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Tribe Happenings: The Indians success in '13 started at the top

Tribe Happenings: The Indians success in '13 started at the top
October 13, 2013
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

It starts at the top

On October 6th of last year the Indians hired Terry Francona to be their manager and thus began the start of an amazing revival from an organization on life support to one that appears to be as healthy as it has been in years.

The Indians still have a long way to go as they have several question marks with important players that may or may not return next season and they have some holes on the roster that need addressed; however, there is no question that the hiring of Francona was the pivotal point to the Indians resurgence in 2013. There is now hope that they can be annual contenders the next several years.

They followed up the Francona hiring with trades that brought in Mike AvilesYan GomesBryan ShawMatt Albers, and others. These were smaller, unheralded deals, but ended up as key pieces to the overall construction of the roster and success of the team.

They dipped into the free agent pool and signed Nick SwisherMichael BournScott Kazmir, and Ryan Raburn. All of them had an impact on the success of the team in varying ways be it from a performance or leadership perspective.

They also made an additional in-season move to acquire Marc Rzepczynski in a trade.

There were certainly some misses on the trade and free agent front as Jason Kubel didn’t provide any help as a late August acquisition, and on the free agent front Brett Myers was a disaster and Mark Reynolds flamed out after a torrid start.

But in the end, maybe it was the one move the organization didn’t make that was also the difference for getting them where they are today. That move being the decision not to fire GM Chris Antonetti at the end of last season.

As many will recall, Antonetti and most of the front office staff were more than on the hot seat after the team crumbled last year. The front office was responsible for putting the team together and for the numerous gaping holes they had as an organization.

But to the Dolan’s credit they stuck by Antonetti and his staff and as it turns out Francona was the missing piece to the puzzle – a piece not added unless Antonetti was retained. Francona helped provide some insight and direction coming in as an outsider from a highly successful Red Sox operation, and Antonetti, Dolan and the rest of the organization were willing to listen to his ideas.

Last year the entire organization got together in mid-October out in Arizona as they always do for their year-end meetings. All of the front office personnel, scouts, baseball operations people, coaches and so on met over the course of a week to discuss their process and plan for the upcoming year.  Those meetings were different than in years past because the team was coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in the history of the organization. Francona was given a platform to share his vision and experience on what worked when he was with the Red Sox.

Francona challenged some of the philosophies the organization had lived by for so long. The front office was more than willing to listen and had the motivation to adapt and accept change because of the rough few seasons they had just went through. The way the organization operates was not going to change in one offseason, but they took a giant leap over the past year in the changes they made to their philosophy and should continue to implement their revised philosophy even more going forward.

They are still a team that cannot get into a bidding war in free agency and offer up big contracts to players. They still have to be creative and find some undervalued players in the market, and in some cases take advantage of situations where a player may not get the money they are seeking in free agency as we saw with Swisher and Bourn last offseason.

But what the Indians did was modify their organizational philosophy and adapted their strategies to an ever changing market. They were slow to adapt in the past but the failure of 2012 motivated a lot of people in the organization to finally make these changes.  They still continue to operate with a risk averse approach when it comes to long term contracts, but they are no longer so drastically risk averse and now are much more aggressive on the one and two year deals and are even more open to some three year deals.  They are willing to take on more calculated risks than they have in the past.

Francona provided a fresh voice and he was the only change made to those involved in the decision-making process in the organization. The front office remained intact with Mike Chernoff, Ross Atkins, John Mirabelli, Brad Grant and others all in their same roles in baseball operations, scouting and player development. All of it paved the way to a very good year in the front office, one of the best in years.

It is important to note that it was a team effort. The success does not all fall on Antonetti pulling the trigger on deals or passing on others; it was the result of an often maligned scouting department that worked its tail off and had a very good year finding some undervalued pieces that came up huge for the team like Gomes, Raburn, Kazmir, and Rzepczynski. The player development department also had a hand in things as pitchers like Corey Kluber andDanny Salazar provided some much needed support all season.

