrera.

In paying close attention to the Indians over the last three seasons, one should be able to see patterns. The pattern that I see is that Chris Antonetti is the general manager in the offseason and Terry Francona is the general manager during the season. Do you ever wonder why Terry Francona agreed to manage in Cleveland? Does the thought cross your mind that a handshake deal to give Francona control over the roster from Opening Day until the final out was the deciding factor?

As far as I’m concerned, there’s a lot of evidence to support my theory, which some of you may consider conspiratorial. Edmund Burke once wrote, “Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver.” From day one, mountains of praise have been heaped onto Terry Francona, so much so that it’s a wonder that he can even breathe. Players love Francona for any number of reasons, ranging from his honesty behind closed doors to his communication skills to his even-keel approach. Francona is never one to throw a player under the bus. The front office loves Francona because of their long-standing relationship with him even before he was hired. The front office also loves Francona because they are supposed to. He is the face of the franchise, with every player cloaked in his shadow. One of the worst things for any organization is a disconnect, and subsequent friction, between the manager and the front office.

It’s why a sabermetrically-inclined, tremendously smart organization is willing to let the egregious mismanagement of the roster go by without a second thought. Everybody knows that the Indians are a small-market team. Everybody knows that the Indians hire some of the best analytical minds in the game, ranging from Keith Woolner to Max Marchi to everybody in between and below. How could an organization so progressive in its thinking, so cost-conscious regarding player value, allow its manager to carry eight, and sometimes nine, relievers? How could an organization that would seem to have a grasp of player value and the maximization of dollars completely eschew the concept of playing defense?

Despite the constantly full bullpen of eight or nine warm bodies, heavy workload pitchers like Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen appear broken. Thirty-eight-year-old Scott Atchison made 70 appearances and pitched 72 innings in 2014. Over parts of seven Major League seasons prior, Atchison pitched in 206 games covering 255 innings. Atchison was given a contract extension. Does this front office really seem like the type to give a 39-year-old relief pitcher another guaranteed year?

Marc Rzepczynski worked in 73 ballgames last season and faced 196 batters. Only 55 percent (108/196) of the batters he faced were left-handed. Lefties hit .180/.241/.200. Righties hit .324/.437/.507. A front office that completely understands the value of platoon advantages, especially because they utilize them in their own starting lineup on a daily basis, should never stand for the gross misuse of assets like that. (For what it’s worth, Rzepczynski has faced 13 lefties and 11 righties this season.)

The Indians are on track to be one of the three worst defensive teams in all of baseball again this season. For more than three weeks, Jerry Sands, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn, and Mike Aviles all took turns playing the outfield, while Tyler Holt and James Ramsey sat in Triple-A. Aviles played center field in a game against the Chicago White Sox and remained in the game as the team tried to protect a 3-0 ninth-inning lead. We all know the end result, in direct correlation with a fly ball that Aviles should have caught and did not.

That wasn’t Aviles’s fault. That was Francona’s fault. He assumed zero accountability and even insulted the intelligence of not just the fans, but also his team, and also the front office. “It’s hard to take Aviles out of a game, the way our bench is situated. And I think Mikey does a good job in center,” Francona told the media in his post-game press conference. To be clear, the bench situation, which I believe Tito controls, forced him to keep a guy with 6.1 career innings in center field prior to that game in center field to protect a lead. Michael Bourn, who was sitting on the bench with a night off, was part of said “bench situation”. Up until he acknowledged past overuse of the bullpen earlier this week, I was pretty sure that Francona was incapable of assuming responsibility after this lovely quote.

A manager’s chief job is to put players in a position to succeed. Terry Francona repeatedly fails to do that from a defensive standpoint and also with his pitching staff. He has a penchant for bringing relievers into medium or high-leverage situations from pushing a starter too long instead of allowing the reliever to start the inning clean. The Francona apologist will say, “He’s trying to save the bullpen.” I will respond, “Medium or high-leverage situations add more high-stress pitches. They also contribute to a higher workload for the starting rotation when there are eight relievers in the bullpen.”

Remember the 2013 season when head cheerleader Jason Giambi took up a roster spot for an entire season? The Indians often had two bench players capable of actually contributing to the team because of resident pinch hitter and awful designated hitter Jason Giambi. When the situation became too dire for Terry Francona to object in 2014, Giambi was placed on the 60-day DL with cash-a-check-itis labeled as “knee inflammation”. It had to eat at numerous members of the front office every day that Giambi was taking up a roster spot. This is also where I’d like to remind you that the Indians lost the division by one game and could have avoided the Wild Card Round altogether.

