In his 23 years as a major league manager Terry Francona has won two World Series (both with Boston), one pennant (with Cleveland), and three Manager of the Year awards (all with Cleveland). With a career record of 882-711 he is the winningest manager in Cleveland franchise history. From 2013-2022, Francona’s 845 wins were the most of any major league manager.
That’s an impressive managerial resume that should eventually help get Francona inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. In the meantime, Francona, in 2023, faces one of his greatest managerial challenges yet in his 11th year with the Cleveland Guardians.
Francona won his third Manager of the Year award last year, when he guided the offensively-challenged, yet feisty Guardians to a record of 92-70, and the American League Central Division title. Cleveland eliminated Tampa Bay in the wildcard round of the playoffs, then came within one win of beating the Yankees and reaching the ALCS.
The challenge for Francona and his Guardians this year is to do something like that again, with a team that may not be as talented or as healthy, as his 2022 team. The 2023 season isn’t halfway over yet, and due to a run of injuries to his pitching staff, Francona has already had to use 10 different starting pitchers.
Francona has used 56 different lineups in Cleveland’s 76 games. That includes four different first basemen, four catchers, three second basemen, five third basemen, four shortstops, two left fielders, four right fielders, two center fielders, and five designated hitters.
Ten different pitchers have started games for the Guardians, and 23 pitchers have appeared in games overall. In Cleveland’s first 77 games, Francona has used 40 different players (pitchers and position players).
Thus far this season, Francona’s team has been outscored in every inning but the fourth and seventh. But with a record of 37-40, Cleveland sits in second place in the AL Central, two games behind division-leading Minnesota.
It’s been a remarkably feisty team, not unlike Francona’s 2022 group. They have had to be scrappy because, like last year, the team’s starting rotation has been decimated by injuries. For example, right-hander Triston McKenzie, who was in the top 10 in 10 pitching categories last year, including third in WHIP, fourth in hits per nine innings, eighth in strikeouts per nine innings, and sixth in innings pitched, has appeared in just two games this year due to back and elbow problems.
Other members of the rotation such as Cal Quantrill and Aaron Civale, have missed significant time with injuries, and Zach Plesac, a rotation mainstay a few years ago, pitched so poorly early in the season that he’s spent most of it at Triple-A Columbus.
Fortunately for Cleveland, rookie pitchers Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen, both called up from Columbus, have stepped into the breach and gone 7-4 with a 3.73 ERA in a combined 22 starts
It’s been a tough year for not just Cleveland’s pitchers, but also the catchers. Free agent Mike Zunino, who hit 33 home runs two years ago for Tampa Bay, signed a one-year $6 million deal with Cleveland as a free agent, but was designated for assignment after 42 unimpressive games, in which he hit .177 and struggled defensively.
Zunino was one of five catchers the Guardians have used thus far, the latest being first baseman Josh Naylor’s brother Bo, Cleveland’s top minor league prospect, who had flashy stats at Triple-A Columbus, but has gotten off to a slow start in Cleveland, hitting just .150 in his first six games.
Elsewhere, Cleveland’s lineup is similar to, but not as good a version as last year’s model, starting with leadoff hitter Steven Kwan. Last year on this date Kwan was hitting .287 with a .367 on-base percentage, 17 strikeouts, 23 walks, 4 stolen bases, 18 RBI, and was on his way to a Gold Glove in left field.
At the same point this season Kwan is hitting .259 with a .335 on-base percentage, 43 strikeouts, 35 walks,13 stolen bases and 25 RBI.
Kwan isn’t expected to hit home runs, but others are. So far this year, others aren’t. Last year the Guardians were 14th in the American League in home runs. This year they’re even worse: 15th (last). In particular, they are getting almost zero power from their outfield. All of Cleveland’s outfielders combined have hit eight home runs. Gold Glove center fielder Myles Straw hasn’t hit a home run in almost two years (August 26, 2021).
The good news for Francona and his team is that on July 31 last year the Guardians were 52-49, in second place, one game out of first. They then went 40-21 (.656) the rest of the way, and won the division by 11 games.
The manager who orchestrated that run may have to do it again this year.