CLEVELAND: This time last year, Indians manager Terry Francona was still stopping every now and then to shake hands and introduce himself to a seemingly endless stream of new faces around Progressive Field.
In his second year with the Indians, the reigning American League Manager of the Year is more comfortable in his quest to lead the Tribe back to the ranks of perennial playoff contenders.
But he isn’t yet comfortable with Northeast Ohio winters, evidenced by the fact that he chose not to ride his scooter again to work from his nearby apartment.
“[Indians General Manager] Chris [Antonetti] picked me up today,” Francona said during a casual sit-down with local media Wednesday afternoon. “I froze my [butt] off yesterday … my eyes almost froze shut.”
Although it’s been a bone-chilling January, the tanned and relaxed Francona has his sights on baseball season.
“You get to the start of January and that internal clock, it starts kicking in,” he said. “You start thinking of talking to coaches, what drills you’re going to run in spring training. You start to get that itch. It seems like it takes a little longer each year to recharge, but once I recharge, I’m ready to go … This year the difference is my comfort level. I’ll be introducing myself to very few people.”
He took questions on a variety of topics Wednesday, including the Indians’ experiment with former catcher Carlos Santana transitioning to third base. Santana is playing third in the Dominican Republic Winter League, but Francona said a decision has not been made other than to have Santana continue to work at third during spring training.
“It sounds like he’s improving,” Francona said of what he’s read of Santana, who last played third base regularly eight years ago while in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system. “But we don’t need to make any kind of decisions today, nor will we at the beginning of spring training. If he can handle playing third — some, a lot, little — we’ll see. That’s all part of spring training. If he can handle it, it gives us another option with our middle-of-the-order bat.”
With Yan Gomes taking over as the starting catcher, Francona is leaning toward making the switch-hitting Santana the primary candidate to be the Tribe’s cleanup hitter.
Last season, Santana hit .268 as a catcher. His average jumped 20 points to .288 when he played first base or served as the team’s designated hitter.
“Early on, because we had spoken so much about his catching being a priority, I thought it was a little unfair to hit him cleanup,” Francona said. “So we hit him down in the order. But when he wasn’t catching, yeah, he looked pretty good in that spot. He hits from both sides of the plate, he takes a walk, and he hits good pitching. There’s not a lot not to like.”
After losing veteran pitcher Scott Kazmir to the Oakland Athletics and with Ubaldo Jimenez still on the free-agent market, the Indians have a bit of uncertainty at the back of the starting rotation. Although there remains a handful of veteran options on the market, Francona sounded content to allow a handful of the Tribe’s minor-league pitchers a chance to win the vacant fifth spot.
“I think we’re pretty settled,” he said. “I know [Antonetti] is always trying to make us better. But if we go to spring training tomorrow, I’m fine … When you start looking at the dollars you can allocate for pitching, I think we’d rather see [our young] guys pitch.”
As it stands, the Tribe’s rotation likely includes Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. That leaves Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and newly acquired Shaun Marcum to vie for the final spot during spring training.
“We have guys in place that we want to see either pitch or play,” Francona said. “We’ve got Gomes behind the plate now. We want to see him. We want to see Carlos Carrasco pitch. We want to see Josh Tomlin pitch. So, rather than go out and spend some money on guys, we want to see our guys.”
Francona is especially excited to witness the continued development of Salazar.
“The sky is the ceiling for Danny,” he said. “But you don’t want to make too many proclamations on a guy that’s only made eight or 10 starts. But I can’t wait to see him log 34 or 35 starts.”
Earlier in the day, the Indians extended non-roster invitations to major-league spring training camp to six minor-leaguers: shortstop Francisco Lindor, catchers Jake Lowery and Roberto Perez, outfielder Tyler Naquin, second baseman Joe Wendle and catcher/infielder Tony Wolters.
“I don’t want to say it was my idea, but we all were in agreement that we’d much rather bring in our younger kids than bring in veteran guys who really [don’t] have a chance to make the team,” Francona said. “If you bring in too many guys to compete but they really aren’t competing, I don’t think that’s fair. So, you bring in younger kids and give them a taste to see how we do things.
‘‘It will really help as a staff to get to know them and let them see how we want to do things.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.