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Tribe Notes

Commentary: Indians manager Terry Francona loves a challenge ... and should get a big one this season

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    Indians manager Terry Francona jokes around with a broadcaster prior to a spring training game against the Padres on March 18, in Goodyear, Ariz.

    AP

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In the last game from last season that counted, the Indians’ starting second baseman was Jose Ramirez and their starting shortstop was Francisco Lindor. Ramirez finished third in the MVP voting and Lindor finished sixth.

Thursday in Minnesota, in their first game this season that counts, the Indians’ starting second baseman will likely be Max Moroff and their starting shortstop will be Eric Stamets.

(Crickets.)

Welcome to the championship season!

The Indians are off to a flying stop. Well, not really. Ramirez will still be in the lineup, not at second base, but at third base, where the Indians’ starter in the last game from last season that counted was Josh Donaldson, your 2015 American League Most Valuable Player.

Donaldson now plays for Atlanta, Ramirez now plays third base and Lindor now works out under the supervision of athletic trainers. Max Moroff and Eric Stamets? They’re still Max Moroff and Eric Stamets.

Not to worry, though. Terry Francona is back for his seventh year of managerial legerdemain, so what could possibly go wrong, right? His Titoship has been down this roster rabbit hole before, and he has a message for all Indians fans nervous about the “I’m Moroff, he’s Stamets” middle infield show.

Francona’s message is a soothing: “Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out.”

For starters, Lindor (strained calf) may only miss the first week or so of the season. For finishers, Moroff is starting because Jason Kipnis (strained calf) can’t. That’s right, between the Indians’ two everyday middle infielders, Lindor and Kipnis, they only have two healthy calves between them — and opening day is only four days away.

Is this any way to hold off the Minnesota Twins?

Francona is a latter-day Chuck Dressen, who managed five major league teams from the 1930s to the 1960s, and famously quipped to his team during a game in one of those years, “Keep it close boys, and I’ll think of something.”

That’s Francona, who in 2019 has a Cadillac starting rotation and a Stamets-Moroff double play combination. At least for the first few games. But don’t worry. Francona will think of something. He finds jollification in the challenge of it all.

Especially in the lightweight AL Central, where the other four teams struggle to even find the Indians’ neck, much less summon the breath to breathe down it.

Thus, in these final hours before Commissioner Rob Manfred honks the 2019 season into action, Francona is enjoying putting the finishing, if only temporary, touches on the Indians’ opening day roster.

No easy matter, there, given that half the position starters from last year’s team are now drawing paychecks from other teams. But that makes it a fun challenge, and The Tito-nator is nothing if not a fun guy.

“If you get your team going in one direction, even if it’s in the wrong direction, if you’re going together, you’ll figure it out,” said Francona to reporters in Arizona, while simultaneously channeling Dressen and Casey Stengel.

“I’ve always enjoyed that part of it,” said Francona. “Even when things aren’t perfect, when you’ve got guys pulling together, I enjoy that feeling.”

Francona’s resume proves his ability to get guys pulling together, and that skill set may be tested to the maximum this year. No so much in the regular season, where the Indians have become regulars at qualifying for the postseason.

But in 2019, Francona’s sleight of hand, and roster, will be under the microscope during the postseason, where the Indians, over the last two years, have only been fleeting participants. In fact, they’ve lost their last five postseason games.

But let’s not put the broken-down horse before the rickety cart. First, the Indians must get through the 162-game preliminaries, which for the three-time defending champions of the AL Central, has been about as difficult as chewing mashed potatoes.

If that means Stamets begins as a placeholder for Lindor, and Moroff does likewise for Kipnis, so be it. Of the four, however, it’s Lindor, who will carry the biggest burden in 2019.

The clock is ticking on his countdown to free agency, and the one thing that Lindor hasn’t done yet in his star-studded layover in Cleveland is what all transcendent, iconic, face-of-the-franchise generational talents do: lead their team all the way to the winner’s circle.

The best of those kind of players, at least once in their career, pick up their team and will it to a victory in the last game of the World Series. It would do wonders for Lindor’s resume, it would further polish the luster on Lindor’s star, and, let’s be frank, for Cleveland, it would take the sting out of losing him to free agency if he left the fan base with at least one parade.

The clock is ticking for Lindor in all sorts of ways. But it’s ticking loudest for his legacy.

Contact Jim Ingraham at (440) 329-7135 or jingraham4@gmail.com or follow him @Jim_Ingraham on Twitter.

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