SweetSpot: Terry Francona

Indians rise to AL stealth contender status

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1

Despite Sunday night’s rain-delayed outcome, one thing has become clear in the AL Central race: The Cleveland Indians are cutting in on a dance many might have anticipated just the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers were invited to. You might have been among those who had already written the Indians off when they checked in at the break at .500 -- and might have been lucky to be even that good, considering they had a negative run differential.

But in their past 30 games, the Indians have gone 19-11, putting themselves right back into the running for the AL Central or a wild-card bid. The only AL clubs who have been as hot or hotter in that time are teams you got to hear about throughout August, such as the Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles and the Royals. The Indians? They’ve been the darkest of dark-horse contenders, slipping back into the field with a month to play.

What have the Indians done to bring themselves back? Run prevention, pure and simple. In the first half, the Tribe averaged 4.4 runs scored per game, and have averaged just less than four runs per game since the break. But on the defensive side, they’ve gone from allowing 4.5 runs per game to 3.2. For this, you can spread the credit around liberally between the defense, the pitching staff and (yet again) manager Terry Francona’s hyper-aggressive use of his bullpen to compensate for a rotation that still struggles to get through the sixth inning.

Who are the heroes on the pitching staff? Corey Kluber you should already know about, but he has been joined by Danny Salazar since the hard-throwing youngster’s recall (4-2, 3.3 runs allowed per nine, 36/11 K/BB ratio in 38 IP). The Indians’ search for arms beyond those two and Trevor Bauer created a new opportunity for Carlos Carrasco to come back from the pen; the hard-throwing Venezuelan has rattled off three quality starts in a row.

But just as it was last year, another big factor in the Indians’ success has been their bullpen. Francona is averaging almost four relievers used per game since the break, and that frenetic turnover has worked. Between closer Cody Allen, set-up men Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison and C.C. Lee, and situational lefties Nick Hagadone, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett, the Indians’ core seven in the pen have allowed just two runs per nine in 107 1/3 IP since the break, while whiffing 102 and walking 23. You can’t ask for much better from a unit, and just as it worked for the Indians last year, it’s working again this year. And that sort of depth means the Indians don’t have to give up on a game in the fifth or sixth inning just because T.J. House or Bauer doesn’t have it. Francona can use a quick hook, control the pace of the game, and bury an opponent with the kind of depth that allows him to play matchups for three or four innings a night.

Breaking it down on defense, you can credit a number of in-season changes for the improved defense. In the early going with Carlos Santana giving third base his best shot, the Indians looked like they might post one of the lowest defensive efficiency ratings ever. But since moving Santana off third base, seeing catcher Yan Gomes overcome a fumble-fingered first month or two, and swapping in rookie Jose Ramirez at shortstop after trading away Asdrubal Cabrera, the Indians aren’t all the way to good, but they’re no longer awful. The biggest net gain has come at short: Translate the difference between Ramirez and Cabrera across a full season using Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved, and the Indians made a 15-run swing, the sort of stretch move teams spend hand over fist to add at the deadline.

These aren’t the only factors, of course. It has been a huge help that the real Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes stood back up. Whether you blame Santana’s struggles or Gomes’ in the early months on their defensive problems, in the second half they’ve been the engines fueling the Indians’ O, with Santana producing an .894 OPS, Gomes at an eye-popping .986. With Michael Bourn already back from the DL and with David Murphy and Ryan Raburn due back soon, you can hope that they and some of the still-struggling regulars -- Jason Kipnis, first and foremost -- can put together a strong final month to help expand the narrow leads the bullpen and defense have had to protect.

Finally, you have to give the Indians credit for doing something that a number of marginal contenders have dared to do at the deadline: They went young instead of borrowing somebody else’s aging leftovers, ditching some of their free agents-to-be into the bargain. Guys such as Justin Masterson in the rotation, Cabrera at short, or John Axford and Vinnie Pestano in the bullpen were no longer among the Indians’ best options at their positions, regardless of whether you considered them a going concern as contenders or using the playing to evaluate their options for next year. Ditching those guys, even without getting much in the ways ready-now returns in the deals, was a clear case of addition by subtraction.

Does that mean the Indians can stay with the Royals and Tigers all the way down the stretch? I don’t see why not. The next two weeks will be critical, as the Indians start an 11-game homestand boasting one of the game’s best home records (39-25), but they start that with this four-game set against the Tigers, a series in which they'll see David Price, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Including those games, they still have seven games against the Tigers, and three against the Royals beyond the one they have to complete because of Sunday’s rain-delayed outcome. It won’t be easy, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Back in the day, Bud Selig waxed bureaucratic on the importance of “hope and faith”; you can bet Indians fans should have some now.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Xmas Day-after: You've got loot

December, 26, 2013
Christmas Day has come and gone, giving fans a chance to say what so many major league free agents get to around this time of year: “I got mine!” The spirit of the holiday season amounts to much more than mere goodies, of course. But if you’re a baseball fan hungry for baseball-related entertainments to escape from a wintry December wherever you may be, short of jumping on a plane to catch winter ball action south of the border, you may have to satisfy yourself with mere things, and if you’re a lucky fan, your friends and loved ones spoiled you.

For myself, it was a lighter load of baseball-related goodies, just two books. Usually I’m asking for or can anticipate some Oakland Athletics-related garb for home use, and sometimes I’ll receive something extraneous like another unusual baseball to add to my collection; I’m still delighted by the Elvis baseball I snagged at Graceland last year, for example.

But as far as what I have to enjoy for the time being, first up was one brother giving me a copy of Terry Francona’s "Francona: The Red Sox Years." During the hurly-burly of spring, with stories to write and work to do, I had settled for reading the excerpts, knowing that I wouldn’t really have the time to read it from beginning to end and enjoying it. Now I do, so I’m looking forward to reading Tito’s reflections. I’ll be especially interested to see what he has to say about his growth as a skipper from his days with the Phillies; much like managers ranging from Whitey Herzog to Joe Torre, Francona isn’t the first and won’t be the last manager to get better with age or in his second incarnation.

The other baseball book I received was an example of Dad seizing the initiative, ignoring my other brother’s advice and boldly ignoring my Amazon wish list: He found something cool, thought I might like it, and just went out and sent it to me. The nerve! Except that it looks like, now as ever, a case of scoring one for Dad -- he sent me Steve Rushin’s "The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobble Heads, Cracker Jacks, Jock Straps, Eye Black & 375 Other Strange & Unforgettable Objects." Which looks like … OK, skipping the Gene Shalit-style “34 tons of fun!” comment, it looks like it’ll be an entertaining read. Since it’s something I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own, it’s that much more thoughtful. Parents, they’re sneaky that way.

