The Tito Boyzz and a Bizarre Offseason

Let me preface this piece by saying I love Terry Francona. A few years ago, my wife and I got a pretty great opportunity during an event at Progressive Field with my dad’s family due to their participation in our local Relay For Life. We got tickets to a game, purple Indians hats, and a pre-game parade on the field. It started in right field, out of the garage doors, went down the fencing and by the dugouts and around back out the way we came. As we neared the Tribe dugout, I looked inside to see if anyone was out early, getting ready. It was at this moment I saw Francona pinning the lineup cart to the dugout wall and, almost as a reflex, I yelled, “Hey Tito!” It was an exclamation of greeting to him but also an attention getter to my wife and family. He waved back and my dad has never let me live it down that I would be so casual as to yell “Hey Tito!” and get a response.

Francona has helped usher in a new era of Cleveland Indians baseball to a generation of fans that were on the precipice of forgetting about one of the most storied franchises in Major League Baseball. One of the five best managers in the game, a Manager Of The Year nominee almost every year he’s been in Cleveland, Francona has helped talented prospects become All-Stars and reclamation projects become building blocks for a perennial playoff team.

This, however, is not an article I write to praise the beloved Terry Francona. This is a warning that the franchise is going down a bad path.

There is a large faction of Indians’ fans that have blind trust in Francona and back every move and lineup change the manager makes, regardless of whether or not it makes much sense at first blush. They will bend over backward to rationalize the decisions, always armed with “Trust in Tito” at the ready, as if repeating it numerous times will make it so. Citing past performances (two World Series titles and the always present “rings” conversations) conjures up a favorite saying of WFNY’s own Mike Hattery: “Good outcomes do not equal a good process.”

I can’t exactly pinpoint when or where the scales tipped, but the breadcrumbs have been there for months. Somewhere along the lines, it seems as though Francona has garnered more decision making power than previously held and is using it to further an agenda that seems to profit players closest to Francona and former colleagues of Tito’s. Now, obviously, these decisions are made in the interest of winning. I am not accusing Francona nor the front office of trying to tank or hurt the organization outright, but there have been moves to cater to the egos of players and coaches close to Tito and those *have* hurt the organization’s chances of winning. Throughout the season(s) I have pulled together an inconclusive list of players that seemingly have the backing of Francona regardless of performance. The list of players includes, and is not limited to, the following: Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, Bryan Shaw, Yan Gomes, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Josh Tomlin. Together they form The Tito Boyzz (double Z for extra flava).

Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall on the playoff roster

The medical bungling of players over the past few years is mind-boggling in and of itself, but the decision to bring along Brantley and Chisenhall while leaving seemingly-useful players like Yandy Diaz and Abraham Almonte off the postseason roster is malpractice. Brantley, playing on an ankle that was already determined needed surgery but “couldn’t get any worse by playing”, barely had any lead up to the playoffs, with only 25 plate appearances in the weeks prior. The decisions to roster both were compounded when Edwin Encarnacion twisted his ankle in an almost Gordon Hayward-esque style at second base. Francona was forced into starting the not-ready Brantley, who was said to have been rostered to be a pinch hitter, and the results were less than ideal: 12 plate appearances, one hit, four strikeouts and one walk. Chisenhall’s postseason was somehow worse, with four strikeouts in five at-bats in four games. Both proved that roster construction is vitally important and not a single roster spot should be wasted. Had a healthy and productive Diaz been on the roster, it’s possible the Tribe could have moved forward to the ALCS and given Encarnacion proper time to heal.

Jason Kipnis in center field

At the same time, Kipnis was allowed to roam center field despite precious few innings manning the spot since his time as an Arizona Sun Devil. He too was coming back from injury though he had found an AL MVP candidate, Jose Ramirez, entrenched at his position of choice upon his return. Francona desired to lean on Kipnis, so he was asked to give center a try, which happened to be a position he had boasted in the clubhouse as being able to play best on the team. He had some route struggles and baserunners did not fear his arm to any degree, but he did make a spectacular catch in the ALDS. The main issue with Kipnis in the postseason was he was having a poor season at the plate. Further, Kipnis has struggled his entire career with left-handed pitching. Despite these struggles, Kipnis was entrusted to an every game role in the postseason.

