Terry Francona has thrust himself into the category of elite manager. He’s gone from two championships with the big-market Red Sox to Game 7 of the World Series with the small-market Indians.
He lost, yes, but he came so close to having three rings, like his former boss, Theo Epstein.
Francona, who received a standing ovation at Thursday’s 78th annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner, was widely admired for even getting that far without injured starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. While the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, another fine manager, won the series, the feeling was Francona outmanaged him.
The Indians have a great chance to succeed again in 2017. Two other teams in the AL Central — the White Sox and Twins — are in transition mode. Cleveland landed slugger Edwin Encarnacion in free agency and gets its best player, Michael Brantley, back after missing all but 11 games in 2016.
“We don’t normally play in that neighborhood [big-name free agents],” Francona said. “Because [general manager Chris Antonetti and his staff] were doing their due diligence, I don’t think they expected that Edwin would fall to where we could jump in there. But they did and got creative, and good for us.”
The Indians elected not to re-sign Mike Napoli, who hit 34 homers and knocked in 101 runs last season. Reports that they were competing for free agent Jose Bautista were overstated, according to Francona.
The Indians are primed to be a better team than they were in 2016.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Francona said. “We didn’t know guys were going to get hurt at the end of the year, you just kind of play and see how well you can do. Going into this spring, yeah, we’re excited. Everybody is. But you don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do think it’s a good place to start from.
“We’re thrilled and hopeful that Brantley’s going to be OK. He’s our best player . . . We missed two-fifths of our rotation and not having [catcher] Yan Gomes, so yeah, we’re excited.”
Going from a big market with a high-priced roster to a small market with a payroll half the size of the Red Sox’ has definitely given Francona a different perspective on managing.
“It’s a different challenge,” Francona said. “I think you’ve got to be realistic that in the winter, for the most part, we play in a different neighborhood and our guys do a great job of trying to be realistic about, ‘OK, who can go after and not waste time on players that are not going to come.’ I’ve actually been really impressed with how they do things here. They’ve put together a really good nucleus that hopefully keeps our window open.
“I think windows for small-market teams are probably shorter than the big markets. I don’t think that’s out of line to say that. But I think because our nucleus is younger, the core group, hopefully it keeps our window open longer.”
Francona was hailed for his usage of Andrew Miller, whom he got into playoff games as early as the fifth inning.
Francona said he had to do it out of necessity, but if you think he’s started a trend, hold your horses. Francona doesn’t think you can do what he did at any time other than the postseason.
“No. You can’t. You can’t,” he said when asked whether he would continue to use Miller as he did in the playoffs. “I think the postseason is different. With days off, games, as much as they mean . . . I take it back — if we had a week to go in the season and we were going to get eliminated, hell yeah. But you can’t hurt guys.
“If you tried to do that with guys during the season, it would eventually catch up and either hurt them, because you can’t keep getting guys up in the fifth when you don’t know if they’re going to get in. I’d do it again in the playoffs.”
Francona said Miller was willing to do anything, and why not? Miller, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Yankees, was traded to the Indians at the deadline. With a huge contract in hand, there was no incentive for Miller to demand being a closer. So why not use him in situations that counted most rather than confine him to the ninth inning?
Francona knows relievers want to be closers, because they’re paid the big money.
“During the season, the way that salaries are structured, I don’t blame guys for wanting to close games,” Francona said. “This is how Cody Allen is going to make some money. He was every bit as important to us pitching the seventh and eighth than he is now that he’s pitching the ninth. I wish [setup man] Bryan Shaw could make more money. That’s just the way that arbitration is set up. I think if the rules were set up differently, you might see guys get used differently. Guys want to get paid more. I’d want to get paid more, too.”
Guys like Miller have become extremely valuable. Back in the day with the Red Sox, Daniel Bard was used in the seventh and eighth innings in what John Farrell, then the pitching coach, and Francona felt were the most important parts of the game.
In eight successful seasons in Boston, including two world championships, Francona never won AL Manager of the Year. In four years in Cleveland, he’s won it twice.