Naturally, as a fan and a conspicuous consumer, I want more, and not merely for myself. The A’s are a DH away from wrapping up a busy offseason after all, and that part of me that still allows myself to root for the team I followed as a kid wait with bated breath for whatever Billy Beane, Dave Forst and friends conjure up on that score. (Luke Gregerson? Delightful. Trading away Michael Choice to Texas for a fourth outfielder? That didn’t make me feel quite so joyful and triumphant.) But as far as my own shopping in the weeks and months to come, there’s Craig R. Wright’s "Pages from Baseball’s Past" to pick up on the recommendation of several friends, Jonah Keri’s epic Expos expose "Up, Up, and Away" to anticipate, and the re-release of Stuart Shea’s "Wrigley Field: The Long Life & Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines" to look forward to. Here as elsewhere, so much about loving the game is about anticipation of the good things yet to come. I hope everyone got something they’re enjoying today, as well as relishing the spirit in which it was given to you.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

My AL Manager of the Year ballot, explained

November, 12, 2013
This was as tough a year to pick a top AL skipper as I can remember because you could make a compelling case for at least five guys: finalists John Farrell of the Red Sox, Terry Francona of the Indians and Bob Melvin of the Athletics, as well as Joe Girardi of the Yankees and Joe Maddon of the Rays.

As one of the electors this year, whom did I vote for when the ballots were due at the end of the regular season? In the end, I voted: 3. Joe Maddon; 2. Bob Melvin; 1. Terry Francona. That was after I spent a long time picking Maddon over Farrell, almost as much time as I used picking between Francona and Melvin.

Francona edged Farrell to win his first manager of the year award, the BBWAA announced Tuesday. Melvin finished a distant third.

As I have since the first time I voted on a manager of the year award, I consulted multiple colleagues and spent a couple of days mulling different arguments. In the end, I focus on performance, particularly elective decision-making and managers making the most of what they had on hand, especially because a big problem in choosing between managers is the inequality of resources each man has at his disposal. Admittedly, my way risks leaving out important areas of the job they have to do, the challenge of motivating and managing people. In all five cases, you’ll hear folks argue that each of these men is great at this. Unfortunately, we can’t measure the relative impact of each, which leads me to stick with judging observable actions and outcomes when I make my vote.
[+] EnlargeChris Perez
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesIndians skipper Terry Francona spent a big chunk of the 2013 season on the mound.

Running through my ballot from bottom to top, I ended up voting for Maddon over Farrell because of what he had to deal with -- multiple injuries in the Rays’ rotation (with David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb all missing time). That was on top of Price’s Saberhagen-ish even-odd year drop-off from his 2012 Cy Young season, not to mention an outright bad year from Jeremy Hellickson. The lineup had its share of disappointments, as well.

Despite all that, Maddon still helped get the Rays into the postseason. I don’t believe that, having won the award twice already, Maddon has already gotten his due and we should just change flavors for novelty’s sake. Maddon was faced with big challenges, and he helped provide winning solutions with his usual hyperactive tactical activity.

I tabbed Melvin second because he demonstrated that his positive impact on the Athletics in 2012 was no transient phenomenon. The A’s weren’t expected to beat the Rangers in the AL West a first time, let alone a second. However, Melvin’s effective use of floating playing-time platoons in the outfield, at second base and catcher and through the DH slot helped compensate for cycling through multiple backstops while weathering several injuries and off years (particularly Josh Reddick). The A’s also stayed on top while getting excellent results from a young and unheralded rotation. Melvin deserves credit for delivering a 96-win season that was perhaps even more impressive than the 94-win surprise division winner that earned him manager of the year honors the previous season.

But, although I thought long and hard about putting Melvin atop my ballot, in the end I went with Francona. Like Melvin, Francona made a difference on offense, not with in-game tactics but with his lineup cards, compensating for an offense short of star power by exploiting platoon advantages as often as possible. Francona secured the platoon advantage a remarkable 75 percent of the time, second only to Melvin’s MLB-leading 77 percent. In this, Francona leaned heavily on position-switching regulars such as Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana and plugged in position-flexible journeymen such as Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.

That wasn’t Francona’s biggest area of impact, though. Other managers had to deal with injuries within good rotations or breaking in young talent there while contending with it, but Tito had to deal with both challenges. Francona delivered a wild-card team despite getting just 73 quality starts from his rotation (“good” for 13th in the AL). In part, that was because Francona didn’t ask too much of Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber, but the frenetic use of his bullpen -- with an MLB-leading 540 relievers used -- compensated for a rotation that pitched only 5.7 innings per start (12th in the AL). If the bullpen is where a manager makes the biggest in-game impact these days, I chose to recognize that a deep Indians bullpen -- and Francona’s cultivation and employment of it -- was critical to their winning one of the AL wild cards despite a rotation that couldn’t contribute as much. Francona got great work from guys such as Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw to paper over the midgame innings gap that could have quickly killed off talk of Cleveland’s contending. So, Francona was my choice for 2013 AL Manager of the Year.
[+] EnlargeJohn Farrell
AP Photo/Paul SancyaIt was tough to exclude John Farrell of the Red Sox from this year's ballot.

So, what about Farrell, you ask? With the Red Sox always commanding outsized attention, win or lose, Farrell’s worst-to-first pitch for top skipper was easy to latch onto after the Sox clambered back from their disastrous 93-loss season in 2012. You might think Farrell’s case sort of resembles those of Bobby Cox and Tom Kelly in 1991, when those two men won manager of the year awards in their respective leagues while skippering the Braves and Twins to the all-time awesomeness of the 1991 World Series.

Not so much, though. Those two teams were genuine surprises. In contrast, with the Red Sox committing a franchise-record $175 million or so to payroll, they were supposed to win, and they did. With most of their success falling within the realm of the expected in terms of player performances, the midseason injury to Clay Buchholz was about the only thing that represented a significant setback, which they amply compensated for by acquiring Jake Peavy.

Does that mean Farrell doesn't deserve a ton of credit for a job well done, in delivering on that huge financial investment? Of course not. He did a great job helping sort and re-sort his bullpen in a fluid situation that forced him to switch closers repeatedly; he also got to pick between three save generators making more than $4 million per annum apiece. I would have loved to have voted for Farrell, but I could not, not within this year’s field of excellent alternatives.

Finally, Girardi did a tremendous job managing a Yankees team stuck spending oodles of cash on players who couldn’t or didn’t contribute, especially early in the season. I think it was his most impressive year in the dugout since his award-winning 78-win rookie season with the Marlins in 2006. But the funny thing was, the stronger the Yankees’ roster got down the stretch -- with Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Nova and Curtis Granderson back, and with Alfonso Soriano added to the mix -- the worse they did overall, putting up a .500 record after the All-Star break. Like Farrell, it would have been easy to vote for Girardi in many years, but that sort of reverse relationship between available assets and team performance put him behind a strong field on my ballot.

It was a tough year to choose because my top three and Farrell didn’t make it easy to pick from among them. Here’s hoping at least one Red Sox fan will do me the favor of letting me know if the Red Sox Nation posse is coming for me. And friends and family in New York might do likewise if they’re joined by a bunch of angry Yankees fans. I’ll take solace in knowing that I brought y’all together as you head west.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
How do you evaluate a manager's performance? It's one aspect of baseball that sabermetrics hasn't figured out exactly how to tackle, in part because much of a manager's duties are the behind the scenes: keeping a positive clubhouse culture, keeping players happy, making sure everyone is on the same page, getting the most out of a rookie or a veteran in decline, or making sure the veterans aren't feeding too much fried food to the rookies.

