It's been a couple hours since the Indians have formally announced that they've hired Terry Francona as their new manager. I still don't quite believe it, but there are some personal connections that made this otherwise impossible acquisition possible.
Terry Francona certainly would have had no shortage of managerial opportunities had he simply waited a week or two. There's a decent possibility that Ron Washington will be fired, and that would be a club in a similar circumstance to the Red Sox in 2004, a club that had come close several times in a row, but needed just one more boost to win a championship. If the Tigers lose in the ALDS, perhaps Jim Leyland would either step down or not be brought back; that would be another club with both the talent and resources to win a championship, and win it quickly.
But Francona, before even waiting to see whether those plum jobs opened up, not only agreed to manage the Indians just a week into the offseason, but was content to go back to his ESPN if he didn't get the Cleveland job. Let that sink in for a bit. We know the state of the organization, that there's not going to be a spending spree this winter, and also that there's no influx of young talent on the near horizon. There's a distinct possibility that the Indians will be trading more major-league talent this offseason than it brings in. So why would a manager who could have just about any job in the majors choose Cleveland of all places?
Ultimately it came down to personal relationships, and specifically those between he and Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti.
"Relationships," Francona said. "When I got let go by the Phillies in 2000, I went and worked for Mark Shapiro as a special assistant with the Indians and, through him, got to know Chris Antonetti and have been pretty close friends with them now for the last 10 years."
That time spent in the Cleveland front office helped prepare him for his next managerial job, and when an opportunity came up, Shapiro and Antonetti not only wish him well in his pursuit, they helped him obtain it:
When the Phillies fired Francona in 2000, Shapiro, the Tribe's newly appointed general manager, scooped him up in a special assistant role. When Francona interviewed for the Red Sox job, Shapiro and his then-assistant, Chris Antonetti, helped prep him.
That opportunity turned out to lead to two World Championships. And although the Red Sox had one of the game's highest payrolls, Francona helped to bring along several young players (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, etc) who were integral parts of those championship teams. Those skills, not the skills needed to manage a team full of established stars, is what the Indians are looking for from Francona. Can he do with Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Zach McAllister what he did with his young players in Boston?
I don't think the Indians are by hiring Francona committing to a spending binge, at least not one that would resonate on the national level. If anything, I could see them trading Choo or Chris Perez for young players that Francona can help mold. That's probably one reason why the Indians gave Francona a four-year contract to manage this club; there isn't going to be any quick fixes for what ails this organization. It's going to take two or three more years of good drafting and international signings to completely restock what Brad Grant has started to do, and about the same amount of time for the organization's current top prospects to make it to the majors. Because the farm system is going to have to be the major source of talent for the organization, they needed to assure Francona that he'd still be around when Francisco Lindor, Dorssys Paulino, or Dillon Howard make their major-league debuts.
There's still a coaching staff to fill, then there's going to be a 25-man roster to almost entirely remake, starting with the rotation. There's several tricky player decisions to make, beginning with Shin-Soo Choo, and continuing on with Chris Perez, Travis Hafner (not declining the option, but whether to bring him back), Ubaldo Jimenez, Roberto Hernandez, and even possibly Asdrubal Cabrera.
In other words, hiring Francona is an excellent start to the offseason, but only a start.