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Time to Talk to Tito: Evaluation Time Must Come for Francona and Indians


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Three years ago when another Indians season ended in dark disappointment, we all sat here wondering what was next. We knew that 2013 would see a new manager at the helm of our beloved Tribe. But what kind of manager? I think many identified the problems that the Indians were having as one of talent and that it simply wasn't there.

Manny Acta's execution of a strategy simply wasn't working with the given talent and that seemed to heap the idea that this club's struggle laid at the feet of Chris Antonetti and the front office. Acta wasn't the right fit, he lost the clubhouse and when he lost the clubhouse he lost his only hope of keeping his job and contending, because he certainly wasn't going to win with the talent and his strategy. He also wasn't going to win the war of calling out his front office for more of said talent. 

Now we sit at the end of another season of disappointment, perhaps even more disappointment because there's one thing there that is evident that wasn't a few years ago. Talent may have been there, or on its way there, or here. But you couldn't see it. Talent. Is. Here. Chris Antonetti was smarter than all of us, at least me, as he should be. I thought talent was the problem and it is clear that it was, because the talent has only become better since. This 2015 version of the Indians had talent, so much talent, that you wonder what exactly the team was comprised of in 2012. To think that they needed talent back then when part of you thinks that the team isn't that much different, but it actually is. The talent that Antonetti assembled was simply on its way. We just had to be patient. Some pieces were in place, as evidenced by a playoff run the next season, but how much better and deeper is this organization in 2015 than it was in 2013? A lot, in my opinion.

This rotation. My God this rotation is stocked deep with talent. There's players in the pipeline that are potential game changers and the core of this team, which has only recently come into tact and grown to a higher potential, is a solid foundation. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Cody Anderson, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, T.J. House, pick five, go ahead. Mike Clevinger and Adam Plutko (real deal) both are on their way. Depth and more depth coming.

This team has talent. We've seen those flashes, we've seen those reasons and those assurances that this team has it. Sign me up for more years of Kipnis, Lindor, Brantley, Gomes, and Santana. If that's my offensive core, I'm feeling pretty good. Are some additional pieces needed? Yes. Are cornerstones needed? No.

We just haven't seen results from it. Beyond expert predictions and Sports Illustrated cover jinxes, this team was largely looked at throughout baseball as the one to watch. After watching this rotation in 2015, there was justifiable reason as to why. You figured a little offense and this team was going to do some good things. And the thought was they'd have a little offense.

What they didn't have early on is what doomed them, like I think a lot of us feared. Defense held this team back. Add in getting stuck in the mud with whatever was going on in the clubhouse in regards to the "older leadership" or veteran presence certainly didn't seem to help matters.

Last year, I think a lot of people chalked up some early bad luck and scuffling to why the Indians missed out on the playoffs, because of such a late charge that was needed, they were on the radar, but not close enough to pick up a blip.

So this year, what's the excuse? Because it was largely the same thing. Slow start, inconsistency until the end of the season. What gives here?

The clubhouse issue? At some point, we have to draw this back to the accountability issue. Who is holding who accountable? I think Tito's presence held Antonetti and crew accountable for the talent that they were tasked to assemble. And if you ask me, Antonetti has more than held up his end of the bargain. He's put together a solid team with depth and options that should give any manager a reason to contend for a playoff spot.

Can you count being sheepishly below .500, but still in the race because a matter of a muddled wild card picture "in contention" or is that just a product of this year's circumstances? You can unequivocally look at this team's season and say they disappointed, circumstances aside. At the end of the day, you look at how those wins and losses are accumulated and many of the losses they accumulated should have been wins. Many of the stretches this season can be looked at as avoidable and completely inexcusable.

You look at how they played at the end of the season and to me, that's even more of a reason to believe in the talent. This team can compete with what talent is on the club. And yet, they didn't for a grand majority of the season.

It's easy to look at the end record win/loss total and give a definitive answer. But you need to look beyond that win total, because like Corey Kluber's record this year, there's more than just those numbers.

So who do we hold accountable for this? How do we hold them accountable. 

Obviously, it comes back to the guy controlling the on the field product. Antonetti's job was to assemble talent and give Tito the best chance to win ballgames. If you argue that Antonetti did a poor job of assembling talent, then well, your argument ends there. But you have to wonder what that talent was doing earlier on when they weren't playing well. Did they fluke at the end? Did that rotation fluke it's way through an entire 2015 season?

If you, like me, believe Antonetti put a good product in place, then, well, dig a little deeper. If you think he's the problem, this is probably not something you want to read. And honestly, you're probably misguided.

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One might have anticipated, based off my sourness towards the end of the year and my snarkastic jokes that I was on the back of the Fire Terry Francona train, paddling along and shoveling coal into the heater. That isn't necessarily the case. Here's a secret. I love Tito. He's a proven championship winner (rings) who should absolutely be a manager in the Major Leagues. But here's something that I've learned throughout time, watching his team throughout the past decade and a half, and in just general life beyond baseball, because this stuff is transferable sometimes.