When we discuss managers during the season, we focus for the most part on strategical decisions, batting orders and bullpen usage. But those things are maybe the least important aspect of a manager's job, because in this era most managers take the same approach to in-game managing. Teams carry so many pitchers that pinch-hitting and bench options are relatively limited and most managers don't abuse the bunt.

So the manager of the year balloting tends to throw all that out the window and instead come to an easier process: Which team surprised the most or improved the most?

Thus it was no surprise that Clint Hurdle of the Pirates was a landslide winner for National League Manager of the Year, outpolling Don Mattingly of the Dodgers and Fredi Gonzalez of the Braves. The Pirates improved from 79 to 94 wins, finishing over .500 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Hurdle did a terrific job with the bullpen and then working rookie Gerrit Cole into the rotation, but maybe the most important move he made was buying into advanced defensive metrics.

The Pirates dramatically increased the number of defensive shifts they employed and improved from 24th to third in the majors in defensive runs saved (minus-25 to plus-68). The Pirates actually scored 17 fewer runs than in 2012; but they allowed 97 fewer -- almost the exact improvement in their DRS (93 runs). You can argue that the improvement came from Francisco Liriano and the pitching staff, but the strikeout and walk rates were basically the same as 2012 (they did allow fewer home runs). Most of the defensive improvement for the Pirates did come from the defense, and for that Hurdle deserves some of the credit.

Mike Matheny didn't finish in the top three, but I thought he deserved as much recognition as Mattingly and Gonzalez, both of whom showed in the postseason why they've come under some fire for some in-game decision-making. The Cardinals were expected to do well, but Matheny did a great job with a roster with so many rookies.

In the American League balloting, you could have made a good argument for any of the three finalists -- Terry Francona of the Indians, John Farrell of the Red Sox and Bob Melvin of the A's -- plus perennial contender Joe Maddon of the Rays and even Joe Girardi of the Yankees. Francona, who didn't receive a first-place vote the two seasons he led the Red Sox to World Series titles, edged out Farrell in first-place votes, 16 to 12.

I would have gone for Melvin, mostly because I thought he had to do the most managing -- the A’s platooned more than any other AL club, he had to work through the early loss of Opening Day starter Brett Anderson and a drop in production from Yoenis Cespedes. But Francona is a deserving winner, as Farrell would have been.

Yost pulls a Yost as Indians rally

September, 18, 2013
Yordano Ventura is one of the Kansas City Royals' top prospects and possesses a 100-mph fastball that has made him one of the more intriguing prospects in the minors. He fanned 155 in 134 2/3 innings across two levels in the minors and when the Royals need a starter to fill in for Danny Duffy, they decided to give Ventura his first major league start.

It was a gutsy decision by the Royals, but what's the quote, "Fortune befriends the bold"? Emily Dickinson, according to Google. For five innings, Ventura was brilliant, reaching 100 on the gun a couple times, allowing just two hits and taking a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning. It appeared Ned Yost and Dayton Moore would be rewarded.

Yost probably should have been happy that Ventura had given him five great innings and turned the game over to one of the game's best bullpens -- Kansas City's 2.54 bullpen ERA is second in the majors to the Braves.

[+] EnlargeNed Yost
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesNed Yost sat through another brutal September loss that left the Royals' chances badly hurt.
But this is Ned Yost we're talking about here, and he's not exactly pulling an Earl Weaver from the dugout this year. Go back to Sunday's game against Detroit, 2-2 in the eighth. Jeremy Guthrie had allowed 12 hits but just two runs. Yet there he was pitching in the eighth, well past 100 pitches. No offense to Guthrie, but he'd done his job; this isn't James Shields or Kevin Appier or Bret Saberhagen here. Alex Avila hit a home run and the Tigers won 3-2.

It's not like the Royals pen been has overused either -- it ranks just 28th in the majors in innings pitched. If anything, it has been underused. So take your five innings from Ventura and turn it over to the pen. Instead, Nick Swisher reached on an infield single and with two outs Carlos Santana singled sharply to right and Michael Brantley singled in Swisher. The Royals escaped after allowing just the one run but the inning gave the Indians life.

Look, I'm not completely blaming this loss on Yost. He still got the game to the seventh inning with a 3-1 lead and a slew of relievers available. Give Cleveland credit for rallying for two runs off Kelvin Herrera in the seventh, one off Wade Davis in the eighth and a final run in the ninth to win 5-3. Even then, however, did Yost use the right guys?

Why take out Louis Coleman after he had escaped the jam in the sixth? Coleman has allowed one run in 25 innings with a 27-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Herrera has actually been the most inconsistent of Royals relievers, with seven losses and a 3.70 ERA entering the game. Coleman has been hot.

And then why go to Davis in the eighth? He had struggled all season in the rotation before the Royals finally sent him to the pen. Sure, he was great as a reliever with Tampa Bay last year, but he'd only pitched in four games in relief for Kansas City. Where was Luke Hochevar and his 1.64 ERA and .164 average allowed? He'd thrown 18 pitches on Monday and nine on Saturday -- hardly reason to hold him back. Of course, Yost wouldn't use closer Greg Holland and his 1-point something ERA in a tie game in the eighth. Why waste your closer in such a high-leverage situation? Asdrubal Cabrera doubled in the go-ahead on a fly ball over Alex Gordon's head in left, a play that Gordon appeared to be in good position to make but somehow didn't make.

The Royals are in must-win mode in every game and Yost blew a lead while using his three best relievers for one batter. (After Davis gave up a run in the eighth, he did finally use Hochevar, who allowed a home run to Michael Bourn.)

The relievers didn't do the job. Gordon didn't make the catch. I don't believe Yost utilized his best options, however. It was a brutal loss for the Royals, now 3.5 behind Texas and Tampa Bay and needing to jump three teams in the standings (plus the Yankees, who are tied with the Royals).

I've probably short-changed the Indians here. Their bullpen did a terrific job in relief of Corey Kluber, as six relievers combined to toss 5.1 scoreless frames. Unlike Yost, Francona pulled Kluber very quickly. Already down 3-0, there were two outs and a runner on first and Kluber was at just 79 pitches but Francona was willing to use all those September relievers and not let the game slip away. How many managers would have that quick of a hook?

There isn't much separating the Royals from the Indians, but this game showed how and why one team has a huge edge in the dugout.
Charlie Manuel and Terry FranconaAP Photo, Getty ImagesCharlie Manuel, left, and Terry Francona have both managed in Philadelphia and Cleveland.
PHILADELPHIA -- Terry Francona and Charlie Manuel go back a ways. In the summer of 1988, Francona logged a 62-game cameo with the Cleveland Indians near the tail end of his playing career. He had bad knees and minimal power for a first baseman-DH, as evidenced by his .311 batting average and .363 slugging percentage that season.

Manuel was the team's hitting instructor, and had a novel way of getting his point across.

