OAKLAND, Calif.: When Indians manager Terry Francona was hired in October 2012, he and General Manager Chris Antonetti debated the best way to improve the Tribe roster.
They decided versatility was the answer.
Depth on the multitalented bench was evident in 2013, when the self-named “Goon Squad” made significant contributions.
But as the 2014 season opened Monday night against the Oakland Athletics in O.co Coliseum, Antonetti and Francona have found the ultimate example of what they sought.
“Carlos Santana may be among the most unique players in major-league baseball, if not THE most unique,” Antonetti said last week. “He can be the backup catcher, play third base and hit in the middle of the lineup. That’s a pretty good weapon to have.”
With the Indians setting out to wrest the American League Central title away from the three-time champion Detroit Tigers, their T-shirts read “Unfinished Business,” in reference to last year’s loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL wild-card game. But those shirts might as well say “Silly Putty” for the malleable roster Antonetti and Francona have put together.
It includes several players who can do just about anything Francona asks. Infielders Mike Aviles, Elliot Johnson and Nick Swisher can also play the outfield.
Outfielder Ryan Raburn can also play the infield. Raburn and Johnson are the emergency catchers. Reliever Scott Atchison can be used in just about any situation.
Except for closer John Axford, the entire bullpen is a collection of interchangeable parts and Francona doesn’t seem to care how long it will take to sort out the roles.
Last year, Raburn threw a scoreless ninth inning in his first professional appearance on the mound in a 10-3 loss to the Tigers.
Catcher Yan Gomes said he’s played every position, even pitched in high school.
The Indians are never going to have the payroll of the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, where if a key player goes down, they can spend whatever it takes to replace him. But Francona sees the Indians’ versatility as a way they might be able to compete with teams in the financial penthouse.
“I actually think it’s important for every team, but for teams that are in that different neighborhood, I think it’s a priority,” Francona said last week. “It’s a way we can maybe catch up.
“You’ve seen Tampa for years, Tampa does not have a big payroll. They’ve probably done it better than anybody.”
Francona practically drooled over the Rays’ Ben Zobrist, whom he said he’s “marveled at for years.”
“He’s better than his numbers,” Francona said of Zobrist. “Look at his skill set. He can play right, second, short. He’s a switch-hitter. He’s hit third. That makes everybody else better. That’s an amazing type of player.”
Value of versatility
As he starts his 14th year as a major-league manager, Francona believes this is the most interchangeable parts he’s ever had. He thinks his two most valuable will be Aviles and Johnson.
“It eases a lot of anxiety as a manager when you have guys who can move around,” Francona said. “Having one is huge, having two really helps.”
Francona isn’t alone in how he regards the unique situation. Starting his 10th full year in the majors, Swisher said this is the most versatile team he’s played on.
“As a manager, it gives him so much flexibility, it gives us so much depth,” Swisher said.
Lonnie Chisenhall has faith in Francona’s ability to juggle talent. Chisenhall is expected to share time with Santana at third and be a part-time designated hitter.
“He definitely moved the pieces around last year to make it work,” Chisenhall said of Francona. “[Aviles] gets a ton of at-bats, Raburn got a ton of at-bats. He’s going to put you in a position to succeed and that’s what it takes to have a winning team. He knows how to do that and I just wait for my name to be called.”
Atchison, 38, pitched out of the bullpen for Francona with the 2010 and ’11 Red Sox. Francona likes what he can do with him, too.
“He has the ability to pick up innings when you need them, to get big outs when you need them, do everything,” Francona said. “We have position players who do that, he’s kind of that pitcher who does that. He’s a nice asset to have.”
Santana ‘pretty amazing’
Above all, Francona and Antonetti value Santana, who began converting from catcher to third base in winter ball. Santana hasn’t played third since he broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization.
“What Carlos can do is a skill set that not one other player in the league can do,” Francona said. “You’ve got your cleanup hitter that plays third and can catch. That’s pretty amazing.
“Maybe we haven’t had the 100 RBI guy, I hope we will. Because we haven’t, maybe those are ways we can make up ground and find ways to be better in the standings.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.