It is that continuity along with the addition of Francona that was the backbone behind the Indians push to a 92-win season and first trip to the playoffs since 2007. It is that continuity and the outstanding relationship that Francona and Antonetti have that should give fans a lot more confidence with what the Indians do in preparation for next season and seasons to come.

The Indians will still have their problems when it comes to retaining All Star talent because they are a small market team with finite resources. We are going to see that this offseason with the free agency of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, and potentially next offseason with Justin Masterson. But with the decision makers they have assembled with such varying backgrounds, they will continue to find ways to make this a competitive team.

They just wrapped up their organizational meetings in Arizona this past week. Their outline for the 2013-2014 offseason has been prepared and they are already at work discussing possible trade options, which of their free agents they should look to retain, and which free agents from other teams they should go after.

Last year’s organizational meetings were about change and installing a new culture and revising the philosophy with constructing the roster. This year, the meetings were about taking the next step and determining what they can do and how they can be creative with limited resources to find more value buys in free agency or in the trade market like they did last offseason.

The success of the 2014 Indians will be determined by the decisions the decision-makers make this offseason. Thus, once again it all starts at the top for the Indians.

Pitching is the key

There were some great articles this past week posted to the IBI on each of the Indians top three starters Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.  If you have not read them, be sure you do as a strong case was made for all three pitchers and how valuable they are to the Indians and shows how important it is for the Indians to try and bring all three back next season.

The Indians do not have to make a decision on Masterson yet as he is entering his final year of arbitration, but they do need to be proactive in discussing a long term deal now if that is what they want to do.  His arbitration hearing date is in early February so you can expect rumors and talk of any possible extension talk to start surfacing soon and really begin to heat up in January.

But any extension talks with Masterson will probably be put on the backburner for the time being while the Indians try to figure out what to do with Jimenez and Kazmir and try and resign both.

The first salvo in this decision-making process will come within three days of the end of the World Series as the Indians have to officially declare whether they are picking up Jimenez’s $8 million mutual option for next season (they will). He then also has to make a decision within that timeframe on whether to have it picked up (he likely declines it).

From there the Indians have within five days of the conclusion of the World Series to extend the qualifying offer to Jimenez and/or Kazmir. The qualifying offer is for one year and will be in the $14-15 million range. Once a qualifying offer is made the player has seven days to accept or reject it.

So, by the end of the first week of November – roughly less than four weeks from now – we will have a much clearer picture of the status of Jimenez and Kazmir as free agents and the possibility one or both could return to the Indians next season.

The Indians will probably offer Jimenez the qualifying offer and he will probably decline in order to seek out a multi-year deal that should pay him much more money. It remains to be seen if the Indians will extend the qualifying offer to Kazmir as he is a borderline guy to extend a qualifying offer to, but if it were me I would do it because the way he pitched this season he is worth it for one year and $14-15 million should he accept it.

By offering the qualifying offer to both it would help the Indians chances of retaining both players – though would not guarantee either returns. If either or both reject the qualifying offer the Indians can still explore a multi-year deal with both, and the prospects of giving up a first round pick to sign either of them could damage their market – particularly for Kazmir. If either or both accept the qualifying offer then they could still work out a long term extension with the Indians.

The market for Jimenez could be a wild one and the range right now is so broad. He’s a wildcard this offseason and impossible to predict one way or the other what kind of deal he will command whether he is extended a qualifying offer or not. Some people think he will end up with three years and $36-40 million while others have said it would not be a surprise to see him get five years and $85 million, especially if he gets to the winter meetings where the price tag for the top players can often rapidly escalate.

It just depends on how many teams get into the bidding and how desperate they are for starting pitching.  It is hard to see Jimenez getting less than the four year $52 million deal that Edwin Jackson signed last offseason, so it will be interesting to see what he ultimately signs for and with whom he signs. He has publicly stated his love and thanks to the Indians and how much he admires Mickey Callaway as his pitching coach, but it is important to note that a lot of that may just be lip service as a great many times players say those things when they have little bearing on them returning.