"I was kind of scuffling," Francona said. "I was in the hole [in the dugout] and I was having a tough time, and I said, 'Grinder what do you think, man?' He looked at me and in that drawl he says, 'Son, if it was me, I'd hit one over that sign out there.' He goes, 'You -- why don't you just massage one over third?'"

Francona still laughs over the encounter and the impact that Manuel's West Virginia colloquialisms could have on a player's psyche.

"Charlie has a way of making you feel so good about yourself," he said. "That's what I remember. I don't remember any of the mechanical things he told me. I just know he made me feel good about myself."

Francona, who used to manage in Philadelphia, is now the skipper in Cleveland, while Manuel, who got his first shot to be a manager with Cleveland in 2000, is in his ninth year as manager in Philadelphia. Their teams met this week in a two-game interleague series at Citizens Bank Park, and their divergent circumstances are hard to ignore.

Francona is presiding over a baseball awakening in Cleveland, where the Indians just won 10 of 11 to inject themselves into the conversation in the American League Central. He's in the first year of a four-year contract, and is already lifting spirits and elevating hopes in the city -- even if the Indians' average daily attendance of 14,614 (last in the majors) doesn't quite reflect the enthusiasm.

Manuel, in contrast, oversees an aging roster that's still trying to overcome the gut punch of two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay going down with a shoulder injury. He's 69 years old and in the final year of his contract, and the Phillies have a ready-made successor on the staff in third-base coach Ryne Sandberg. Even though the Phils have been able to maintain contact with the Nationals and Braves in the NL East, Manuel is going to continue to appear in managerial "hot seat" speculation as long as the team muddles along below .500.

Bovada, the online sportsbook, recently laid odds on managers likely to be fired, and Manuel led the pack at 4-1. This was before the Dodgers, Angels and Blue Jays all spiraled to the bottom of their division races and ratcheted up the heat on Don Mattingly, Mike Scioscia and John Gibbons. But it was instructive nevertheless.

If and when Manuel goes, he will have made his mark in Philly. He led the franchise to a title in 2008 and recently passed Gene Mauch as the longest-tenured manager in club history. Between his stops in Cleveland and Philadelphia, Manuel has a better career winning percentage (.553) than Billy Martin, Sparky Anderson, Joe Cronin and Leo Durocher.

Francona, 54, is building a nice managerial résumé of his own. He won two world championships in Boston, and picked up his 1,051st career victory with a 10-4 win Wednesday. That ties him with Jack McKeon for 51st place on MLB's career list.

If Francona and Manuel have one trait in common in their respective career paths, it's the ability to go with the flow and handle themselves the same way no matter how grim things might look or how intense the pressure might get. When the team is winning, that steadiness is considered a plus. When the losses are piling up, it's suddenly perceived as a "lack of urgency."

It's always a challenge for a manager's message to resonate over time, as players change and the parts don't always fit. When Francona broke the Red Sox curse with a World Series win in 2004, he was hailed as the quintessential "player's manager." When things unraveled in Boston during the infamous chicken-and-beer collapse in 2011, Red Sox ownership concluded that a new voice and a tougher approach were in order. Enter Bobby Valentine.

The concept of changing circumstances and finite shelf lives is something that two longtime baseball men can readily understand and accept. They know it applies regardless of venue, even if some environments are clearly more challenging than others.

Before the Phillies' 6-2 victory over the Indians on Tuesday, Manuel was heading out to the cage to watch his players take their pregame hacks, as is his custom. He was asked if he and Francona have ever exchanged notes on the challenges of managing in Philadelphia, an intense sports town that's not for the faint of heart.

"Tito told me that when he first got the job, he went to a 76ers game and they introduced him and showed his picture up on the scoreboard, and they stood up and booed him," Manuel said with a laugh. "But he never said harsh things about the fans here. He said if you hustle and play hard, they accept you."

Manuel continues to preach the gospel of optimism and patience in Philly. "You can win a lot of games by feeling good about yourself," he said. And Francona made it clear that he's willing to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work when he signed on with the Indians rather than with a ready-made contender.

"I think the best way to put it is, you take what you're doing really seriously, but you don't take yourself really seriously," Francona said. "You've got to be able to laugh at yourself a little bit. I thought I would get perspective being out of the game a year, but I have zero perspective. When I lose, it still kills me."

Like his former hitting mentor Charlie Manuel -- aka "The Grinder" -- Francona has an intense competitive streak beneath his sense of humor and easygoing manner. Both men have a demeanor that wears well over time. But Francona is the only one with time on his side.

Takes a Tribe to grind down Verlander

May, 12, 2013

Say you’re the Cleveland Indians. You’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams, but you’re in Detroit against the defending pennant winners, you got routed in the first game of the series, and you’re facing Justin Verlander, who’s still on top of most people’s lists for best pitcher on the planet.

How to beat all of those seemingly insuperable challenges and pull off a win? Easy: It takes the whole Tribe.

Consistent with what has worked for the Indians so far this season, that’s how they pulled off an upset 7-6 victory Saturday in the Motor City to make it clear that the American League Central is a race that has months to run. Put on the spot, Cleveland's offense did the best things possible against Verlander: The Indians scored early and often, but most of all, they used him up to get to the Tigers bullpen early. The Tribe had already pushed Verlander to 90 pitches through the first four innings. Even allowing for Jim Leyland’s understandable willingness to let his ace achieve feats of strength racking up big pitch counts, that’s not what long nights from your best pitcher are made of.

Getting four runs off Verlander through five innings was big, but getting the next three runs with nine baserunners against the Tigers’ bullpen over the following three innings was the decisive reward, an opportunity created by a top-to-bottom lineup that, even as some hitters have struggled, is doing a good job of creating shark attack-like feeding frenzies in-game.

That might sound easy enough, because the Indians rank second in the league to the Tigers in runs per game, and they’re first in OPS for the time being. Those numbers create an illusion of strength this lineup has not yet made good on, though: As my old Baseball Prospectus compadre Joe Sheehan noted last week in his excellent newsletter, the Tribe has been far from consistent in terms of scoring -- plating two runs or less in 12 of their first 34 games -- but thanks to 13-0, 19-6 and 14-2 wins in the early going, they project as a statistical powerhouse only in the aggregate.

[+] EnlargeNick Swisher
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNick Swisher helped the Indians wear down Justin Verlander, working two walks off the Tigers ace.
However, look at that info, and it would be easy to overstate their failings, because Cleveland's offense has qualities most teams would kill for. The Indians are grinding down opposing pitchers, they’re exploiting the flexibility and depth they built up over the winter, and what problems they do have are ones that can be fixed.

Consider their grinding approach on offense. The Indians are next-to-last in the league in swinging strikes, and fourth in the league in pitches per plate appearance. Which is not to say they’re enjoying perfect success; their walk rate of 8.0 percent is below league average. But walks aren’t the sole goal of getting deep into counts -- they’re just one of the positive outcomes, but getting your pitch and simultaneously using up the opposing starter are the others. The Indians extend their at-bats and make opponents work, but it’s interesting to note that they’re not collectively watching strike three go by: Unlike the sabermetrically-beloved Rays and their league-leading 30 percent clip for being called out by those oh-so-human umps on their whiffs, the Indians are down around league average at 25 percent.

