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Indians Positioned Themselves for Possible World Series Win with 2 Bold Moves

CLEVELAND — One win away from their first World Series title in 68 years, it's taken the Cleveland Indians far more than 68 moves to build this dream of a team.

And yet two bold statements stand out above all the rest.

The first was hiring manager Terry Francona back on Oct. 6, 2012.

The second was acquiring relief ace Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees on July 31.

This, of course, is not meant to minimize the importance of Jason Kipnis, the heartbeat of the Indians. Or Mike Napoli, the spiritual guru of the club. Or Francisco Lindor, who embodies Cleveland's passion and fun. Nor ace Corey Kluber, whose acquisition from the San Diego Padres back in July 2010 is the closest thing baseball offers to a real, live stagecoach robbery.

All, obviously, are crucial pieces.

None, however, were the bold statements Francona and Miller represent.

You don't hire a manager like Francona unless you're drop-dead serious about winning. When the Indians hired the man who won two World Series in Boston to replace Manny Acta, they moved to the big boys' table.

You don't shop for a game-changer like Miller, sending the Yankees a four-prospect package that included prized outfield prospect Clint Frazier, unless you firmly believe you're just one piece away. When the Indians acquired the 6'7" lefty, they put that piece in place.

Chris Antonetti, Cleveland's president of baseball operations, is reluctant to speak in such dramatic terms, preferring instead to point out that it is an accumulation of a lot of things that has the Indians on the edge of exhilaration. All true.

But Antonetti also allows that Francona's hire "was a pivotal time for our franchise, and without him, we wouldn't be in the position we are today."

Francona has managed his personnel this postseason the way a lion manages the jungle. He hasn't nibbled. He hasn't been tentative. From putting Miller on call for the majority of innings to moving Carlos Santana to left field for the first time this year amid the pressure of a World Series game, Francona has made it clear he's going for the kill.

If the Indians obtain one more victory, Francona will have managed himself right into the Hall of Fame. Any manager who helps end the 86-year drought in Boston and a 68-year dry spell in Cleveland will not have to wait. Heck, he may be headed for Cooperstown even if the Indians somehow lose this World Series.

"Our vision is to win the World Series," Antonetti says flatly, and let's interrupt him right here for just a moment. Every executive of every team says that. But how many mean it? In a given year, if you weigh the moves they make against the words they speak, you can ascertain that many executives are speaking hollow words because either their owners won't spend the money or they lack the creativity.

So, back to Antonetti.

"Every team is trying to hire a manager with that vision in mind," he continues. "I think Tito's track record, his demonstrated ability to lead, his reputation throughout the game within front offices, players, coaches, media—he's universally respected. And so we're really fortunate to have him, and I'm grateful I get to work alongside him every day."

That may qualify as the understatement of the year.

Francona had been fired by the Red Sox following the 2011 season after eight summers there. He then sat out the 2012 campaign, spending it as a television analyst for ESPN. He needed time to decompress and survey the landscape following the pressure-cooker years in one of baseball's toughest jobs.

Seizing the opportunity to hire Francona, the Indians found his impact on the organization extends far beyond his seat in the dugout.

"The way he connects with people," Antonetti says. "We talk about it all the time, the way he builds relationships with players. But his relationship building extends beyond just that group. He does it with our scouts, with our player-development staff, with our front office.

"He builds those relationships and creates connections so that we have become, over time, a more integrated organization. You'll see our scouts and our analytics guys all in the clubhouse interacting. He welcomes and fosters that environment."

From clubhouse cribbage games with players to his complete honesty at all times, Francona has a rare ability to inspire trust among his players.

When those who were Indians back in the winter of 2012-13 learned the club had hired Francona, it was eye-opening news.

"You knew the reputation he had as a players' manager; you knew he had just won rings in Boston, and the guys loved him and had nothing bad to say about him," Kipnis says. "When you get someone who brings that over to your side, there is nothing but excitement. You feel very fortunate to play for a guy like that."

To the point that Kipnis hopes it is permanent.

