“Trust in Tito.”
Many Cleveland Indians fans utter these words any time manager Terry Francona makes a postseason call which seems strange on the surface. It’s meant to be a comforting statement for anyone who doubts his logic. After all, Francona made a handful of decisions met with skepticism last postseason, and almost all played out in Cleveland’s favor. As a result, it just made sense to assume the Tribe’s manager was once again making the right call, not the popular one.
Flash forward to today. The MLB championship series are set to begin, and the Indians are participating the same way we are – watching from home. One of the biggest reasons for this was a handful of Francona’s crucial calls backfiring. As a result, Cleveland’s manager lost a lot of the mystique he carried throughout last postseason.
There’s no denying the fact the 2016 Indians don’t get as far as the final inning of the World Series without Francona pulling off some incredibly savvy moves. His handling of the bullpen and his balancing of a tattered rotation kept the team alive as it continued stringing together surprising victories.
Where his decisions helped the club last postseason, they hindered its chances this year. In fact, the majority of Francona’s moves had a helping hand in ending Cleveland’s season way earlier than expected.
One of his mistakes was tabbing former second baseman Jason Kipnis as the Tribe’s starting center fielder. While removing him from the infield in order to maintain the chemistry between Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez was smart, Kipnis is hardly an ideal outfielder. He held his own for the most part, but the choice was made because Francona felt the team needed his bat.
Kipnis finished the series with four hits, two each in Games 2 and 3. He contributed one RBI and eight strikeouts. Of his final eight at-bats, he was K’d in six of them.
This roster spot wasn’t nearly as questionable as the one given to Michael Brantley, though.
While it was great to have the team’s All-Star left fielder activated in the final weekend of the season after being shelved with an ankle sprain, giving him a place on the playoff lineup was questionable from the start. Once an injury to Edwin Encarnacion forced Brantley into Game 2, Francona’s decision looked even worse.
Brantley was clearly not ready to be playing in games this important. He contributed just one hit, and showed off a considerable amount of rust at the plate. On paper, having an All-Star to swap in for your injured designated hitter probably sounded great. However, Brantley was in no way ready to make an impact for Cleveland, and Francona shouldn’t have given him a spot on the roster.
The biggest swing and miss, though, was Francona’s handling of the rotation.
One of the reasons Cleveland was a trendy pick to win it all was the fact it was returning to the postseason with a starting staff at full strength. The team was no longer forced to rely on Corey Kluber, an injured Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. Yet, Francona still assembled the rotation as if the cupboard was bare.
Despite having six starters on his playoff roster, Francona only used three in the series. Bauer pitched well in Game 1, but was back on the mound on short rest in Game 4, hardly looking effective. Kluber was shelled in both of his starts, leaving some to wonder if he was injured. Carlos Carrasco pitched a Game 3 gem, but never again touched the mound. Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger were all used in spot bullpen duty.
Make no mistake, Francona’s decision to not take advantage of his rotation depth was a crushing blow to this team.
For one, if Kluber was hurt, there was no excuse for giving him two starts, including a win-or-go-home Game 5. Carrasco instead could’ve received an earlier start, leaving him available for later in the series. Bauer wouldn’t have been needed on three-days rest had Francona instead used one of his three bullpen starters in Game 4.
All in all, it was a massive fumble from a manager who seemed immune to such a thing just a year ago.
Would the series play out differently had he given the ball to Salazar, Tomlin or Clevinger in Game 4? We’ll never know. However, it would’ve been a far less risky call than running one starter out on short rest and giving two starts to a pitcher who, despite being the team’s ace, has hinted he was playing through an injury.
To clarify, I don’t think these mistakes should lead to Francona being shown the door. He’s still one of the best managers in the game, and the perfect one for this team.
That said, you can safely say the “Trust in Tito” mantra took a ton of damage this postseason.
Not only did the majority of Francona’s decisions damage the Indians’ ability to advance past the first round, it also spoiled what could’ve been one of the best chances for this franchise to end a championship drought which has lasted just shy of 70 years.