That all said, as much as Jimenez and Kazmir bring risk the Indians have to look at bringing them both back or at the very least one of them. There is no guarantee Masterson sticks around beyond next season and the starting pitching depth is thin after Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber. You need seven to eight starters and having the likes Masterson, Jimenez, and Kazmir as your starting three and then Kluber, Salazar, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlinduking it out for the fourth and fifth starter spot and then having two of them in Columbus in reserve is inviting.

Nothing nailed this point home to me more than the two 1-0 wins on Saturday in each League Championship Series. Starting pitching is vital and ultimately the separator, so the Indians need to find a way to keep it at all costs even if it means they are limited by what they can do to upgrade the lineup. I’d even go a step further and bring back both Jimenez and Kazmir and look at using Salazar as closer next season. The Cardinals are a prime example where you should keep your best arms in the big leagues even if it means putting a young kid in a bullpen role rather than stuffing them in Triple-A as a reserve starting option.

So if I were the Indians I get creative and try to find a way to bring back both Jimenez and Kazmir. Starting pitching is the separator in baseball. It was the big reason for the Indians turnaround this past season, and is the reason the Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers are all in the League Championship Series. If the Indians dream of getting there and ultimately reaching and winning a World Series, they need to keep it and take the risk that those starters stay healthy and perform as hoped.

The Francona Effect

I have always felt that the impact a manager can have on a team is greatly over-stated in baseball.

Not anymore.

It is true that ultimately the pitchers have to pitch and pitch well. That the fielders have to field the ball and make the plays. That the hitters have to hit the ball and be productive and execute. And that ultimately the manager has little effect on the outcome of a game once he makes out the lineup card and the first pitch is thrown. Sure, the manager makes bullpen decisions and when to pitch around guys, bunt, hit and run and steal, but they are not playing the game.

That said, beyond the white lines of the field there is no denying how much of an impact Terry Francona had on the success of the Indians this season. I already noted the impact above on the philosophy with the procurement of players, but he was also an amazing leader in the clubhouse and built a community of trust in the locker room that was much needed.

The change in culture in the clubhouse and the way he protected his players and was honest with them, and by the same token how much they respected and trusted him went a long way at providing a healthy clubhouse atmosphere that helped breed confidence and a winning spirit. I talked privately with several players over the course of the season and they went out of their way to express how things were so different than under Manny Acta. It was refreshing.

If you want another example of how much a manager can effect a team, look no further than Francona’s former team the Boston Red Sox. Under Francona they were a perennial winner and the players respected and loved him and played hard for him. When he was let go after the 2011 collapse and the “chicken and beer” incident, they brought inBobby Valentine and they crumbled last season to a 69 win season and had several of the team’s leaders likeDustin Pedroia calling out the skipper. They fired Valentine and brought in John Farrell, a respected guy who was on Francona’s staff in Boston for a long time, and they rebounded and are playing in the ALCS.

That’s ultimately what a manager is there to do. To provide leadership, focus and be an unwavering captain of the ship through what are often some choppy waters over a 162-game season of highs and lows. You can’t have a manager throwing his players under a bus or having a war of words publicly with them.  You need to have the head man in charge to have control and command respect and trust from his players and Francona did that.  He truly cares and the players believe it.

The Indians made a lot of changes and good moves over the past year, but the hiring of Francona was easily the most impactful move they made. When you think about that it is amazing as he did not throw a single pitch, make a play in the field, or make one plate appearance, but he was the glue that brought everything together.

Final front office thoughts

The front office had a very good year but the time for congratulations is over and it is time to start concentrating on the 2014 season. Over the next few months the Indians are really going to be put to the test this offseason as they have so many decisions to make.

Do they resign any of Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, or Joe Smith?

Do they extend a qualifying offer to Jimenez and/or Kazmir?

Do they non-tender Chris Perez?

Do they trade any of their core players like Asdrubal Cabrera or Michael Bourn to fill a hole elsewhere?

What free agents or trade targets do they pursue to add some much needed help to the lineup or on the pitching staff?

Do they look to find platoon-type players to make Lonnie Chisenhall or Drew Stubbs more effective?

Do they explore long term deals with Jason KipnisMichael Brantley and Justin Masterson?

