CLEVELAND — Guardians manager Terry Francona had to get creative.
He had a 40-man roster that consisted of 11 Minor Leaguers who were added in November to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft. Outside of a solid rotation and an All-Star third baseman, the rest of his team’s Opening Day roster was full of question marks. There weren’t many new faces around the clubhouse, considering the only two additions of the offseason weren’t there on April 7 (Luke Maile was hurt; Enyel De Los Santos didn’t make the roster). And there certainly wasn’t much power.
It was a challenge, but it was one Francona was ready to handle, as he was named the American League Manager of the Year on Tuesday night on MLB Network. It’s the third time Francona has won the honors — all with Cleveland (2013, ’16). Only Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and 2022 National League winner Buck Showalter have won four. Francona received 17 first-place votes and nine second-place votes.
“It’s a huge honor,” Francona said, “And I don’t take that ever lightly.”
Francona got his team to buy into a concept that a small-ball approach consisting of sparkling defense and exceptional baserunning could compete with any opponent — a strategy that led to 92 wins, a division title and now, the AL Manager of the Year Award.
It’s often challenging to determine how much of an impact a manager is making on his team. It’s the only category that’s voted on every year without a list of concrete stats to use as evidence to support a case for one candidate over the other. But this season, it became apparent that so much of the Guardians’ success was rooted in Francona’s teachings.
In the early days of Spring Training, Francona talked with third baseman José Ramírez and shortstop (and at that time, left fielder) Amed Rosario about setting an example for the rest of the roster. Francona knew that he could preach about doing the little things correctly, but it wouldn’t do any good if his top two players weren’t buying in. After that conversation, Ramírez and Rosario never failed to set the example.
“I have a lot of appreciation for him,” Ramírez said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero during Cleveland’s playoff run. “I know I’m biased because he’s been my only manager. But from what I’ve seen in the league, I feel like he is unique. The way he treats me, the way he treats other players, it’s very unique and very important to the type of leader he is.”
The Guardians hit the second-fewest homers in the Majors (127, ahead of just the Tigers) — something that Francona was prepared for from the start of Spring Training. But he navigated relying on 17 rookies making their Major League debuts while continuing their development. Only two other teams had at least 17 players make their big league debuts in 2022: The A’s (who went 60-102) and the Cubs (who went 74-88).
Francona pieced together a bullpen that had one guaranteed contributor heading into the year in Emmanuel Clase (who was a rookie just one year ago). The skipper was hoping to receive some power from Franmil Reyes, who ended up getting designated for assignment at the beginning of August after struggling offensively.
Still, the Guardians prevailed. Cleveland reached the AL Division Series after the offense tied for sixth in average (.254) and had the lowest strikeout percentage in the Majors (18.2%) during the regular season — proving that scrappiness can result in victories.
The void Francona leaves when he’s not in the dugout has become glaringly obvious over the last few seasons. He missed large chunks of 2020 and ’21 due to health concerns that included blood clots, an ICU stint and a staph infection. In ’21, the club experienced its first losing season in the Francona Era in Cleveland (since ‘13), when he wasn’t with the team for the final two-plus months.
This season wasn’t easy for Francona, who once against dealt with health issues that kept him from taking on all 162 games. The Guardians played in many high-stress games with many come-from-behind-victories. But the reward of the success of the season was well worth it.
“Every day is special when we’re doing what we’re doing,” Francona said. “I don’t think I had to get sick to feel fortunate. I’ve always enjoyed doing what I’m doing, and especially here the last 10 years with the people that I’m doing it with.”