Francona will feel better when the baseball ends, after somebody else has the champagne celebration and the hoisting of the Commissioner’s Trophy that Tito has tried so hard to bring to Northeast Ohio. At that point, he’ll be able to more optimistically look ahead to 2018, when the Indians will return much of the club that won 102 games and put together baseball’s longest winning streak in 101 years. That’s when the reality of a wasted 2-0 lead to the Yankees in the ALDS presented by Doosan — to say nothing of the swell of second-guessing going on among Tribe fans at the moment — will start to sting a little less.
But Francona is the first to admit this offseason will be a challenge for him. It’s not just the emotion of an untimely exit from October, but the exhaustion of a year that presented more physical difficulty than any other.
Francona has estimated that he’s had more than 20 surgeries in his lifetime. He has two artificial knees and a fake hip. But 2017 marked the first time his health issues dragged him out of the dugout. Because of an irregular heartbeat that required a cardiac ablation procedure, the 58-year-old Francona had to leave two games early in June and missed six games in July, in addition to the All-Star Game.
Throughout the year, Francona was as engrossed and as entertaining as ever, but, because of the heart and the hip, he had to make many physical concessions, such as skipping pregame BP and conducting road interviews with reporters in his office and not the dugout.
That’s why Francona said he’s committed to getting “stronger” this offseason.
“I don’t mean stronger like ‘look good in the lobby’ strong,” he joked. “I have a responsibility to do some things here. I felt like at times I leaned on Millsie [bench coach Brad Mills]and some of the coaches too much. It’s supposed to be the other way around. So I need to get a little stronger, so I can uphold my responsibilities here, so I don’t short-change anybody.”
To which president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti added, “By the way, that’s never happened, where he’s short-changed anybody.”
But Tito’s comments did make it fair to wonder and important to ask whether him managing in 2018 is, in any way, a question.
“Not unless there’s something I don’t know,” he said, gesturing toward Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff, neither of whom, as you might guess, has any inclination to make a change in the dugout. “There’s no hidden meaning. I’m just pretty wiped out.”
With the Indians wiped out earlier than anybody imagined, Francona’s ordinarily impeccable decision-making process has come under greater scrutiny. While saying it’s “open season on second-guessing,” he explained his rationale behind altering the schedule of Corey Kluber for the ALDS, starting Trevor Bauer on short rest in Game 4, rostering a clearly compromised Michael Brantley, etc., etc.
It has been natural and oddly therapeutic to pore over the roster minutiae that may have contributed to the ALDS result, but the bottom line, ultimately, is that Kluber didn’t pitch well and the Indians didn’t hit well, and that was that.
So new questions arise in a winter that has begun earlier than anticipated. Carlos Santana enters a free-agent market where his switch-hitting skill set, on-base ability and power will be valuable — possibly too valuable for an Indians team already paying big money to Edwin Encarnacion. Impact in-season acquisition Jay Bruce wants a four-year contract in the $60 million range. Workhorse reliever Bryan Shaw will be looking for multiple years. Brantley has an $11 million option that’s a steal if he’s healthy — but he’s only played 101 games the past two years. Jason Kipnis has a long-term contract but not a concrete position.
Oh, and there’s a decent chance one or more of Francona’s coaches will attract a job offer from another organization.
There’s a lot to sort through — more than there was last year. And because 2017 had such urgency attached to it after what happened in Game 7 last year, it’s going to be hard for the Indians to get over what the Yankees just did to them.
But Francona remains confident in the people he works with and the culture they’ve built here. He sees what just happened to his good friend John Farrell in Boston and the other comings and goings in the sporting world’s coaching carousel and likes the familiar, familial spot he has in Cleveland.
“The grass is greener here, for me,” he said. “I love the way we do things here. As we’re seeing today, we’re not always successful. But the way we go about it, I have completely bought into it and will continue to.”
Francona expects the Indians to come back stronger next season. And he’s expecting the same from himself.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.