“I never thought about it. I still don’t,” Francona said. “When you win the award, you’re supposed to answer the questions, but it’s not something I set out to do, not one of the things I think about. I view it as an organizational award anyway. Winning championships is better than winning awards like this.”
Nor does the thought of induction into the Hall of Fame enter his mind. But in the not-too-distant future, it may be a foregone conclusion.
In case you weren’t there . . .
Other observations from Boston Baseball Writers dinner:
■ I was struck by John Farrell’s emotion while speaking about Rich Hill. Farrell was really fired up about Hill’s perseverance, which led him to a three-year, $48 million contract with the Dodgers. You almost sense that Farrell would have loved to have kept Hill in his starting rotation.
■ Hill will live in Glendale, Calif., during the season, but he will stay in Milton during the offseason. Hill was truly honored to win the Ben Mondor Award for New England Player of the Year. At the dinner, Hill was excited to watch footage of former Red Sox stars Tony Conigliaro and Luis Tiant. He was also very complimentary of Dodgers teammate Clayton Kershaw. “Just a regular guy who is amazingly down to earth for the superstar that he is,” said Hill.
■ Richie Conigliaro was truly moved by Tony Conigliaro Award winner Yangervis Solarte, who lost his wife during the season to cancer. “It was one of the most heartwarming and tragic stories we’ve ever had in the history of this award,” Conigliaro said. Solarte’s voice cracked as he spoke to the audience, saying how his wife, Juliette, 31, left him with the gift of three beautiful daughters.
■ Not a dry eye in the place when Pete Frates, who suffers from ALS, was honored with the New England Sports Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award. It was one of the most touching moments the dinner has ever known. Frates’s dad, John, a wonderful man who has helped in spreading awareness of this awful disease, said his son spends his days watching baseball on TV. He said baseball has been “therapeutic” for Pete. This is so true. I remember with my own father, after he retired, he spent his last days watching baseball. Every inning of every game, and I believe it kept him alive longer.
■ The dinner was a huge success. A great panel included Terry Francona; Theo Epstein; the very popular Mike Lowell, who represented the 2007 Red Sox championship team; Tiant, who won Judge Emil Fuchs Award for long and meritorious service to baseball; as well as Farrell, Hill, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Xander Bogaerts.
■ Great job by emcee Mike Lynch of Channel 5, who provided great little touches in his introductions, and if you’re reading this commissioner Rob Manfred, if you need a consultant on “pace of play,” Mr. Lynch is your man. He kept the flow going beautifully.
■ The dinner is just one of three of its kind that remain around the country. New York has its dinner for all of the national award recipients. St. Louis has a highly successful dinner where Cardinal players show up in full force on an annual basis.
■ Rick Porcello had a conflicting engagement, but in a classy gesture, he made a video and apologized for not being able to attend. He also signed 75 baseballs that were handed out to young people in the audience as a memento from the AL Cy Young Award winner.
■ Epstein was outstanding thanking Red Sox chairman Tom Werner for being on hand and for hiring him years ago. If there was ever any hard feelings between Epstein and the Red Sox ownership, they’re gone. Epstein is now at the top of the baseball mountain at age 43. What a future awaits.
Apropos of nothing
1. According to Bill Chuck, the winningest team of President Obama’s tenure was the Yankees, who went 730-566 (.563). Next were the Cardinals at 728-568 (.562). The Astros had the worst record, going 552-744 (.426). During the Obama years, no pitcher appeared in more games than Luke Gregerson (558), who edged out Brad Ziegler (557) and Tyler Clippard (550). From 2009-16, Justin Verlander won the most games with 127, followed by Max Scherzer (125), and Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and David Price (121). The most losses were by James Shields (92), Jeremy Guthrie (91), and Ubaldo Jimenez (90). In the Obama years, the saves leader was Craig Kimbrel (256), who had one more than Jonathan Papelbon; from 2009-16, Kershaw was the strikeout leader with 1,818, while Scherzer had 1,815. No batter struck out more frequently than Mark Reynolds (1,298), who was followed by Chris Davis (1,221) and Justin Upton (1,206); Joe Mauer recorded the highest batting average in the Obama years, hitting .365 in 2009; Albert Pujols was the home run leader during the Obama years, edging Miguel Cabrera, 272-271.
