By: Holly Horning
Our readers come up with the best questions. And this week’s is no exception! HTBob asked me to address this one, so let’s get to it……..
“I’ve been saying for 3 year now, that the biggest mistake (managerial-wise) was bringing back Leyland for his final year when Terry Francona was available that fall. Had Dombrowski made that move then, most likely we’d have at least one World Series flag flying outside Comerica Park by now.”
Before we can analyze the events surrounding the Tigers’ decision to maintain the status quo, we need to revisit the events surrounding the 2011 through 2013 seasons. Let’s explore what was happening within both the Tigers and Red Sox organizations.
Terry Francona was Boston’s winningest manager ever. In his 8 years with the team, he had 6 years of 90 wins or more (with several verging on 100 wins) and 2 years of wins in the high 80’s. Nothing less. Francona won 2 World Series with Boston and excluding the Yankees of the 1920’s, is baseball’s only manager to be undefeated in World Series games.
Despite an implosion by the Red Sox in 2011, they still won 90 games that year. After the season, Francona left the Red Sox of his own accord, along with a mass exodus of other Front Office personnel, including GM Theo Epstein.
Terry spent the 2012 season working as an MLB analyst and signed with the Indians as their new manager just after the 2012 World Series. And in 2013, his first year with the team, Francona led the Indians to 92 wins from only 68 wins the previous year. The Indians finished just 1 game back of the Tigers. Tito won Manager of the Year.
The 2011 season found the Tigers with an amazing 95 wins but no pennant to show for it. They regressed to 88 wins in 2012 and did get to the World Series but were swept by the Giants. In 2013, they once again won 93 games but lost the pennant to the Red Sox. But I really don’t need to remind you about that.
In Detroit, Jim Leyland was Detroit’s manager through the 2013 season. Despite a roster loaded with talent, including baseball’s best starting rotation and hitter, he steered the team to multiple division titles but only 1 measly World Series game win out of 8 back in 2006.
In his final 3 years (2011-2013) with the team, Leyland worked year-by-year with no contract and an agreement based upon a handshake. In extensive research, the only rationale given was based upon JL’s preference to have a contract that would allow him to leave whenever he wanted. None of the articles even broached the possibility that the Tigers might exercise termination first.
In previous blogs, I’ve pointed out that while Dave Dombrowski had many great accomplishments while the GM for Detroit and was considered a master at roster-related skills, the jury is still out on his ability to recognize talent outside of the guys who took the field every day.
He did not build the organization outside of the roster and kept the same personnel (once stability had been established upon his arrival) throughout his tenure with Detroit. To see Al Avila make personnel changes from top to bottom within his first 2 months on the job is telling.
It’s not a reach to connect the dots and be able to conclude that Dave may not have been the best person to judge managerial skills. In his first GM job with the Expos, he broke the expected rule about GMs hiring their own managers and kept the managerial status quo – a guy who was a .500 manager. Kept him for his entire tenure of 4 years.
With the Marlins, Dave hired Jim Leyland but it was not the first time they worked together. Dave and Jim go all the way back to the White Sox – 35 years ago. And JL’s history with the Tigers goes all the way back to 1963.
While a 35-year friendship is admirable, it can serve as a set of blinders when it comes to evaluating a relationship honestly. Sometimes, people get too close to the situation and can’t make the best decisions.
And I think this is the case. Dave was in no position, either personally or professionally, to replace Leyland. He was too close to the situation. And changing managers after the 2011 season would have been an extremely bold and uncomfortable move for Dave given his track record.
So could the Tigers have won at least 1 World Series with Francona at the helm? I’m very comfortable saying “yes.” And I’d also like to think a second flag had good odds, too. And maybe, just maybe, a third if we dream big.
Terry was ranked last year in an official poll by coaches, Front Offices and players as one of the top 3 managers today along with Bochy and Maddon. He could have been hired by the Tigers all the way back in the winter of 2011 – and not just for Leyland’s last year with the team.
Would he have managed better in the 2012 World Series against the Giants? Given that the team was swept in 4 straight, I think we all know the answer.
If we look at 2013, Francona may have helped the team avoid the horrible memories of the Boston series given his talent and added bonus of being the Bosox former manager. Many have said the 2013 Detroit team was the best out of all the recent years.
If the Tigers had hired Terry, then history would have been rewritten. Brad Ausmus would not have been hired for the 2014 season. Dave might even have kept his job.
Certainly, it’s hard to speculate and say “what if?” Other non-managerial factors would also come into play.
But it does appear that the Tigers missed out on a golden opportunity to hire one of the best. The last time they were bold and made a managerial move, it was grabbing a man by the name of George Anderson and releasing Les Moss. We know the rest of that story. “Fortune favors the bold.”
Meanwhile, Terry is in the last year of his contract with Cleveland. But he also has an opt-out clause if his GM left, which did happen. While he is on record saying he won’t opt out, Joe Maddon also said the same thing in his identical situation. Hope springs eternal.
If not this year, then Francona may become available for the 2017 season if the Indians new GM decides to bring in his own man. Let’s hope Terry has fond memories of his days as the Tigers’ third base coach.
There are very few outstanding managers in baseball and they come around once in a lifetime. When they do, you better grab them while you can. You may not get another chance.