One of the other cool features of the Indians’ assemblage is that theirs is a lineup stocked with moving parts. Nick Swisher rotating from first to right field to designated hitter from night to night is no surprise, but he’s not the only roving corner in Terry Francona’s playing-time scheme. Mark Reynolds has split his time among first, DH and third. (To some of us among the chatterati, Reynolds might have initially seemed like a free agent signed too soon for too much, but with a league-leading homer tally and that value at multiple lineup slots, the Indians may well get the last laugh.) Carlos Santana is doing his variation on a Buster Posey theme by moving to first or DH when he isn’t catching. Mike Aviles provides considerably more power than your average utility infielder, which is why he starts more regularly than one.

That flexibility could come even more into play as we get deeper into the season. Now that Michael Bourn is back from the disabled list, you might wonder how much Francona will still be able to keep all of his hitters active and sharp with an everyday player back in the mix. But the silver lining of losing Bourn for a couple weeks to injury might just be getting to (over)expose Drew Stubbs for what he is, now that he’s 28 and been doing this for years: A fine defender and baserunner, but not a regular at a corner.

That isn’t the Indians’ only lineup issue: Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall’s early-season struggles force the question of whether he’s going to turn the corner and stick as an everyday player. He came into Saturday with a career .288 OBP in 466 PAs; if he fielded like Brooks Robinson or slugged like Rob Deer, that’s a survivable blemish, but he doesn’t do those things. He’ll need to improve, or risk losing at-bats to some combination of Aviles and Reynolds.

If players like Stubbs and Chisenhall come around, that’s great. But if not, the Indians already have the depth on hand to make some hard choices. If Francona wants to keep putting pressure on opposing pitchers, that will continue to mean expanded playing time for his duo of handy platoon bats from the bench -- lefty thumper Jason Giambi at DH and lefty-masher Ryan Raburn -- thanks to the position flexibility his other starters and semi-regulars possess. And if the Indians still don’t have a happy answer by the end of July, renting a free agent-to-be at the trade deadline wouldn’t cost much in talent or treasure.

That’s because the Indians shouldn’t have to indulge Chisenhall or Stubbs their struggles all season, not as a contender. Because that’s what these Indians should be: Contenders. Maybe just for the AL Central title, and maybe because the Tigers fail to run away with it. But contenders just the same.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona inherits a team that ranked 13th in the American League with 667 runs scored last year and 14th in ERA at 4.78. The good news (sort of) is that not many people showed up to watch all that ugly baseball: The Tribe ranked 29th among the 30 big league clubs with an attendance of 1.6 million. Only Tampa Bay drew fewer fans.

[+] EnlargeTerry Francona
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTerry Francona takes over an Indians team that won only 68 games in 2012.
Judging from Francona’s hectic schedule and his recent phone log, the immense challenges of his new job haven’t put a crimp in his enthusiasm.

Refreshed and ready to go after a one-year hiatus in the ESPN booth, Francona is approaching his new gig with the zeal of the fraternity outreach chairman. When the Indians were courting free agent Shane Victorino, Francona made a personal appeal to the Flyin' Hawaiian. He has since made a pitch on Cleveland's behalf to Nick Swisher, another free agent in search of a home.

Sometime after the winter meetings, Francona plans to travel to the Dominican Republic to see Ubaldo Jimenez, Carlos Santana and some of the other Cleveland players in winter ball. And on the return trip to the U.S., he plans to stop off in Tampa for a one-on-one with Indians closer Chris Perez.

Francona’s personal magnetism and communications skills won him points in Boston long before that whole fried chicken-and-beer thing led to an unceremonious parting of the ways with the Red Sox. Most people figured Francona would return to manage only for a ready-made contender. Instead, he signed on with Cleveland because he feels a kinship with club president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti and he was anxious to get back in uniform.

As Francona mused during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the winter meetings Wednesday, baseball might just be in his DNA.

"Having a challenge isn’t bad," Francona said. "Trying to find a way to tackle them is actually pretty exciting. And I'm not delusional. We have challenges. We have some things we've got to overcome. But I’m looking forward to trying to do that."

The Indians have some decisions to make in the coming days and weeks. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo is only a year away from free agency, and the Indians could try to move him now for some young talent. There’s been a lot more buzz in Nashville over Asdrubal Cabrera, who would fill Arizona’s need for a starting shortstop. The Diamondbacks have a surplus of starting pitching, but a lot depends on how they value Tyler Skaggs, Trevor Bauer and some of their other young arms.

[+] EnlargeUbaldo Jimenez
David Maxwell/Getty ImagesUbaldo Jimenez was 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA in 31 starts for the Indians last season.
In the interim, Francona assesses a rotation that most people regard as a liability and makes it look like a bunch of world-beaters. New Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway has a mandate to fix Jimenez’s mechanics and get the sink back on his fastball, and find a way to squeeze more consistency out of Justin Masterson. Beyond that, Francona said the Indians "love" Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber and are "thrilled" to have Carlos Carrasco coming back from Tommy John surgery. Based on the manager’s upbeat rhetoric, you wonder if this is the same group of starters who posted a 48-76 record with a 5.25 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP last season.

Francona has spoken by phone with Choo, exchanged numerous texts with Cabrera and had a heart-to-heart talk this week with Matt LaPorta, the stalled former prospect who was recently taken off the 40-man roster and outrighted to Triple-A Columbus. In the midst of forming relationships, Cleveland’s new manager is trying to develop a positive mindset with a team that’s generally regarded as an afterthought.

"Who here thought Oakland was going to win last year?" Francona said. "Nobody. Baltimore competed all year from day one, but people didn't see that during the winter. It can happen. Once you get good and start developing confidence and play the game the right way, things happen, and it snowballs.

"I don't spend a ton of time worrying about what could be or what should be. I kind of get energized over, 'How are we going to make whoever we have better?' That's what I get a kick out of."

