NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona inherits a team that ranked 13th in the American League with 667 runs scored last year and 14th in ERA at 4.78. The good news (sort of) is that not many people showed up to watch all that ugly baseball: The Tribe ranked 29th among the 30 big league clubs with an attendance of 1.6 million. Only Tampa Bay drew fewer fans.
Judging from Francona’s hectic schedule and his recent phone log, the immense challenges of his new job haven’t put a crimp in his enthusiasm.
Refreshed and ready to go after a one-year hiatus in the ESPN booth, Francona is approaching his new gig with the zeal of the fraternity outreach chairman. When the Indians were courting free agent Shane Victorino, Francona made a personal appeal to the Flyin' Hawaiian. He has since made a pitch on Cleveland's behalf to Nick Swisher, another free agent in search of a home.
Sometime after the winter meetings, Francona plans to travel to the Dominican Republic to see Ubaldo Jimenez, Carlos Santana and some of the other Cleveland players in winter ball. And on the return trip to the U.S., he plans to stop off in Tampa for a one-on-one with Indians closer Chris Perez.
Francona’s personal magnetism and communications skills won him points in Boston long before that whole fried chicken-and-beer thing led to an unceremonious parting of the ways with the Red Sox. Most people figured Francona would return to manage only for a ready-made contender. Instead, he signed on with Cleveland because he feels a kinship with club president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti and he was anxious to get back in uniform.
As Francona mused during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the winter meetings Wednesday, baseball might just be in his DNA.
"Having a challenge isn’t bad," Francona said. "Trying to find a way to tackle them is actually pretty exciting. And I'm not delusional. We have challenges. We have some things we've got to overcome. But I’m looking forward to trying to do that."
The Indians have some decisions to make in the coming days and weeks. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo is only a year away from free agency, and the Indians could try to move him now for some young talent. There’s been a lot more buzz in Nashville over Asdrubal Cabrera, who would fill Arizona’s need for a starting shortstop. The Diamondbacks have a surplus of starting pitching, but a lot depends on how they value Tyler Skaggs, Trevor Bauer and some of their other young arms.
In the interim, Francona assesses a rotation that most people regard as a liability and makes it look like a bunch of world-beaters. New Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway has a mandate to fix Jimenez’s mechanics and get the sink back on his fastball, and find a way to squeeze more consistency out of Justin Masterson. Beyond that, Francona said the Indians "love" Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber and are "thrilled" to have Carlos Carrasco coming back from Tommy John surgery. Based on the manager’s upbeat rhetoric, you wonder if this is the same group of starters who posted a 48-76 record with a 5.25 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP last season.
Francona has spoken by phone with Choo, exchanged numerous texts with Cabrera and had a heart-to-heart talk this week with Matt LaPorta, the stalled former prospect who was recently taken off the 40-man roster and outrighted to Triple-A Columbus. In the midst of forming relationships, Cleveland’s new manager is trying to develop a positive mindset with a team that’s generally regarded as an afterthought.
"Who here thought Oakland was going to win last year?" Francona said. "Nobody. Baltimore competed all year from day one, but people didn't see that during the winter. It can happen. Once you get good and start developing confidence and play the game the right way, things happen, and it snowballs.
"I don't spend a ton of time worrying about what could be or what should be. I kind of get energized over, 'How are we going to make whoever we have better?' That's what I get a kick out of."
Come April, when the 25-man roster is in place and reality sets in, the Indians might find they're not the second coming of the 2012 Orioles and A's. Amid the uncertainty of December, the new manager radiates energy and makes it sound as if anything is possible. That's what Terry Francona does best.