Behind superb (and creative) pitching and timely hitting, the Cleveland Indians officially became the American League’s representative in the 2016 World Series yesterday, after handily defeating the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, four games to one. Looking back at Indians Opening Day roster, you probably would have viewed them as a playoff-caliber team, especially considering their front-end starting pitchers (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar) compete with just about any MLB team’s top three. Now, would you look at this same roster and envision it competing for the organization’s first World Series title since 1997 (when the Indians’ hopes were dashed by Edgar Renteria)? Nope, probably not, but just as we learned in 2006, the first step to any title is the mere clinching of a spot in the postseason because once there, anything can happen.
Frankly, that last sentence couldn’t be truer for the 2016 Cleveland Indians. Carrasco (finger) hasn’t thrown a single pitch in the playoffs. Neither has Salazar (forearm). Heck, Trevor Bauer, who was demoted to bullpen duty to open the season, is now viewed as the team’s number two starter and was unable to get out of the first inning of his ALCS game 3 start due to a drone-induced finger injury. A 24-year-old rookie named Ryan Merritt, with a grand total of 11 innings of MLB experience and a fastball that topped out at 87.4 MPH, silenced the Blue Jay bats for 13 outs (4.1 IP) in the series-clinching game. The offense has averaged 3.375 runs per game up to this point.
Yet, one constant for the 2016 Indians has been the bullpen (augmented by general manager Mike Chernoff at the deadline). MLB managers are criticized for a whole lot of things. Many of which are not fully attributable to the manager. However, bullpen management is one of the few things an MLB manager has considerable control over. Francona has been a tremendous bullpen manager this season, particularly after the acquisition of Andrew Miller when he chose to utilize his 6’6” lefty in high leverage situations instead of simply waiting for the ninth inning.
In fact, Francona’s regular-season bullpen creativity helped pave the way for the Indians’ postseason success. With the long-term health of Carrasco and Salazar in mind, the Indians knew they would be short on starting pitchers in the playoffs. But that didn’t matter all that much because they had bullpen arms ready to jump in when necessary. Bullpen arms that, despite being handed a relatively heavy workload, were able to stay fresh due to built-in travel days and long outings by staff ace Kluber.
Honestly, if you are reading this post, you likely knew all of that already. All of this 2016 postseason story-retelling points back to the offseason after the 2011 World Series title when future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa rode off into the sunset (after riding his bullpen throughout the playoffs). The DeWitt family and general manager John Mozeliak were dealt an incredibly difficult offseason hand — find a replacement for La Russa (all while pondering what to do next with the second best (but aging) player to ever wear a Cardinals uniform).
Yet, part of this difficult hand was decided only 17 days later when the Cardinals announced that they had hired Mike Matheny to be the next manager, despite basically zero managerial experience. Of course, the Cardinals front office and ownership group did their due diligence before making the hire, interviewing a handful of candidates with the most notable finalist being former Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
A week and half before the smoke billowed and Matheny was announced, Bernie Miklasz, while still a columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote “Francona is the easy choice for the Cardinals.” What happened after Miklasz’s column is where things become a bit cloudy. In his book (which is currently on my reading list), I am told that Francona felt that his sitting down with the Cardinals was essentially a “courtesy interview” as the Cardinals seemed to have their mind set on hiring Matheny. While others rumors state that Francona entered the interview unprepared and ultimately unimpressive.
Either way, as the Indians enjoy a few days of rest before preparing for their eventual World Series opponent, the Cardinals have been “resting” for almost three weeks now. Please note that this post is not meant to be read as a knock on Matheny, either, as it cannot be denied that he led the Cardinals to four straight playoff appearances. And as I’ve written in the past, given certain circumstances, Mike Matheny was “exactly who the Cardinals needed” at the helm. Rather, it is meant to be serve as a “what could have been,” discussion-provoking post. Would the Cardinals have been better off under Terry Francona? Worse off? About the same? Impossible to tell? Please feel free to provide your thoughts below.