Come April, when the 25-man roster is in place and reality sets in, the Indians might find they're not the second coming of the 2012 Orioles and A's. Amid the uncertainty of December, the new manager radiates energy and makes it sound as if anything is possible. That's what Terry Francona does best.
Take a break from Jeremy Lin. Here are some links worth checking out from outside the SweetSpot network. Check back later Wednesday for more links from our list of bloggers.
  • Keith Law released his list of top 100 prospects last week. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus (and ESPN contributor) released his top 100 on Monday. Keith and Kevin have the same three at the top, although in different orders: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Matt Moore for Keith; Moore, Harper and Trout for Kevin. They match up on eight of the top 10: Keith has Blue Jays catcher Travis d'Arnaud at No. 6 (No. 16 for Kevin) and Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco at No. 8 (No. 24 for Kevin). Kevin has Braves right-hander Julio Teheran at No. 5 (No. 18 for Keith) and Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy at No. 6 (No. 11 for Keith). One of the more interesting splits is Giants center fielder Gary Brown, a speed demon who hit .336 with 14 home runs at Class A San Jose. Keith has him ranked 68th, citing his defensive abilities but wondering about his second skills; Kevin ranked him 18th, believing a little more in Brown's power and contact skills. Two more interesting splits: Kevin ranked Red Sox outfielder Brandon Jacobs No. 46 while Keith didn't have him in the top 100; Keith liked Mariners shortstop Nick Franklin at No. 57 while Kevin had him unranked.
  • ESPNBoston's Joe McDonald talks with former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona, who will miss his first spring training in 31 years.
  • The Yankees blog at ESPNNewYork is continuing its countdown of 25 questions in 25 days. A lot of fun stuff there, including questions like "Is this now Alex Rodriguez's team?" and "How good will Michael Pineda be?"
  • Richard Durrett continues his in-depth position-by-position outlook for the Rangers. Check out his analysis at the Rangers blog at ESPNDallas.
  • Joe Posnanski with a fun post on aging and great seasons. He looks at hitters with seasons of 6.0 WAR or higher and breaks them down by age. The peak age for greatness: 26, with 115 seasons. The number of great seasons starts declining from there, but takes a big hit age 32, with only 68 such seasons. By age 34 we're down to 31 such seasons.
  • Kate Upton graces this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover. She also has some helpful advice for David Price, Justin Verlander, C.J. Wilson and Jay Bruce. OK, cheap promo, but it does beg the question: Who invited the outfielder?
  • Geoff Baker the Seattle Times profiles new Mariners reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, who battled anxiety issues and the "yips" last season with the Dodgers. Kuo was one of the majors' most dominant relievers in 2010, so he could be one of the offseason's best sleeper pickups.
  • Jonah Keri asks: Whatever happened to the spitball? One of the highlights of my life as a baseball fan was being at the Kingdome in 1982 when Gaylord Perry got ejected for the only time in his career for throwing a spitball. Perry's young daughter, when once asked if her daddy threw a spitter, replied, "It's a hard slider."
  • Bill James (subscription only) has a piece on 1960s catchers. No catcher who played primarily in that decade has made the Hall of Fame, but what was most interesting was a sidebar to the piece detailing the 1963 AL MVP race, won by Yankees catcher Elston Howard. Basically, the AL had no clear MVP candidate that year. Bob Allison of the Twins had the highest WAR (7.5) and fared best in James' Win Shares system. He led the AL with 99 runs scored and a .911 OPS but hit just .155 and went homerless in 17 games against the pennant-winning Yankees. Allison finished 15th in the MVP voting, which Howard won in what was probably the third-best season of his career.
  • Matthew Carruth looks at relative strikeout rates for pitchers and unearths a gem of a season I was unfamiliar with: Ted Wingfield of the 1927 Red Sox struck out one batter in 74.2 innings. Yep, one batter. We know it happened in this game, although we don't have the play-by-play. I'm guessing it was pitcher Lefty Grove. And you won't be surprised to know that Wingfield didn't pitch in the majors again after 1927. Or that the Red Sox finished 51-103 that year.

Steve Phillips Henny Ray Abrams/Getty ImagesSteve Phillips and Bobby Valentine rarely saw eye-to-eye during their time with the Mets.
When fans think of Bobby Valentine, most will initially think of the time he tried to sneak back into the dugout wearing glasses and a fake mustache after getting ejected from a game. There will be plenty of talk about the perception that he's arrogant, a little aloof and craves the limelight too much. There will be talk that he hasn't managed in the major leagues since 2002 (although he did in Japan after that) and that his departure from the Mets was fueled in part by his disagreements with general manager Steve Phillips.

So the talk will mostly be about his personality. But what kind of manager was he? Let's look back at his career -- focusing mostly on his full seasons with the Mets from 1997 to 2002 -- to see what that may indicate about how he'll manage the Red Sox.

Will Carl Crawford hit leadoff?

With Jacoby Ellsbury's new power stroke, it may make sense to move him down in the order to get him more RBI opportunities; that would leave Crawford as a leadoff option. I don't see that. Even if Crawford bounces back, his on-base percentage is hardly ideal for a leadoff hitter and Valentine -- a guy who was using computers and studying sabermetrics back with the Rangers in the '80s -- craves a high OBP from his leadoff hitter.

Check out his leadoff hitters with the Mets:

1997: Lance Johnson/Brian McRae.
1998: Brian McRae/Tony Phillips -- McRae posted a career-high .360 OBP that year.
1999: Rickey Henderson.
2000: Ten different leadoff hitters, including Benny Agbayani 27 games.
2001: Used four guys at least 20 games, led by Joe McEwing's 44 games. Led off Agbayani 32 times.
2002: Roberto Alomar/Roger Cedeno.

The unconventional use of Agbayani, the rotund Hawaiian without much speed but in possession of good on-base skills, shows Valentine's preference for OBP. In 2002, with Cedeno failing to do the job, he used Alomar there. I see Crawford remaining lower in the order, with Ellsbury staying in the No. 1 spot.

Does he like the quick hook or does he let his starters stay in the game?

There's not really a lot of in-game strategy in the American League, especially with a team like the Red Sox that basically just looks to bash the ball. So the most important strategic elements for Valentine will be how he handles the rotation and bullpen. The 2011 Red Sox were 12th in the AL in average innings per start, but that was more a function of a lousy rotation than Terry Francona's itchy trigger finger.

Let's see where the Mets under Valentine ranked in average in innings per start among NL teams:

1997: 5th
1998: 4th
1999: 8th
2000: 4th
2001: 4th
2002: 5th

Nothing really unusual here, as the Mets usually had a solid rotation under Valentine. They ranked in the upper half of innings because he had decent pitchers.

He was a little more generous when it came to allowing his starters throw 100 to 119 pitches:

1997: 9th
1998: 7th
1999: 12th
2000: 3rd
2001: 1st
2002: 4th

What's interesting about the 2001 squad is that they actually allowed the fewest walks in the league, so the high pitch counts weren't the result of a staff that walked a lot of hitters. He had a veteran rotation that year -- Leiter, Kevin Appier, Glendon Rusch, Steve Trachsel, Rick Reed -- and let his starters work deeper into games. It will be interesting to see if Valentine allows Jon Lester and Josh Beckett to reach the century mark more often than Francona did. In 2011, Lester had 22 100-pitch games -- tied for 25th-most among major league starters; Beckett had 21. Justin Verlander had 34, CC Sabathia 31, and other top AL pitchers like James Shields, David Price, Felix Hernandez, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Jered Weaver were all in the high 20s or low 30s.

Does he like an experienced closer?

In other words, would he be comfortable with Daniel Bard in the ninth inning? With the Mets, he initially had John Franco. The team acquired Armando Benitez in 1999 and when Franco went down with an injury in early July, Benitez took over as closer; when Franco returned, Benitez kept the closer job. As the Rangers' manager from 1985 to 1992, he had a different closer every year early on, before the club turned starter Jeff Russell into a successful closer in 1989. Hard to read too much into this, although both Russell and Bard throw hard. My guess is this becomes more of a front-office decision (do they sign Ryan Madson?), but that Valentine would have no problem making Bard his closer.

