April 19, 2014

Medina
Mostly clear
42°F

Indians’ Terry Francona giving clues to the future

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Cleveland Indians’ lineup apparently is known only to manager Terry Francona and maybe his closest associates: read, the coaching staff.

He was not ready to announce it Wednesday, but there is no pressing reason for him to do so. Nobody has to know the lineup until Tuesday, when the Tribe opens the season against the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Even though Francona didn’t reveal his batting order, he has given clues.

Early in spring training he made it clear that Michael Bourn would lead off, and he hinted that Asdrubal Cabrera probably would bat second.

When asked if the team’s unusually large number of stolen-base threats would impact the placement of hitters, he said, “When I’m considering the eighth and ninth guys, I like the ninth guy to be able to run.”

That means Drew Stubbs, who has frequently batted near the bottom of the order during exhibition games, is ticketed for the ninth spot.

Why do many managers prefer a fleet-footed batter in the ninth position? Because it gives them two speedy runners in a row: the ninth batter followed by the leadoff hitter.

Speed can kill both the opposing team and your team’s rallies. It should be used with care, lest you run yourself out of innings. Potentially, the Indians have the capability to steal 150 bases, but is that a good idea? It depends.

“I told our guys that we have a lot of speed, but we also have a lot of good hitters,” Francona said. “We don’t want to take the bat out of the hands of those hitters. If we let our guys hit, in the course of the game our speed will play.”

In other words, if Bourn is on first base, it’s not necessarily good strategy for him to steal second. If Nick Swisher is at the plate and Bourn steals, leaving first base open, the pitcher might choose to walk Swisher and pitch to the next batter, denying Swisher the chance to change the game with a home run.

Whereas Francona didn’t divulge his lineup, he did the next best thing: make it possible for anyone to figure it out.

“We’ve been pretty consistent with what we’ve been doing,” he said.

He was suggesting that someone who wants to determine the batting order should consult the lineups he has used in exhibition games. However, seldom does a day go by when Francona doesn’t mix in players who are not regulars, which alters the entire order.

An important element for all managers in making out their lineups is separating the right-handed batters from the lefties, making it more difficult on a rival manager who is thinking of using, say, a matchup lefty. Separating righties from lefties was all but impossible last year, because the Indians had far too many left-handed hitters.

General manager Chris Antonetti created more balance for Francona to work with by acquiring Mark Reynolds and Stubbs, who bat from the right side, plus Swisher, who is a switch hitter.

With the current group of everyday players, Francona can create a lineup in which no right-handed hitter is followed by another righty and there are no back-to-back left-handed batters.

Of course, if the Tribe is facing a left-handed starter, Francona’s three switch hitters — Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana and Swisher — will bat from the right side. If a righty starts, these three hitters will swing from the other side of the plate.
So from what we know about Francona’s tendencies thus far, the lineup probably will look like this:

  1. Michael Bourn (CF)
  2. Asdrubal Cabrera (SS)
  3. Jason Kipnis (2B)
  4. Nick Swisher (1B)
  5. Michael Brantley (LF)
  6. Carlos Santana C
  7. Mark Reynolds (DH)
  8. Lonnie Chisenhall (3B)
  9. Drew Stubbs (RF)

In some situations, Francona might move Brantley to the sixth spot and elevate Santana to fifth. Even this alternative allows the manager to separate every righty from every lefty.

Bench players will be used as needed, but Francona indicated Wednesday that his priority at the outset of a season is to stick with his regulars, to allow them to repeat their swings.

“The hardest thing is the first couple of weeks of the season,” the manager said. “You want to try and get (the everyday players) locked in at the plate. So that makes it a trying time for the bench guys. Once you get into the season, those things tend to work themselves out.”