There will be some misses this offseason just as there were last offseason, but the Indians need to have another very productive offseason to help supplement what they started to build last year. With a team hungry to go deeper into the postseason and there being such a fine line between contending and being mediocre, there is little room for error and they will be tested once again this offseason.

So buckle up because this offseason looks like it could be even wilder than last offseason. Expect lots of trade rumors and the Indians being in the mix for nearly any free agent bat.

Parting shots

Francona announced in his end of season press conference that some tweaks to the roles on the coaching staff have been made in advance of next season. Brad Mills will move from third base coach to bench coach, Mike Sarbaugh from first base coach to third base coach, and Sandy Alomar Jr. from bench coach to first base coach. Alomar is a hot managerial candidate for several teams and the Indians may be lining up the coaching staff in preparation for his possible departure. It also should be noted that Mills was Francona’s bench coach in Boston and that last season the Indians had already agreed to make Alomar the bench coach before Mills came on board so they did not want to make that change until this offseason. … The Indians say they want Giambi back and he says he wants to come back. It looks like a foregone conclusion that he will be back in some capacity as a player or a coach. If he is back as a player he will probably be signed to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training just like he was this past season. The reason for that would be to avoid having to use a 40-man roster spot on him this offseason. … Jason Kipnis is up for the Hank Aaron Award. There are 15 nominees in the American League including Miguel CabreraMike Trout, and Chris Davis and the award is given to the top offensive player in each league. … The Indians plan to keep starting Carlos Carrasco, but it still looks likely that he will open 2014 in bullpen. … Former Indians player and coach Charles Nagy was fired this past week as the Diamondbacks pitching coach.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Sam
October 13, 2013 - 8:12 PM EDT
1st rounder for both
James
October 13, 2013 - 7:41 PM EDT
Hi Tony,
What sort of draft pick compensation do we get for extending Jimenez and/or Kazmir qualifying offers and having them delcined? First rounder for Jimenez, second for Kazmir?
Walter
October 13, 2013 - 11:56 AM EDT
I think 14 will be bigger year for the front office than last year. By winning 92 games and making to the wild card game I believe expectations have risen for the Indians.

1. Need to sign either Jimenez or Kazmir
2. Sign Masterson to extension 3yrs with an option on 4yr.
3. Find closer from within, FA market or by trade.
4. Find a bat in middle of the order. Not impressed with the bats available in FA market. What bats could be available thru trade?
5. Resign Smith if no who do the Indians have internally that can step up to replace him?

If the Indians are unable to sign Jimenez or Kazmir who do you think from the minors that could provide pitching depth. Is this the year that our minor league development becomes more important than in past years? Do you see Anderson, Lugo, Baker, Kime, and Plutko having big years to provide options by end of 14 or by 15?

Matt underwood
October 13, 2013 - 11:26 AM EDT
Now if we could only have a decent draft for the first time in 15 yrs
BrianM
October 13, 2013 - 11:16 AM EDT
C'mon Tony, Do you really think this offseason will be wilder than the last?

I think I pee'd my pants last year when we signed Bourn...and who would have thought DiceK and Kazmir would ever where Cleveland Indians jerseys.

I hope your right though.
DJ Sebastian
October 13, 2013 - 10:11 AM EDT
Great insight, Tony. I too thought that a manager only made a difference in 5-6 games based on strategy moves. But you nailed it, that with a guy like Tito coming in and changing the atmosphere and culture was absolutely huge. It was also very obvious that the Tribe players bonded and actually liked playing together. That translated into building the confidence to stage great comebacks and to recover from the inevitable losing streaks.
Clay
October 13, 2013 - 10:03 AM EDT
Myself, I look to sign Kazmir and Masterson. I'm ok with Jimenez walking and simply extending him the qualifying offer.

If Asdrubal had done anything this season worthy of note, I would look to move him but his value is probably as low as ever, but being a shortstop, you never know.

It's interesting to see Bourn mentioned as a trade candidate. I would prefer to keep him around, but I understand the thought process.

2 bats that I would be ok with the Indians looking into (but probably won't be able to with financial restrictions) are Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta.

I see more trades/extensions than I do free agent activity in the end. As long as the team is made potentially better, right on.

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