Does he like strikeout pitchers or guys who throw strikes?

With the Rangers, Valentine (and pitching coach Tom House) were obsessed with guys who threw hard. They had Bobby Witt, Jose Guzman, Edwin Correa, Nolan Ryan, Mitch Williams and others. Ryan had mostly refined his control (for him) by the time he reached Texas, but the other four would have problems hitting a barn door placed 10 feet in front of them. His first four staffs all had the highest walk rate in the American League. His staffs with the Mets were better, and Valentine seemed less concerned with velocity -- guys like Reed, Bobby Jones and Rusch were more finesse-type pitchers who threw strikes.

Mets strikeout rate under Valentine:

1997: 13th
1998: 7th
1999: 4th
2000: 3rd
2001: 5th
2002: 5th

Mets walk rate under Valentine:

1997: 2nd
1998: 7th
1999: 8th
2000: 3rd
2001: 1st
2002: 5th

Does he like a set lineup?

During his years with the Mets, Valentine always had a set infield, but remarkably never had one outfielder start 100 games at one position more than once. His machinations out there were pretty remarkable and show the willingness to be flexible and mix and match players as needed. Now, with the Red Sox he won't have same issue, with Ellsbury and Crawford playing every day, but it certainly suggests he'd be comfortable with a platoon in right field.

Here's the list of outfielders who started 100 games in a season at the same position with the Mets under Valentine:

1997: Bernard Gilkey, LF, 134
1998: Brian McRae, CF, 144
1999: Rickey Henderson, LF, 113
2000: Jay Payton, CF, 124; Derek Bell, RF, 136
2001: None
2002: Roger Cedeno, LF, 125; Jeromy Burnitz, RF, 131

The big issue here is how he handles Crawford, especially if he struggles to hit left-handers again (.195 in 2011). Would he consider benching Crawford against lefties, or at least the tough lefties?

Does he like young players?

With the Mets, he mostly had a veteran lineup. He did give Agbayani an opportunity, broke in Payton and Timo Perez, and gave Cedeno his first chance to play every day. With the Rangers, he broke in position players like Ruben Sierra, Oddibe McDowell, Steve Buechele, Pete Incaviglia, Jerry Browne, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Dean Palmer. Again, this might be more of a front-office decision, but I'd say Valentine would give youngsters like Josh Reddick and Ryan Lavarnway an opportunity to play regularly.

Valentine's reputation with the Mets was one of being prepared and being tactically smart with his in-game moves. He had to do more with the Mets than he'll have to with the Red Sox, especially considering he was often platooning at one or two outfield spots. He trusted his veteran starters to go deep into games. In short, there's nothing radically unconventional about Valentine's managerial philosophy. Of course, he last managed in the majors 10 years ago and his biggest challenge won't necessarily be strategy, but getting Crawford to rebound, getting his older players in better shape, and rebuilding Bard's confidence.
ESPN Insider Matt Meyers has a piece on Adrian Beltre, arguing that the labels placed on Beltre throughout his career are unfounded and inaccurate. I agree with Matt's general assessment that Beltre has been a tremendously underrated and underappreciated player during his career. Matt points out that Beltre is 19th on Baseball-Reference.com's all-time WAR (wins abovement replacement) for third basemen (or 21st, depending on how you do your search).

Considering Beltre is 32 and coming off an excellent season, he should have more good years left and climb up that list, maybe close to the top 10. That would certainly seem to put him in the Hall of Fame discussion ... except: Except there is probably too little perception of Beltre as a Hall of Famer. Much of Beltre's value derives from his excellent defense. B-R rates him ninth all-time in runs saved among third basemen (behind, in case you want to know: Brooks Robinson, Buddy Bell, Robin Ventura, Clete Boyer, Scott Rolen, Graig Nettles, Mike Schmidt and Gary Gaetti). But Beltre also has 310 home runs and 1,113 RBIs. It's not too much of a stretch to see him topping 400 home runs and 1,500 RBIs ... and the only third basemen to do that are Schmidt and Chipper Jones. George Brett is the only other third baseman with 1,500 RBIs.

Still, Beltre will be facing an uphill battle, no matter where his career totals end up. But he's been a terrific player, even if he's flown under the radar much of his career.
Tuesday is a huge day for the MLB postseason, with game after game after game after … well, you get the idea. Keith Law and I looked ahead as well as tackling Monday’s results on Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1. Colby Lewis, David Price and Mike Napoli did their job, but what about Joe Maddon's decision to go with J.P. Howell? Rays are on the verge of leaving the playoffs.

2. Ultimately Justin Verlander pitched well enough to win, and CC Sabathia did not, but while both managers were making odd choices, Mr. Perfect again shut the door!

3. The Phillies have to face a lefty starter in his home park, where he has thrived. Cole Hamels might be Philly’s No. 3, but he needs to step up Tuesday.

4. Are the Brewers and Diamondbacks evenly matched, or will this be a three-game sweep? KLaw and I debate how Game 3 could go, and whether Arizona’s run is over.

5. The Angels need a GM and the Red Sox have a GM who might be looking to move on. We discuss Theo and Terry and also watching all these former Seattle Mariners play in the playoffs.

So tune in for Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast and have some fun ... as if all these playoff games wasn’t enough!

Podcast: Previews and predictions

September, 30, 2011
Do you have the postseason fever? Me and Mark Simon certainly had it for Friday’s Baseball Today podcast, as we preview each series and predict the winners.

1. Of course, we started the show with breaking news from Boston. Yep, they’re not playing anymore and still it’s all about the Sox.

2. The Rays elect to go with rookie Matt Moore to start Game 1 in Texas. Will it matter to Josh Hamilton and his slugging pals?

3. It’s not solely about Justin Verlander, ya know. The Tigers have other pitching strengths and can hit ... but can the Yankees be topped?

4. The least-talked about playoff series involves the Diamondbacks and Brewers, but it could be the most interesting. Who is the key player for this matchup?

5. Pressure is squarely on the 102-win Phillies, but the Cardinals bring an imposing middle of the batting order and experience. Will it matter?

Baseball’s the best sport and this is the best time of the year for it, so check out the best -- Baseball Today podcast! -- on Friday and prepare for the weekend!
I could go on a rant about Terry Francona being an idiot and messing with Carl Crawford's pysche by moving him to seventh in the lineup after just two games and then moving him back into the two-hole Tuesday night. I could do that but I think it would be overreacting. Consider:

(A) As Jonah Keri wrote, Crawford does have a legitimate platoon split against leftiesInsider. From a strategic standpoint, it makes sense to hit Crawford lower in the order against left-handers.

(B) Francona is known as a good communicator and for his loyalty, as witnessed by sticking with David Ortiz through that terrible start in 2009. He undoubtedly talked to Crawford before the game he hit him seventh.