You can be a successful and good baseball manager but also be a bad baseball manager. It all depends on your situation. There's rare people that can adapt. There's rare people and situations that just work for a very long time. There's situations where it just doesn't work out for a guy and situations where it does. Why do people get second chances? Why is Manny Acta being looked at to receive a third chance? Because he's a good baseball manager or people are stupid? He just hasn't found his fit. That's the simple truth to it. He's a good baseball manager. People aren't stupid, at least not the ones trying to hire him who know the game.

Here's what's pretty ironic, at least in my opinion. You know who would be a good fit for THIS Cleveland Indians team going forward? Manny Acta. I know that may make me sound like a downright lunatic, but look at what Toronto did. I thought they were lunatics for bringing back John Gibbons years after they let him ago. But guess what, the situation when he got let go was different from this one where they brought him back. Now they look like the best team in the game and could win the World Series if they keep playing this way.

There's a reason that guys like Ozzie Guillen win a World Series one year and years later are run out of town. Most managers need to fit a situation. That is more so the case in baseball than any other sport because of how different the two leagues are, the discrepancies in payrolls, and the length of a season. It is most definitely true in other sports, but in baseball, you need to have a manager that fits your situation, fits your personality, fits your front office's approach, everything, it all has to fit. Unless you have one guy who does it all. Which, call me if you find that guy. Mike Matheny (or maybe just the Cardinals in general) may be that guy, it is too early to tell, but look at what St. Louis has done year-after-year with turnover and injuries.

Some baseball teams find their situation and try and replicate it on a yearly basis so that it fits their manager. Some teams have a guy that adapts, and those guys, man those are guys you hold onto as long as you can. There's some guys that make the situation adapt to them and they are even more cherished.

Terry Francona, a two-time World Series winner, lauded as an expert and relentless communicator, is not one of those guys you cherish and dip in bronze. He's good, really good at his specialties too. With the clubhouse "ink" gone, Francona is one of the best. But there lies a problem with that. A little too much credit and power is given to him based off that. We joke about the rings he has won with Boston, but it's because the reason for everything. Rings can't be the reason to make a decision or to defend a move. Rings is credibility and brings respect. Rings is a reason to say "listen to me kid, this is how you play the game." Rings can be used to throw around clout. But rings is not a defense against the indefensible. Rings cannot defend a dumb baseball move, because you didn't make that dumb baseball move before to get a ring.

Terry Francona is no longer in a situation where he needs to be a communicator 100% of the time. He no longer needs to change the culture of a clubhouse. He did that. It's done. He did his job and he did a fantastic job at it when he came in. He's overtaken what was a volatile situation and has turned it into a positive. Acta kind of said that the talent there wasn't good enough. Tito said it was. He's created a core group of younger but experienced guys who have taken the team over as leaders. Prior to that, he introduced a culture of credibility when he not only came in and commanded respect and got the best out of players others couldn't, he brought with him credible guys who commanded higher salaries but came here because they wanted to play for a guy who they respected.

And that did a lot. It established a lot that cannot and should not be overlooked. And that is why I love Terry Francona and that is why the Indians 100% made the right decision to hire him after moving on from Manny Acta. Tito steered the franchise ship through tides at a time they needed to be steered in a particular direction. He did his job in that situation and did it expertly.

But now look at the makeup of this team, and look at their goals and how they need to approach winning. They are a strong force of talented players that have pieces and parts. But they are still a flawed team. They still have pieces that need to be put into place. They still have holes that need to be filled or masked or positioned better to be successful. This isn't a team that needs highly motivated players who need kicked in the butt and tasked with respecting the game and putting in a high amount of effort. The effort is there. That's the groundwork that has been laid, that has been the centerpiece of Tito's job here in Cleveland. He can point to that and say, yes, I made a difference.

The execution. The fundamentals. The strategy. The approach they take. That's what's missing and that's what is wrong with this team. That is what is holding them back from out of this cloud of mediocrity and competitiveness at the highest level.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Tito can be a guy to adapt. Maybe he is something more than just an expert communicator. But, maybe not?

He's seemingly done a complete 180 degree shift from being a guy who doesn't want to bunt because it gives up outs to being a guy who manages a team that executes a bunt more times than any National League team that probably lays down at minimum one per game.

And in my heart of hearts, after watching him ride in on his white horse and seeing him fix things, and seeing how much people respect him and want to play for him, I want him to adapt. I want him to be the guy that takes the Cleveland Indians to the World Series and wins the whole damn thing.

Maybe part of that is that the Indians need to do a little give and take. Maybe Chris Antonetti needs to work more magic and get Tito four guys he can use and abuse in the bullpen like Tito needs and wants. Because that is what Tito does with a bullpen. He has four guys, he abuses them and uses them because that's how he manages a bullpen, at least how he prefers. He can't manage situationally because we've seen how those situations end up. If Tito has options, he goes overboard and we start joking around about Tito Shuffles and how cute it is when he does it.

