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Francona looks forward to challenge in Cleveland

New skipper tasked with turning around club in competitive AL Central

CLEVELAND -- The arrival of a new year means a new baseball season is around the corner. Count the Indians among the ballclubs who are looking forward to officially turning the page on 2012 and focusing on the months ahead.

Cleveland is faced with a big challenge, and that is just fine with new manager Terry Francona.

"Having a challenge isn't bad," Francona said during the Winter Meetings in December. "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."

When Francona was hired as the Indians' manager following last season, he inherited a team that turned in 94 losses and was beset with both pitching and offensive problems throughout 2012. He also was handed a club that had some promising young players such as Jason Kipnis, Vinnie Pestano, Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley.

The Indians face some solid competition in the American League Central between the reigning AL champion Tigers, a White Sox club that contended for the playoffs deep into last summer, a pesky Royals team adding talent this winter and a Twins team with some promising young players in place. Cleveland finished fourth in the division last year, and aiming higher might be a tough task in 2013.

Francona believes the Tribe can turn things around quickly.

"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."

Here are 10 questions facing the Indians as the calendar flips to 2013:

10. Will Chris Perez remain an Indian?

Perez became a bit of an off-field distraction last season with his strong opinions, upsetting the organization on a couple occasions. It was tolerable, because the closer turned in a solid season on the mound and was named to his second All-Star team in as many years. Given his escalating salary through arbitration, however, it makes sense for the Tribe to entertain trade offers for Perez. That said, he is under control for two more seasons, and there are no indications that Cleveland is shopping the pitcher.

9. If Perez is traded, is Pestano capable of anchoring the bullpen?

An argument could be made that Pestano, and not Perez, was the Tribe's most effective late-inning reliever last season. Now, with the acquisitions of Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw in the three-team trade that sent Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds, Cleveland also has added bullpen depth. If Perez were traded now, Pestano seems ready to tackle and embrace the integral role of closer. Of course, the Indians might want to keep as many relief arms as possible given their rotation issues.

8. Are the Indians really moving on from Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore?

While general manager Chris Antonetti has selected his words carefully, keeping every door slightly ajar, it appears as though the Tribe is ready to move on from the Hafner and Sizemore era. Cleveland seems to be leaning toward taking a versatile approach to the designated hitter role, whereas Hafner offers a full-time option. Sizemore, who is expected to be sidelined until at least midseason due to a right knee injury, is unlikely to sign anywhere until he is near full strength.

7. Which Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera will show up?

Santana has proven to be a strong second-half performer in each of the past two seasons. Cabrera, on the other hand, has a history of strong starts and slow finishes. If both are back with the Indians in 2013 (Cabera has been the subject of many trade rumors this winter), the Tribe needs to have more consistency over 162 games. Santana is working with a strength and conditioning trainer in the Dominican Republic this offseason. Cabrera, whose Spring Training shape has been questioned in the past, is playing winter ball in his native Venezuela.

6. Will Lonnie Chisenhall finally stick at third base?

After two years of plugging a more veteran player at third base on Opening Day, the Indians are ready to hand the keys over to Chisenhall. The youngster has shown promise in the field and at the plate, though his strike zone discipline has been an issue on the big league stage. One way or another, Chisenhall will likely be given every opportunity to find success in the big leagues this year as Cleveland's regular third baseman.

5. Can the offense improve with roster in place?

This question will be easier to answer closer to Opening Day, when Cleveland's roster picture includes more clarity. One big step toward improving in 2013 was the signing of right-handed slugger Mark Reynolds. Power from the right side has been glaringly absent for the Tribe over the past two years. The addition of Drew Stubbs adds an element of speed and power to the mix, too. Reynolds and Stubbs both strike out a lot, however, and trading away Choo and parting ways with Hafner eliminates some solid on-base ability. Cleveland will need to bank on Kipnis, Brantley, Santana and Chisenhall continuing to make positive strides in the batter's box.

4. Where does the rotation depth stand?

Behind Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians' rotation depth chart includes youngsters Carlos Carrasco (returning from a right elbow surgery), Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer (all three were rookies in 2012). Rostered arms such as David Huff and Jeanmar Gomez offer big league experience, while prospect T.J. House might not be far away from a big league taste. Josh Tomlin will likely be out all year with an elbow injury. The Indians could use more depth, and the club is working toward addressing that issue before Opening Day.

3. Can Bauer live up to the hype?

Bauer was the key piece for Cleveland in the nine-player, three-team trade that sent Choo to Cincinnati. While Bauer has faced his share of criticism -- from his unique pregame routine to his clubhouse rapport -- you can bet that the Indians have done their homework. Bauer might benefit from more development, but he is in a position to make the Opening Day rotation. What is clear is that the young right-hander is talented enough to meet the hype. Perhaps coming to Cleveland can provide the kind of fresh start he needs, and hopefully he is strong enough mentally not to cave under the pressure and scrutiny he will undoubtedly face in the months and years ahead.

2. Will Masterson and Jimenez return to form?

There is no crystal ball magic enough to answer this with any certainty. All that can be said is that both pitchers have the ingredients to return to their standing as elite rotation arms. Masterson may have been bothered last year by a recovering left shoulder. Jimenez might have been thrown out of whack by his constant tinkering. The hope is that a normal offseason this time around, and some fresh eyes on them in the spring and season ahead, can help the duo form the kind of one-two punch the Tribe desperately needs.

1. Will Francona really make a difference?

Manny Acta had his supporters, but it became increasingly clear as last season progressed that a change was needed within Cleveland's leadership structure. There seemed to be a disconnect between the manager's office and the clubhouse, and the Indians decided the ballclub could benefit from a new voice and revamped clubhouse culture. Francona's willingness to commit to Cleveland was a big step in that direction. The team hopes having him in place will also help convince other players to commit to the team and its city. On the field, Francona's two World Series titles with the Red Sox are evidence that he knows which buttons to push. He has also surrounded himself with a coaching staff that offers a blend of experience and youth. There should be a noticeable difference behind the scenes and, likely as a result, on the field in 2013.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.
Read More: Cleveland Indians, Mark Reynolds, Justin Masterson, Carlos Santana, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Chris Perez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Vinnie Pestano, Lonnie Chisenhall, Trevor Bauer, Ubaldo Jimenez