Francona, new faces bring hope to revamped Indians

Terry Francona helped exorcise the Bambino’s curse, bringing the

Red Sox a World Series title for the first time in 86 years.

His new challenge is ending a 64-year championship drought.

And this time, it’s personal.

Refreshed from a year away from the game’s ruthless grind

following a messy exit in Boston, Francona has come ”home” to try

to take the Cleveland Indians to the top. Chosen as the club’s

manager in October, Francona has invigorated a franchise he has

known since childhood, when his father, Tito, played for the

Indians.

”This where I wanted to be,” Francona said. ”This was the

only job I wanted.”

Loving every minute so far, he even agreed to dress up as a baby

for his players this spring.

The Indians, who collapsed last season under Manny Acta, have

been overhauled for Francona. Cleveland owner Paul Dolan,

criticized for penny-pinching in the past, spent $117 million on

free agents this winter, a striking, big-ticket spending spree that

brought All-Star center fielder Michael Bourn, first baseman Nick

Swisher, pitcher Brett Myers and slugger Mark Reynolds to

Cleveland. The club also traded for outfielder Drew Stubbs and

infielder Mike Aviles and signed Jason Giambi, Ryan Raburn and

Scott Kazmir.

Cleveland got real serious.

”You don’t bring over a guy like Terry Francona if you don’t

expect to win, and win soon,” said Swisher, who signed a

four-year, $56 million contract – the largest for a free agent in

Indians history – after playing the past four years with the

Yankees. ”Not only bring over Terry, but you bring in all these

other high-profile guys and all of a sudden this young core of guys

you have here are like, `All right, here we go, this is what we

needed.”’

The Indians needed an infusion of something, anything, following

their disappointing 2012 season, when they were in contention for

four months before going 18-45 after July 27 and finishing fourth

in the AL Central.

Francona’s arrival has changed everything. The Indians sold out

their home opener in 6 minutes and predictably pessimistic

Cleveland fans, who have seen many promising and pennant-winning

seasons end short of a first World Series championship since the

last one in 1948, are beginning to believe this could be a magical

year.

The outlook is bright, but there’s also reason for caution.

With the speedy Bourn in the leadoff spot, Cleveland’s lineup

should score. The Indians were second from the bottom among AL

teams in runs last season, but in Swisher, Reynolds and the

42-year-old Giambi, who will serve as a part-time designated hitter

and clubhouse leader, Francona believes his club has some proven

middle-of-the-order run producers who will not only rack up RBIs

but take pressure off Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Carlos

Santana.

Bourn was the cherry on top of general manager Chris Antonetti’s

scrumptious offseason overhaul. In addition to giving the Indians a

needed base-stealing threat, the 30-year-old changes the dynamic of

Cleveland’s outfield with his Gold Glove. Bourn takes over in

center field with Michael Brantley moving to left and Stubbs

playing right, giving the Indians perhaps baseball’s fastest

outfield.

”I just hope we don’t run into each other,” Brantley

joked.

But the trio should be able to run some potential doubles into

outs and save runs for Cleveland’s staff, which will hold the key

to the Indians’ chances of closing the gap on defending division

champ Detroit.

Pitching, or more precisely, the lack of it, is a major concern.

The Indians’ rotation is a little rough around the edges.

Justin Masterson, who will start on opening day and is

considered the ace, won all of 11 games in 2012 with a 4.93 ERA.

Ubaldo Jimenez led the AL with 17 losses and has been a major

disappointment since coming over from Colorado in 2011. Myers

pitched in relief last season and was battered around in spring

training. Zach McAllister won six games as a rookie last season and

Scott Kazmir pitched for the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent

team.

”Over the course of a long year, if you don’t pitch, you get

exposed,” Francona said more than once this spring.

The Indians, though, do have a solid bullpen anchored by

charismatic closer Chris Perez, who has promised Francona he will

be better behaved following a tumultuous 2012 during which he

criticized Cleveland’s fans and Dolan, exchanged profanities with a

fan and taunted opponents.

Perez is one of the many Indians players who said Francona

didn’t have to earn their respect. It arrived before he did.

”He’s has instant credibility,” said Perez, a two-time

All-Star who had 39 saves last year. ”He’s going to tell you

something, and it’s, `OK, how high do you want me to jump, sir.’

With what he’s done, somebody like that could be a complete jerk

and say `I want to do it this way, I’ve done it this way.’ But he’s

working with guys he’s asking, `Hey, how have you done it in the

past?’ He’s still learning and for a guy who has won two World

Series already sometimes you don’t see that. It’s really

great.”

When the Indians filmed their version of the ”Harlem Shake”

during camp in Arizona, Francona not only agreed to participate but

became the video’s star, shimmying across the clubhouse and dancing

in a baby’s bonnet.

His willingness to be open yet firm has already won over his

players.

”His boundaries are perfect,” Giambi said. ”Look what he did

in Boston. To win two World Series there and the guys loved him.

He’s fired up to be here, and it rubs off downhill.”