Playoff rotation struggles

While Trevor Bauer’s results in Game 1 of the ALDS were spectacular, one could argue he shouldn’t have gotten the ball in the first place. Ace (and Cy Young winner) Corey Kluber was in line for the start, but Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway wanted to give Kluber an extra day’s rest due to an at-the-time-undisclosed-possible-back-issue and would pitch him in Game 2 of the series. That would mean that Carlos Carrasco, he with the 3.29 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 226 strikeouts, would only pitch once in the five-game series. Knowing that Kluber might have had some issues health-wise, the decision to pitch Carrasco only the once while letting Kluber get the decisive Game 5 start is a head-scratcher.

Coaching changes

Mickey Callaway was always tagged to be a manager. His work with the rotation and starters such as Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer was becoming legend around the league. He was often seen as one of the forces that brought more of a sabermetric viewpoint to the clubhouse, and many thought he would supplant Francona as manager when the latter retired. Once the New York Mets made Callaway their manager, the focus turned to who would be replacing him. In-house options such as Jason Bere, Ruben Niebla, Steve Karsay, and Matt Blake were passed over by former Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis. Willis was a dark horse candidate, an old-school option who is the antithesis to Callaway’s sabermetric approach. Though the two never worked together previously, the pairing of Francona and Willis seem to be a departure from the way things were done and more towards an avenue Francona is familiar with. It remains to be seen how the staff will handle such a move away from Callaway’s methods.

Also on the move this offseason, the aforementioned Jason Bere is off to seek employment elsewhere after seemingly butting heads with members of the Indians franchise. The former bullpen coach was let go after not securing the pitching coach position and Scott Atchison was hired to be the new bullpen coach. It appeared that Bere was the heir apparent to Callaway, but when Willis was hired, Bere was fired, but not before being told who was coming in, and why he was passed over. Firing an up-and-coming coach who would offer the most continuity for a team that has World Series aspirations seems to be a signal that something fishy is afoot.

Brantley option picked up

An $11 million option on a player of Michael Brantley’s pedigree seems like a no-brainer. A top 3 finisher for the MVP in 2014 and an All-Star at midseason should be on the roster for what seems to be a relative bargain. However when you consider the fact that in each of the last three seasons, Brantley has missed significant time due to injury and add to it the fact that Brantley is having surgery on his ankle, surgery that will keep him from doing anything baseball related until February or March at the earliest, the $11 million seems as though it could have been used elsewhere. This could all be moot if Brantley performs to his “glory days” years, but again “good results do not equal a good process”. Hoping for the best on an injury-riddled player who’s best years seem to have gone by is not best practices.

First base conundrums

Position battles are nothing new in baseball, but when the exiting player is one of the most underrated players in major league baseball, filling the spot becomes extra tedious. Carlos Santana seemingly never got the praise he deserved (except here at Waiting For Next Year…he is beloved and we might/will have to hold candlelight vigils if he leaves in free agency) and never got the chance to get into the inner cribbage circle it appeared. What is to be done at first base in his wake remains to be seen, and frankly, it’s borderline scary.

Encarnacion has the most experience on the roster, having played 75 games there in 2016 for Toronto and 23 for Cleveland in 2017. Edwin, however, is trending towards being a full-time DH and would provide nowhere near the almost elite levels of defense Santana brought. Yandy Diaz has been taking some at first in winter league, but that would negate his great throwing arm at third. General manager Chris Antonetti has talked about Brantley’s past foray’s at first, but those were years ago in the minor leagues plus there’s an offseason without any baseball-related activities keeping Brantley from learning a new position. And we all know Jason Kipnis is seemingly out of a position with Jose Ramirez possibly moving to second for good and Bradley Zimmer returning to patrol centerfield, so first seems to possibly be an answer…I guess? A different free agent first basemen could be brought in, but the odds are one of the Tito Boyzz being anointed the replacement for Carlos.

When you look at the sum of these decisions and moves and hirings and firings, the overall outlook for the team and the future start getting bleaker and bleaker. The plan for the offseason seemed entirely different from how events turned out. Francona’s fingerprints have been all over every decision this offseason. The fact that this appears to be one of the darker timelines going forward for the Tribe is not lost and can be attributed to Francona’s influence. Let’s hope some good results come from this bad process.