No, that doesn't mean Crawford is happy about the move. I don't think he signed with the Red Sox to bat seventh. But teams move their lineups around all the time, due to injuries, slumps, platoons and so on. No team has anything resembling a "set lineup." And any manager worth his paycheck should be trying to field the best possible order, even if it may upset the player. If Crawford hits lefties, he'll be back up in the top three on a regular basis.
  • Rockies place Ubaldo Jimenez on 15-day DL. Jimenez has a cracked cuticle and the Rockies are being cautious, but he'll miss at least a couple starts. Stephania Bell writes about Jimenez's situation -- plus Adam Dunn and Mike Stanton -- in her latest injury reportInsider. Former No. 1 pick Greg Reynolds was recalled from Triple-A. Reynolds has been a major disappointment after Colorado drafted him second overall in 2006, just ahead of ... Evan Longoria. He received 13 starts in 2008 and got lit up to the tune of an 8.13 ERA. He wasn't any better in Double-A last season (45 K's in 89 innings, 5.22 ERA) and really has no place on a major league roster, a good spring notwithstanding.
  • Cubs place Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells on DL. Casey Coleman and James Russell likely to enter the rotation. These guys are organization fodder types, which isn't good news for the Cubs, especially if Cashner is out for an extended time. Bad break for the Cubs, as Wells in particular had a tremendous spring. Anyone want Carlos Silva back? This is why I picked the Reds in the NL Central, who had Mike Leake and Sam LeCure ready to step in for Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey.
Other Links
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

AL East: Ranking organizational leadership

March, 1, 2011
Organizational leadership is a key to success in any business.

In an effort to rank the management of the five American League East teams, we will breakdown and grade each of the owners, GMs and managers in the division. Each category will be graded against their peers, and a composite score will be totaled. The highest ranking in a given category will receive five points, while the worst will receive one point.

Certainly this is a topic that very well could require 2,000 or more words to discuss, but I've consolidated it for the SweetSpot.

Owner: Hank Steinbrenner | AL East rank: 2nd | Points: 4
The mighty, mighty Steinbrenners. First it was George and now it's Hank. He possesses an unrelenting desire to win and a giant piggy bank to draw from. Demonstrates little restraint and is always trying to capture the next ring. It's hard to argue with that attitude from your owner, even when emotions go wild in the Bronx, leading to irrational decisions.

General manager: Brian Cashman | Rank: 3rd | Points: 3

He has won four World Series in his time as GM, but three of them you can probably credit to Gene Michael. Has been willing to let impact players walk and is not always in sync with ownership. Cashman has a blank check and a lot of expensive hits and misses on his résumé. Would you rank him higher or lower? I'm split.

Manager: Joe Girardi | Rank: 3rd | Points: 3

He has one pennant and one World Series title in three years as a manager of the Yankees, but many feel the team won it in spite of him. Girardi's a former catcher and previously won Manager of the Year in 2006 while with the Florida Marlins. Sometimes makes questionable in-game moves, particularly with the bullpen.

Yankees' composite score: 10 points

Owner: Rogers Communications | Rank: 5th | Points: 1
Rogers has caught the drift. Get out of the way of baseball operations. Nitpicky ownership saddled the team during the J.P. Riccardi era while trying to build up "sports content." Things are better with Alex Anthopoulos, but this ownership group still ranks dead last in the AL East.

General manager: Alex Anthopoulos | Rank: 4th | Points: 2
Possibly the best young GM in baseball. Being the fourth-best best GM in the AL East is a tough draw. Brokered the "Doc Deal" netting huge prospects and somehow jettisoned the Vernon Wells albatross of a contract. Built a highly skilled team with younger players and fewer long-term deals. His trades have revamped the organization and positioned the team to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees in the short term.

Manager: John Farrell | Rank: Incomplete | Points: Incomplete

He has the skills and makeup to be incredibly successful. Was considered at one point to be on a management path, but will now lead the Blue Jays in a difficult division -- albeit one he knows well. Check back in October for a grade.

Blue Jays' composite score: 3 points*

Owner: Peter Angelos | Rank: 4th | Points: 2
He's not the most popular owner in the world, and some even consider him the worst owner in baseball. The Orioles haven't been to a World Series since 1983 and have barely made a murmur in the past 15 seasons. Angelos spent a little dough on some "name" hitters this offseason, but is pretty content with just being old and rich.

General manager: Andy McPhail | Rank: 5th: Points: 1
Tread lightly here. His owner is a frugal 81-year-old man who just recently allowed McPhail to go out and get some "big" bats. McPhail has had the deck stacked against him, and he's also up against some other great GMs. He does own two World Series rings while with the Minnesota Twins.

Manager: Buck Showalter | Rank: 4th | Points: 2
He's a career .517 manager who led the Orioles to a 34-23 record last season. Showalter is an old-school coach with mixed results in previous stints with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers. He has set a new tone in Baltimore with early and positive results. Jury is still out on the Orioles, though.

Orioles' composite score: 5 points

Owner: John Henry & Co. | Rank: 1st | Points: 5
Class act, second-to-none owners who have been front and center since their acquisition of the Red Sox. Henry and the ownership group brought two titles (2004, '07) to Boston and have invested heavily in the organization while developing the farm, improving Fenway Park and allowing baseball operations to do its job. MLB's model ownership group is committed to all aspects of franchise ownership.

General manager: Theo Epstein | Rank: 1st | Points: 5

He came along in 2004 and delivered the first World Series to Boston in 86 years. Since then, Epstein has secured another title and developed one of the best farm systems in baseball. Plays big market "Moneyball" and perennially has made the team competitive and flexible.

Manager: Terry Francona | Rank: 2nd | Points: 4
He has managed to win two titles in Boston, with five 95-win seasons in his seven years. He is a players' coach with a head for the modern game and might be the best in team history. Despite that, he is still referred to at times as "Francoma" for questionable decisions, particularly with his bullpen.

Red Sox's composite score: 14 points

Owner: Stuart Sternberg | Rank: 3rd | Points: 3
He is a guy who some call a "carpetbagger." Others praise him for creating success under limited budgets. Is the attendance issue his fault? Time to move the team perhaps? He has rebranded the (Devil) Rays and brought in superior baseball minds. Sternberg splits the list at No. 3.

General manager: Andrew Friedman | Rank: 2nd | Points: 4
Nobody does more with less than him -- except maybe Billy Beane. Friedman has built a fantastic farm system and exploited market inefficiencies to create a club that competes with baseball's conglomerates. Tampa Bay won the AL East division on a 2010 Opening Day payroll of about $73 million. Friedman just needs some hardware.

Manager: Joe Maddon | Rank: 1st | Points: 5
He might be the best manager in all of baseball. Maddon is instinctive, can extract maximum value from players, understands and implements advanced metrics (maybe to a fault), and has unwavering support from his players.

Rays' composite score: 12 points

Overall AL East ranking:
1. Boston (14 points)

2. Tampa Bay (12 points)

3. New York (10 points)

4. Baltimore (5 points)

5. Toronto (3 points*)

(*score incomplete due to first-year manager John Farrell)

So there you have it. The Red Sox have the highest-rated organizational leadership in the AL East. It comes as no surprise to us in the Boston area, but can it lead the Red Sox to their third World Series in eight seasons?

Darryl Johnston contributes to Fire Brand of the American League, a blog about the Boston Red Sox. You can follow him on Twitter.