Expectations raised, but Tribe's approach the same
Francona's spring message echoes what he said before club surprised in 2013
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Every team enjoys some level of optimism each spring. Not every team is able to then translate the positive outlook into realistic expectations and results.
A year ago, the Indians talked the talk during the preseason, proclaiming that the disaster that took place in Cleveland the previous season was planted deep in the past. In a far corner of the Tribe's clubhouse, left fielder Michael Brantley scanned the room, saw all the new faces and declared that the Indians would reach the postseason.
There were some laughs and Brantley's statement was mostly written off as another instance where the hope that accompanies Spring Training simply carried over into commentary. Then, Cleveland went out and claimed the American League's top Wild Card seed, surprising all of baseball.
"I sat here in this chair last year and said we're going to the playoffs," Brantley said. "And we did. I believed it."
Cleveland will not be surprising anyone this year.
The Tribe went 21-6 in September, rattled off 10 wins in a row to end the season, finished one game behind the AL Central-champion Tigers and took on Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card Game. The Baseball Writers' Association of America honored Terry Francona as the AL Manager of the Year for his part in swiftly changing the culture around the Tribe and turning the team into a contender.
Cleveland's time on the October stage was brief, but the club still sent a message to the rest of the league.
"People know who we are now," said Indians first baseman Nick Swisher, who signed a four-year contract with the team before last season. "We put ourselves on the map last year, and that only makes things harder. Now you've got that 'X,' and that's what you work for. You want to have that. We've definitely got our work cut out for us, man."
Francona does not view the workload or preparation any different than he did last season.
During his first team meeting last spring, when the Indians were coming off a 92-loss season that initiated an overhaul of the roster and coaching staff, Francona's message to the group was that expectations should always be high. He stresses adopting a horse-blinder mentality, meaning the goal is to focus on the task and day at hand without looking down the road.
Before the team's first full-squad workout this spring, following Cleveland's Cinderella run to the postseason, Francona's speech was essentially the same.
"It was the same," Indians setup man Cody Allen said. "He's basically saying there's no secret formula for this game."
Brantley echoed that sentiment.
"He expects the same thing we do," Brantley said. "Go out there and win a baseball game. Go out there and make sure we handle our business each and every day on the field. And at the end of the year, when we look up at the standings, we'll see where we're at."
Brantley may as well have been reading from a booklet of Francona quotes.
Outside expectations might be raised, but the Indians are taking the same approach.
"I don't think that matters to us," Francona said of now having a target on the team's back. "We showed up last year, you saw it, every day we tried to win a game. And regardless of how people viewed us externally, that didn't ever go into us winning or losing, and it won't this year. We'll show up, and when we play a game, we'll try to win.
"If we win, we'll move on. If we lose, we'll move on. If we lose, we'll try to figure out what we didn't do right and do it better. That's kind of the formula. It's the only way I know how to do it. It doesn't really matter how people view us. What's important is our record."
Allen said the team's belief that it had a playoff-caliber team did indeed begin during Spring Training last year.
Veteran Jason Giambi, who has 19 seasons in the Majors and 45 playoff games on his resume, stood up before the team and said that he saw something special. As Giambi spoke, Allen began to buy into the idea that the woes of 2012 were truly gone.
"When you've got somebody like Jason Giambi saying, 'I know what we have here and it's something special,' you believe it," Allen said. "It wasn't one of those things where it's like, 'OK,' and it goes in one ear and out the other, a typical preseason speech. It was, 'He's got a point here.'
"And everybody believed him. I think that's one reason we did as well as we did last year, because there was a lot of belief there."
The difference this year is that the believing has evolved into expecting.
Around the league, teams are not going to be taking the Indians lightly, either.
Giambi said that can be a challenge for any club.
"That's what we're going to have to work on," Giambi said. "We're not going to be the Cinderella anymore, going, 'Oh my God. We almost lost 100 games last year and we've got to turn it around and have the attitude.' I think everybody walks into Spring Training, no matter who you are, saying, 'We're going to go win a World Series.' ... But, literally, we have an opportunity. It's not unthinkable to say, 'These guys have got a chance,' especially with what we did last year and the returning players that we have, and the pickups that we made. That's not out of the realm.
"People always ask me, 'What was it like when you played with the Yankees?' You walked in the clubhouse and it's not, 'We're going to win the division.' It's, 'We're going to win the World Series.' It's big expectations. We're really going to find out who we are as a ballclub and as an organization this year, because now we're not a surprise.
"Now, if we want to really make the turn and really turn things around, this has got to be a big year for us."