"You kind of hope you don't play for anybody else," Kipnis says. "You're like, OK, I'm all right if he's the manager for the rest of my career."

The hire wasn't simply impressive externally. Internally, it changed some of the players' perceptions of their organization.

"You start thinking that you're going to do things the right way," Kipnis says. "Not that you were doing things the wrong way before, but you know his way works, and you're going to do some things that work and that you know work. It gets you a little more excited at the possibility."

Outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall echoes Kipnis.

"I'm sure he had his pick of where he wanted to go," Chisenhall says. "Just as much as us hunting him, he picked us. It couldn't have worked out any better."

That's the way it's been with Miller, too. The big lefty went 4-0 with three saves and a 1.55 ERA in 26 games during the regular season. He's also struck out 29 of 62 batters faced in the postseason while being deployed by Francona anywhere from the fifth inning on.

Acquiring Miller paid immediate dividends on the field and in the clubhouse. How? It gave the Indians even more swagger. They led the American League Central by 4.5 games on the day they traded for him; the deal was a statement they took to heart.

"I thought so," Kipnis says. "You hate to say anything bad when the trade deadline's going around. You get nervous, you knew we were in first place at the time and you wanted to make a move and you got [players] who start talking about, hey, it might send the wrong message if they don't make a move. Because you're not going to be in any better position than we were at the trade deadline, and if the front office isn't going to show they're behind you then, when are they? That's what you start thinking.

"Then they go and get Andrew Miller and you're like, I don't know why we questioned them. They're just as all-in as we are. And it makes you proud of them."

The Indians first contacted the Yankees about Miller in mid-June, shortly after the amateur draft. It was simply a "Hey, we're interested if you decide to trade him" sort of call. Each team discussed its needs.

The Indians also talked Aroldis Chapman, whom the Yankees wound up trading to the Cubs, and they checked in with Pittsburgh on closer Mark Melancon, who eventually went to Washington.

After three or four weeks of talks and "a lot of iterations" of the trade, according to Antonetti, they finally struck the deal.

Antonetti says the Indians had high expectations when they acquired Miller, viewing him as a pitcher who could throw multiple innings and work in different parts of a game, but "as a competitor, as a performer and as a teammate, if possible, he's exceeded those expectations."

The fact that Miller is in the second season of a four-year, $36 million deal gives him enough of a guarantee that he doesn't have to worry about working in non-save situations, which dilute his saves total and in turn could lessen contract offers on the free-agent market. Although, the Indians are so impressed with him that Francona guesses Miller probably would be willing to pitch whenever, even if he didn't already have a guaranteed deal.

"There was a pit in the bottom of your stomach, especially for a market like ours where we gave up guys who are going to be very good major league players," Antonetti says of the deal. "And to give up that many guys of that quality is really difficult."

Says Chisenhall, with appreciation: "When we needed to make a move this summer, they didn't hesitate to pull the trigger."

You don't often get an opportunity like Cleveland had this July. So when winning met the chance to acquire an impact reliever like Miller, the Indians seized it.

"That was a big part of the calculus," Antonetti says. "The way our team played, we felt we would have a chance to compete for a postseason berth. And if we got there, obviously, we felt the goal was to win the World Series. And we felt Andrew would have an impact on that, not only this year but in the future."

Together with Francona, that future appears pretty much like nirvana. Short term, especially. Back at home, the Indians have two chances to win just one game, which would produce their first World Series championship since 1948.

And long term, this is a young team that, much like division-rival Kansas City, could be on this October stage a few years in a row.

"Anybody who's spent 10 minutes around me this year or the last four years knows how comfortable I am in this situation here," Francona says. "I think Chris, if people were around him more…I don't think people realize how good he is. Because we haven't had the biggest payroll here, it's not like when Jon Lester's a free agent Chris was like, 'Oh, I don't think he's any good.' You know?

"You're given a certain number, and you have to make that work, and he's managed to put together four years of pretty good teams."

Four years of pretty good teams, punctuated by two fearless statements. It's a mix that has worked beautifully, and one the Indians hope pays off with one more victory over the next couple of games.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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