2. According to Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Tampa Bay joins Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, and Washington as cities that have enacted laws prohibiting tobacco use at sports venues. A statewide law in California will take effect before the 2017 season (adding Anaheim, Oakland, and San Diego to the list). Once all of these laws are in place, 13 of the 30 major league stadiums will be tobacco-free. Legislation is under consideration in Toronto and the state of Minnesota. In addition to these laws, MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement prohibits all new MLB players from using smokeless tobacco.
3. The Pawtucket Red Sox are exploring a few sites for a new stadium. The front-runner appears to be the Apex site off of Route 95. The current site of McCoy Stadium is also under consideration.
Worcester, Springfield, and possibly Malden have shown interest as relocation sites. A feasibility study on keeping the team at the McCoy site should be out by midweek.
Updates on nine
1. Trey Mancini, 1B, Orioles — Mancini now seems to be blocked with the Orioles re-signing Mark Trumbo to a three-year, $37 million deal. “Mancini is going to make contributions to our 2017 team. He has too much talent and I bet we find a place for he and Trumbo,” general manager Dan Duquette said.
2. Mike Fiers, RHP, Astros — There’s been talk around the league that the Astros may seek to move Fiers or Collin McHugh to create some salary space. Fiers settled for $3.45 million (a movable contract) after going 11-8 with a 4.48 ERA in 30 starts (and one relief appearance) last season. It was a big jump from the $524,000 he earned last season.
3. Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Rays — The Rays, according to one major league source, may be looking to deal another veteran pitcher before spring training, even after trading Drew Smyly to the Mariners. It doesn’t appear that pitcher would be Chris Archer, and Alex Cobb, only five appearances into his return from Tommy John surgery, might lack trade appeal for now. The Rays have certainly been one of the more unpredictable teams this offseason. They have tried to improve their offense by acquiring free agent backstop Wilson Ramos, who may not be ready until June or July, and outfielder Colby Rasmus.
4. Chris Carter, DH/1B, free agent — Carter, who hit an NL-leading 41 homers for Milwaukee last season, is being discussed internally by the Marlins and Rangers. Carter is a liability in the field but his power is undeniable. The Rangers have the money to do it, the Marlins not so much.
5. Blake Swihart, C, Red Sox — One NL scout believes Swihart will be a hot commodity between now and the start of the season. The Red Sox have indicated they will not deal Swihart, who will catch exclusively and scrap the outfield plan. “He’s a young catcher who hits well from both sides of the plate,”the scout said, “and while he got hurt you can see him projecting as a top player in this league. There’s no incentive for the Red Sox to deal him, but teams have and will try.”
6. Bronson Arroyo, RHP, free agent — The veteran is making great progress toward a return to the majors. Arroyo’s arm is all the way back and he is seeking a late February signing, with the possibility of being ready to go in April. Arroyo, who turns 40 next month, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 after shoulder and elbow problems. He’s not expected to hold any workouts for teams.
7. Randy Smith, adviser, Nippon Ham Fighters — It appears the longtime major league GM, scout, and executive will be advising on superstar Shohei Otani’s possible posting next winter. Smith, a longtime Padres executive, has been involved with the Ham Fighters, who have shared the Padres’ spring training site. Smith will also scout players who could sign with the Japanese team.
8. Ryan Hanigan, C, free agent — It’s been a slow market for catchers, but according to his agent, Tom O’Connell, interest in the veteran catcher has started to pick up. The Andover native spent two injury-filled seasons with the Red Sox, and he was not re-signed. Hanigan has a good reputation around the league for his game-calling and framing.
9. David Ross, special assistant to baseball operations, Cubs — When asked whether he’d add TV analyst to his post-retirement employment, Ross said, “I’m trying to figure that out.” Ross enjoyed doing some work for ESPN and was well received there.
From the Bill Chuck files — “While no Trump ever played major league baseball, two Donalds are in the Hall of Fame: Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. There were only two Donalds wearing uniforms at the end of the 2016 season: Marlins manager Don Mattingly and Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke, whose full name is Donald Zachary Greinke.” . . . Happy 95th birthday to Sam Mele on Saturday.