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10 questions Indians manager Francona answered about the offseason

By JOE NOGA • Jan 25, 2018 at 9:30 AM

CLEVELAND — Indians manager Terry Francona chatted with reporters at Progressive Field on Friday ahead of this weekend's TribeFest fan festival.

Francona discussed a variety of topics, including the health and playing status of several players, the roles for the coaching staff and where some of the team's new additions will fit in.

Here's a few quotes from Francona taken from his interview session with the local media:

1. On Michael Brantley's recovery from ankle surgery

Francona said by all accounts outfielder Brantley is doing well after offseason ankle surgery.

"He'll be dying to start the season on time as he always does," Francona said. "That will be our biggest challenge to make sure we get him back and keep him back and not let opening day be an arbitrary deadline."

The Indians picked up a team option for $12 million on Brantley's contract in November.

2. Yonder Alonso's role at first base

Francona confirmed that Alonso will play the majority of innings at first base as he replaces departed free agent Carlos Santana.

"Certainly Edwin (Encarnacion) goes over there, but we'll try to balance that out a little so we can keep both bats in the lineup," Francona said. "We might give him a day off against a Chris Sale-type lefty where maybe he gets 10-to-12 days off a year against the tougher lefties. Other than that, he'll play."

3. Losing pitching coach Mickey Callaway

Francona admitted the Indians will miss Callaway, now the manager of the New York Mets. Callaway had spent five seasons building Cleveland's pitching staff into one of the best in baseball.

Enter Carl Willis, a familiar face for Tribe fans, who served as pitching coach in Cleveland from 2003-09 and as an advisor briefly in 2015. "I think his personality will fit in seamlessly with the guys," said Francona, who was quick to point out that Willis alone shouldn't be viewed as Callaway's replacement.

Scott Atchison, who takes over as bullpen coach, and Brian Sweeney, who will serve as an assistant, are part of the restructured hierarchy.

"Rather than try to put a band aid on something, we sat back and really tried to dig deep and maybe not just replace Mickey with one person," Francona said. "We have three guys who will handle the pitching, and I'm really happy the way we did it. I think we're actually going to be stronger because of the three guys together."

4. A healthy Bradley Zimmer could answer a lot of questions

Francona said the Indians missed Zimmer's defense down the stretch. The rookie center fielder had plateaued at the plate before fracturing a bone in his hand on a slide into first base against Baltimore on Sept. 11. He missed the remainder of the season.

"He gave us such a help defensively, speed-wise and he held his own at the plate," Francona said of Zimmer. "Defensively, he made us a different team. Having him back healthy will be really nice. We'll get a chance to see if he's ready to advance to playing every day."

5. Don't count Tyler Naquin out

Naquin went from starting Game 6 of the 2016 World Series to being the outfield's forgotten man last season. But Francona refuses to count the 26-year-old out.

"His whole career is right in front of him," Francona said. "It happens to a lot of players where you come up and have a brief amount of success and then you hit some struggles. That doesn't mean that he's out of sight, out of mind. Nobody's giving up on him for a minute."

6. Francona recharged his batteries

The Tribe's 58-year-old manager admitted that by the time the 2017 season ended, he needed to get away for a bit. A health scare in July resulted in a cardiac ablation procedure, and cost Francona the chance to manage in the All-Star Game. But a few weeks of relaxing in Tucson appear to have hit the reset button for Tito, who said his competitive spirit is alive and well.

"I have the fire to come back and get started. Which is good, because I don't think you could have that and not feel healthy," he said. "That clock rolls around and you start to see the players and it's go time. I'm looking forward to it."

7. No decision yet on where Francisco Mejia will play

Mejia, the No. 1 catching prospect for 2018 according to MLB Pipeline's Jim Callis, spent some time in the Arizona Fall League learning to play third base. Francona said the Indians have not yet made a decision on where he will play, speculated that he would remain a catcher.

"It'd be a little premature for me to say that because I just honestly don't know the answer," Francona said.

8. Cleveland might not be totally done making roster moves

One sentiment that Francona repeated several times during the session was that "winter is not over by any means," and that there are a lot of players out there available on the market.

Francona called this free agent season the slowest he's ever seen, but left open the possibility that Cleveland could add a player.

"I think (the front office) guys have been making calls every day," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we end up with somebody else. If we don't, we'll go play. I like our team a lot."

9. Melvin Upton is an intriguing figure

The Indians signed Melvin Upton Jr. to a minor-league deal in December with a big league spring training invite, and Francona sounded more than a little bit intrigued by the idea of seeing Upton in camp.

"It wouldn't shock me if he comes in and hits the ground running," Francona said. "He's in a really good place. We got a chance to visit with him before we signed him. I would say it's one of the highlights of the winter for me. It just wouldn't surprise me if he comes in and makes a really good impression."

10. From 17 to 77

Francona will wear jersey No. 77 for the 2018 season, giving up the No. 17 he wore previously to newcomer Yonder Alonso.

Francona said that at the end of last season, Mejia had wanted the number, but might have been afraid to ask. When the Indians acquired veteran first baseman Alonso last month, No. 17 went to him.

Francona appeared pretty indifferent about the switch, noting that the transition centered mainly on typography.

"I could care less what number I am," he said. "But since I went from 17 to 77 I can just put the little thing on my shower shoes and my underwear and stuff and I'm good to go."

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