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Francona eager to face challenges in new setting

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The perception that currently exists around the Indians is that the team needs to find the reset button and start over. Last season was too much of a setback and the roster is too young, so now is the time to trade away some assets for prospects.

Indians general manager Chris Antonetti has spent this offseason exploring that route, opening the club's suite at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Conference Center to rival teams interested in trying to make a deal. The Indians have also, however, been an aggressive player on the free-agent front, extending lucrative offers in order to entice some highly sought talent.

The plan for 2013 is clearly still developing and manager Terry Francona is not about to tip the team's hand in regard to its thinking.

"I'd have to kill you. I can't tell you that," Francona quipped during a sit-down with reporters on Wednesday at the Winter Meetings. "If we wanted you to know that, we'd invite you up to the suite. Again, there's a lot going on. I don't think there's anything we haven't explored. I'm sure you've talked to Chris about that a ton. But exploring it and doing it are two different things.

"I don't know where it will end up. I don't think anybody knows."

All Francona knows for certain at this point is that his job -- the job he was tasked with upon being hired this offseason -- is to get the most out of whichever players he has come Spring Training. He knows he will not have the bloated payroll that existed during his days in Boston, but that does not mean he will use that as a built-in excuse for falling short.

Despite a 94-loss season, a young roster, an offense and rotation full of question marks, and a below-average payroll, Francona plans on heading into his first year at the helm with the same expectations he would have in any other city. And he is excited about getting this thing started.

"Having a challenge isn't bad," Francona said. "Trying to find a way to tackle it is actually pretty exciting. And I'm not delusional. We have challenges. We have some things we've got to overcome, but trying to do that, I'm looking forward to it."

So far this winter, Francona has spent his time learning about Cleveland's system from top to bottom.

When he has not been studying the roster, Francona has tried to build rapport with his club via phone calls, text messages and planned visits. He had a half-hour chat with Matt LaPorta at these Meetings, plans on visiting Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Santana in the Dominican Republic next week and has scheduled a visit with Chris Perez in Florida.

Francona also has been in contact with players involved in trade talks. He has texted back and forth with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and spoke with right fielder Shin-Soo Choo on the phone on Tuesday.

"I'd like to get to as many people as I can," Francona said. "It's an important part of what we're doing. And the quicker I get to know guys, the more you establish a relationship, the better things work. At least I believe that."

Francona also has taken on the role of recruiter this winter.

The manager reached out to Shane Victorino before the free-agent outfielder decided to sign a three-year, $39 million contract with the Red Sox. The Indians were offering four years and $44 million. Francona also has been in touch with free agents Kevin Youkilis and Nick Swisher, who are both currently on Cleveland's radar.

"I just tell them the truth. I feel that works the best," Francona said. "Our expectations, at least in my opinion, are still the same. We're supposed to try to win. So Chris and I, and all the guys, are trying to put together the best roster we can."

And when free agents choose to sign somewhere else?

"When guys get to be a free agent," Francona said, "they earn that right to go wherever they want."

Francona also knows from experience that the teams that spend the most in the offseason are not guaranteed to enjoy a strong season. The Red Sox stole the winter headlines with a wave of big-money deals before the 2011 campaign, which ended with Boston's well-documented September demise that subsequently cost Francona his managing job.

Over the past year, he worked as an analyst for ESPN, before Cleveland came calling.

"I found out the hard way," Francona said. "The team that wins the winter doesn't always win the season. Sometimes it makes you an analyst. You've got to be careful."

Overall, Francona exudes optimism about the Tribe's young core, but he is quick to note that the team needs to improve in plenty of areas.

He expressed confidence in the ability of Justin Masterson and Jimenez to bounce back after a rough 2012 showing, and added that he likes what the team has in starters Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. That is a thin group, though, and Francona knows the Indians need to add to it before Opening Day.

"You have to be deeper than that or you get exposed," Francona said. "So we're trying to figure out how to add depth, where our young guys are exactly in their development, and go from there."

Francona firmly believes things can go up from here for the Indians.

"It can happen," he said. "Once you get good and start developing confidence and play the game the right way, things happen, and it snowballs. Just like it goes the other way, sometimes it goes for the good. My job, whoever we have, is to try to make them the best they can be. I don't spend a ton of time worrying about what could be or what should be.

"I kind of get energized about, 'How are we going to make whoever we have better?' That's what I get a kick out of."

Cleveland Indians