GOODYEAR, ARIZ: Like the man said, “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to do it better.”
The man is manager Terry Francona, going through his first spring training with the Indians. When he talked about “doing it better,” he wasn’t referring to training camp, rather the conduct of a baseball season in general. But the same words apply to the seven weeks the Tribe is spending in the desert to prep for a 162-game schedule.
Has spring training been different under the oversight of Francona?
The team played no intrasquad games for the first time in more than 20 years, and pitchers have thrown batting practice without protective “L” screens in front of them. Catchers are giving signs to pitchers throwing BP to batters for the first time in my memory [rather than pitchers indicating to catchers what pitch he will throw with a hand signal].
In other words, no big deal. The same old wheel is safe to roll on for another millennium.
It already has become clear that Francona came as advertised. That is, he’s a player’s manager. One small example is the removal of the protective screens, because pitchers find them uncomfortable when they cut loose.
If Francona has conveyed an overriding theme, it is his desire to know what his players think, why they think it and to understand what levers to pull and buttons to push to induce them to be at their best on the field and in the clubhouse.
Asked what he would do if closer Chris Perez decided to impart the kind of editorial opinions about the fans, ownership and the front office that stirred the pot of controversy last year, Francona said he didn’t know until he really got to know what made Perez tick. Was he merely being evasive? Probably not.
From Day One of his tenure in Cleveland, Francona has emphasized the importance of staying in close touch with his players. Last year, there was an undertone of discontent on the part of several Indians, who felt that former manager Manny Acta was too distant and only infrequently monitored the clubhouse.
“Manny never talks to anybody,” one veteran said last year.
Managerial styles can be all over the lot, but it’s unlikely any Tribe player will complain that Francona is ignoring him. On the other hand, Francona was criticized when he managed the Philadelphia Phillies for being too close to the players.
He was a young manager then for a club with dubious talent. He probably wasn’t the same manager as he is now. Besides, unless he wins 100 games and the World Series, a manager can’t please everyone, so whatever flaws he displayed with the Phillies (I’m assuming there were some) probably were magnified because the team didn’t win.
As with anyone in charge, there’s a fine line between being accessible and sympathetic to the needs of your employees — or in this case, your players — and being their buddy. Same thing as being a parent.
From what I’ve seen of Francona in spring training, he knows the difference, and he knows how to keep from stepping on the line.
He will be there for his players. If they don’t respond in a positive fashion, that probably will be on them.
It’s far too early in camp to figure out who will fill the openings on the Tribe roster. It’s even a little early to know how many openings exist in some areas.
So maybe it’s time to take inventory.
Francona and General Manager Chris Antonetti have identified certain so-called sure things, even though in baseball there is no such thing.
Four of the five jobs in the rotation have been taken by Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister. There might be a wide-open race for the fifth spot, but it appears the Indians’ deep thinkers are hoping that Carlos Carrasco grabs the opportunity and runs with it.
If he doesn’t, look for Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka and to a lesser extent Corey Kluber and David Huff (if he’s not shifted to the bullpen race) to fill the void.
It is believed that Antonetti and Francona prefer that phenom Trevor Bauer get a little more seasoning in the minors, but if he dazzles in exhibition games, he could secure a place in the rotation.
Closer Chris Perez, setup man Vinnie Pestano and seventh-inning specialist Joe Smith might be the only relievers with secure roster spots. That’s not because there is a dearth of talent but because there’s an overabundance.
Cody Allen would seem to be a lock for the bullpen, because he pitched well in his big-league debut last July and beyond, and many professional observers think that Allen is destined for big things, including a closer job at some point in his career.
If Allen is the frontrunner for the fourth relief spot, there is plenty of competition for the other three among Nick Hagadone, Matt Albers, Scott Barnes, Frank Herrmann, Bryan Shaw, Matt Capps and possibly Huff.
There are no openings among the everyday players. Lou Marson is the backup catcher, and Mike Aviles will fill one of the three utility jobs. The battle for the other two might develop into an intriguing contest
One unknown is whether Francona wants two reserve infielders and one backup outfielder or vice versa. Since Aviles can play third, short and second, the manager might not need another infielder.
At this early stage of camp, one could make a case for Ezequiel Carrera, Ben Francisco, Ryan Raburn (who also plays second and third) and Jeremy Hermida to fill one or two outfield spots.
Then there’s the X-factor, 42-year-old Jason Giambi. Francona speaks of him in such glowing terms, it seems clear he wants him on the roster. But how? Giambi might be too much of a liability to play first even occasionally. But if it looks like he can still hit, then what?
Does his potential to whack the ball out of the park and his clubhouse presence trump the burdens imposed by age? We have to wait and see.
Cheap shot of the month
Saw that the pope is resigning due to his age and weakening strength … what are the chances the Indians will sign him to a one-year minor-league contract? — Adam Richard
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.