Maybe Antonetti needs to take away Mike Aviles and replace him with a new younger model that is actually productive, because Tito is going to continue to use players like that. Maybe the Indians need to adapt to his situation a little more.

But I also don't know if he's a guy who can adapt. I don't know if he's a guy that is willing to adjust to the situation he is in and utilize this team how they need to be utilized. Tito needed to meld egos together. He had mega talent in Boston and his primary job was to make sure all that talent worked together. He needed to motivate a group of unmotivated players and meld in his clubhouse guys to be leaders and the guys who would take charge of situations that needed it. He did an excellent job over the span of time in Boston.

Those pieces, those hyper-talented individuals who lack motivation or may need a kick in the pants. Yeah, that's not coming. He's not going to fill out the same lineup card every day. He needs luck to have a reliable bullpen of 8 guys. His lineup is going to have five-six guys he can play everyday and then he'll  have pieces that he needs to put in the best position to succeed.

Tito is not a strategist. The Indians, if they want to win, probably need a strategist.

If they're going to keep him, perhaps they should consider it. Or they need to sit down and have one of those expert conversations that people laud Tito for. They need him to adapt to their situation, which is not currently one that appeases Tito's strategies. Francona does not appear to be an "X-O's type of a manager. He doesn't appear to employ advanced statistics or large base of strategic logic.

Tito is a feelings guy. Which is great, that's fine. I'm a feelings guy. I want to play someone because I feel things too. Mike Aviles is a good person and he plays tough. Jerry Sands is probably a really cool dude who works hard and you probably see him behind the scenes or have a conversation with him and you automatically say, yeah, I want that guy to succeed.

But wanting someone to succeed and them succeeding is two very different things. As I said earlier, I want Tito to be the guy, the one who leads the Cleveland Indians to that ultimate prize. But just because that's what I want doesn't mean it is the right move.

Is this my definitive stance saying that the Cleveland Indians should fire Terry Francona and find a new manager? No. It isn't, because again, I think there can be some communication that can be had. The unfortunate thing is we aren't privy to any of that. We don't know if Chris Antonetti will sit Tito down and have the accountability talk and that they'll get on the same page. Remember this though. They trust each other. At least they did when Tito came. I don't know how Shapiro's exit effects the situation. If I had to guess, I'd say minimal. But I'd be interested to see the relationship between Antonetti and Francona two years after the honeymoon is over and no playoffs the past two years.

When things are real now. They're in it together. They've got a few kids and life is real. You are spending your life with this person. Do you either put up and tell them what is bothering you to fix it, or do you blow it up and go the other way? If that sounds like a marriage, that's because it is. They're married and they now have to figure out of they want to make it work or if this isn't worth salvaging and they should go their separate ways to find another way to be happy.

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At the end of the day, I think that was just a lot of wasted breath, if I'm being completely honest. Terry Francona will be back to manage the team in 2016, that's pretty much a given. And again, I may not have a problem with that. But I probably will. I don't know if those conversations will be had, but it will be interesting to see how the Indians offseason plays out. It will have Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff's hand prints all over it, that I'm sure, but will we see some of Tito's fingerprints after we dust through? Is this even an issue for some?

Will moves be made to appease or cater to Tito? Or will these conversations that need to happen, happen? I'm guessing that because this is just status quo, no, they won't. Heck, who is to say that Antonetti has a problem with the way Tito manages the game, or managed the game last year.

We don't know. We can't get into his head. You may want to argue that he didn't considering he will keep Tito around, but he has no justification that appeases many for getting rid of him. Tito hasn't had a "losing season" so that alone will crucify Antonetti if he were to even think of a pull.

Here's the sad part though. Antonetti continues to get the dragged through the mud treatment, especially as of late with the announcement that he is receiving a bump in title. He's very much in a no-win situation in regards to having Terry Francona as his manager. Unless of course the team wins, obviously. And I'm talking about winning it all. Not a winning season, not three in a row, not a playoff appearance. Even if the team wins, he won't get the credit he deserves for assembling the squad. The praise will be heaped upon the guy pulling the on-field strings.

I can only hope that whatever happens, Tito genuinely examines the job he did this year, or that he does get challenged on it by this organization. Because what works best for everyone is Tito fixing himself and adapting and being one of those rare guys. It obviously works for Tito. It works for the Cleveland fans because it is genuinely easy to like him and if he wins, all the better. And it works for the Indians, because they can continue down this road of having continuity, which you know is something that they highly value.

And for the sake of continuity, especially when you are coming off a third straight winning season record-wise, that's most definitely a good thing.

This team can do better and if better than isn't being achieved, you have to wonder just how much continuity really means in achieving what's 100-percent possible in other aspects. At what point does continuity runs its course? At what point does an "expert and relentless communicator" who hasn't properly communicated to his team get talked to?

Unless, you don't think that this is the problem. Then, I'm all ears as to what it could be.
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