Cost-conscious organizations are not willing to pay players to do nothing. It’s one of the reasons why the Indians have been resistant to let David Murphy walk because they would have to release both him and the money they’re paying him. I find it hard to believe that an analytical organization would be able to conjure up any kind of rationale to keep an unproductive bench player like Giambi. I also find it hard to believe that any cost-conscious organization would be willing to pay Mike Aviles $3.5M for 2015 with the ability to turn down the option. In Aviles’s first two seasons with the Indians he was worth negative $100,000. Yes, he should have paid the Indians for the right to play for them per Fangraphs’s player valuations. In this season’s small sample size, Aviles is well on his way to being worth what he is getting paid, but that’s not the point. The point is that the smart minds in the front office would not have counted on that in the offseason and would have allowed him to go to free agency. Rightfully so, regardless of how his 2015 season ends.

The simple solution to the Mike Aviles problem would have been to take him away from Terry Francona. Mike Aviles inexplicably bats second far too often. He is a below average defensive player. He is a below average offensive player. But, he is an above average teammate. That made it impossible for the Indians to get rid of him for what was perceived to be a small amount of money in today’s free-spending Major League Baseball landscape. Not retaining Aviles would have upset Terry Francona. Upsetting Terry Francona is not an option. If it was, a lot of overdue changes would have taken place already and in the past.

Where the biggest issue lies is that the front office has its hands tied. By giving Francona too much control, they have effectively painted themselves into a corner and the paint is in a constant state of being too wet to walk on. Clubhouse morale is, by all accounts, just fine, since everybody still loves playing in the Terry Francona Comfort Zone. The byproduct of that is that the front office does not have the freedom it needs to make moves that would improve the ballclub for fear of upsetting the members of the ballclub.

Look at the day-to-day lineup construction. Would a front office full of analytical baseball minds ever advocate having two players with on-base percentages below .310 at the top of the lineup? Absolutely not. A savvy front office like Cleveland’s would have Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana in the top three spots without question, and likely one of them batting leadoff. Michael Bourn and Jose Ramirez would be batting eighth and ninth.  This change is gradually happening, with Jason Kipnis batting leadoff and Bourn at the bottom of the order.

The original point of my #FireFrancona hashtag was exactly this. He is holding the organization back from being what it needs to be. The Indians need to be progressive. They need to be proactive. The roster, and depth at Triple-A, is not designed to be utilized in this manner. It’s a hard argument to make because the Indians had won 177 games in the previous two seasons, so that’s the proof against my argument. I would offer a different argument and ask how good this group could have been (and could be right now) if the front office was actually pulling the strings on a day-to-day basis. It’s certainly true of this season, as the defense has cost the team on numerous occasions and bullpen overuse of the last two seasons has caught up with Francona.

Tito is a players’ manager. The front office is advanced and analytical. Perhaps Francona was hired to provide that delicate balance between the numerical side and the personal side. If that is truly the case, then Francona is not being open-minded enough and the front office is not being persuasive enough. The Boston Red Sox had a very progressive front office with Theo Epstein during Francona’s tenure. Epstein did what he wanted with the roster and it worked. Francona took what he was given and maximized it. It seems that Francona only agreed to return to managing if he was the head honcho during the season. If he had control over the 25-man roster. If he could call the shots.

There have been too many good moves made over the last three offseasons to think that the front office could possibly mismanage the roster this badly. This front office is too smart to sit idly by and watch as Terry Francona allows it all go to hell. And I have a hard time believing that personal feelings should get in the way of doing what is in the best interest of the ballclub. The best interest of the ballclub includes having the best players on the roster. Right now, that does not include Anthony Swarzak, David Murphy, or Mike Aviles. The irony that Jerry Sands was DFA’d for a reliever is not lost on me.

How does Trevor Bauer feel when the overworked bullpen blows the game he worked so hard to keep the team in? How does Cody Allen feel when non-outfielder Mike Aviles is out in center field in a close game? How does Jason Kipnis feel when a bad feed from Lonnie Chisenhall nearly gets his legs chopped off at second base? How does Michael Brantley feel when Jose Ramirez steps up as the #2 hitter with two on and two out and weakly grounds out? Would the players be that upset to lose their “good teammates” for the sake of having a better ballclub and a better chance at winning games?

Wouldn’t you like to find out? I know I would. To me, the reason we cannot find out is Terry Francona. Whether there truly is a handshake deal that the roster is his during the season or not, there is something that is keeping the front office from making the moves that make sense. If removing Terry Francona from the equation is the only way to do that, I am fully on board. I fully understand the consequences. I fully understand what it would do to the fan base and potentially the players. I’m willing to take that chance. I want the best 25 guys on the roster, not the best 19 or 20.

As far as I see it, either the front office needs to take a chance of ruffling the manager’s feathers or Francona needs to take a step back from controlling the roster. If neither of those things is going to happen, the team will go nowhere.

This is obviously an outsider’s perspective. This is entirely speculation on my part based on context clues. I could be completely off-base and the front office may actually believe in the process and the decision making. If that’s the case, I could not be more disappointed in the front office. It just doesn’t jive with how the team operates and the moves that they have made, so I remain skeptical. Chris Antonetti needs to be the general manager and Terry Francona needs to be the manager. If nothing else, Terry Francona needs to be fired as the “general manager”. If that arrangement doesn’t work for him, then Terry Francona needs to go.
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