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Terry Francona could be a fit with Indians, but rebuilding is in order

Now that the Indians have fired Manny Acta as manager, just who will inherit Cleveland's mess as his replacement? Sandy Alomar Jr., the interim manager, is a Cleveland favorite. Keep your eye on Terry Francona. He is itching to get back into the dugout and, from his days working in the Indians front office, has great relationships with president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti.

The Indians' job is a bad one right now, but Francona, who formerly managed the Phillies and Red Sox, may decide that if he wants a team from the start of spring training this one may be as good as it gets. He has no shots at Boston or Miami if those job open (the Marlins have Ozzie Guillen under contract through 2015 and are not going to pay two managers superstar money). Toronto could open if John Farrell asks to leave for Boston, but Farrell does have one year remaining on his deal and the Blue Jays would demand real compensation from the Red Sox. Maybe Colorado opens up, but probably not. Houston filled its job with the impressive Bo Porter. And that may be it -- which explains why a bad job with a front office he knows well might look good to Francona.

By the way, it's hard to remember a season in which so many teams had such long stretches of absolutely horrendous baseball. Acta's Indians went 5-28. Brad Mills' Astros went 7-39. Clint Hurdle's Pirates went 12-31. Only Hurdle kept his job.

The house of cards that was the Cleveland Indians tumbled atop Acta yesterday when he was fired because of "results" -- to be specific, that epic 5-28 stretch during the second half. What was more stunning than the collapse was that the Indians had played winning baseball until then through 99 games -- 50-49. Truth be told, Cleveland found its level. It has the talent of a 90-plus loss team.

The Indians lost nearly all the bets they placed on supplementing what little talent they did have on hand. Derek Lowe was cut. Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner couldn't stay on the field. Casey Kotchman couldn't hit. And the biggest bust of all was the colossal mistake of Ubaldo Jimenez. The Indians raided their prospect cupboard midway through last season to get Jimenez from Colorado. When the Rockies did cartwheels about shedding a 27-year-old starter under a fair contract, it should have set off alarms in Cleveland.

Jimenez is a mirage built off a 14-start window to open the 2010 season, in which he went 13-1 and enjoyed fantastic run support and a .245 batting average on balls in play. When the Indians traded for him last year, however, he was 12-16 with a 4.40 ERA in his previous 40 starts. Forty starts! That sample -- bigger and more recent -- should have meant more than the 14-start rainbow of good luck in 2010.

The Indians thought they could "fix" his awful mechanics. Here is how it has worked out in 43 starts with Cleveland: he's actually worse -- 13-21 with a 5.43 ERA. Over his past 79 starts Jimenez is 25-37 with a 4.91 ERA, devolving into Chris Volstad or Luke Hochevar or whatever starter you want to pick who somehow keeps getting the baseball despite lousy results.

This is what happened to what was supposed to be the Cleveland rotation: cut (Lowe), awful (Jimenez), Tommy John surgery (Josh Tomlin), major regression (Justin Masterson) and identify fraud (Roberto Hernandez). Lowe, Jimenez and Masterson started more than half of Cleveland's season (85 games) and each of them posted an ERA worse than 5.00. The manager had no shot.

The Indians were within a game of the World Series in 2007. But in the next two years they traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee without getting a single impact player. Starting in 2005, their first round picks were a series of miscalculations: Trevor Crow over Jacoby Ellsbury, the forfeiture of a pick for signing journeyman pitcher Paul Byrd, Beau Mills over Jason Heyward, Alex White over Mike Trout and Drew Pomeranz over Chris Sale. White and Pomeranz were sent away in the Jimenez deal.

It could likely get worse before it gets better. The Indians must explore a trade for Shin-Soo Choo before his walk year. They need a first baseman, a leftfielder and at least two starting pitchers. Closer Chris Perez is far more trouble than he's worth. Acta had little chance with this roster, and the situation doesn't figure to improve quickly.

The good news for the Yankees is that Sabathia brought ace stuff to the mound in Minnesota in his last start. They can breathe easier. But there's no mystery to the Yankees' postseason chances. It's the same show you saw last October against Detroit in the LDS: If they don't hit with runners on base, they are a quick out. That means the burden falls again to a middle of the order that this season has been poor at hitting with runners in scoring position: Robinson Cano (.245), Mark Teixera (.235) and Alex Rodriguez (.222).

Yes, there will be a time or two when New York can bash an opponent with home runs -- nothing wrong with that. But that's not enough to carry a club through three rounds.

Rodriguez especially is a key because manager Joe Girardi keeps him in the middle of the lineup without production. Rodriguez's slugging percentage has declined for a fifth straight year. His rate of strikeouts is the highest of his career while his rates of extra-base hits, at-bats per RBI and driving in runners from third base all are the worst of his career. He has five hits all year with two outs and runners in scoring position (.139) and gets neutralized by power arms out bullpens (.212 against relief pitchers). And in 21 games since coming back from a broken hand -- all in the third or fourth spots of the lineup except one day batting fifth -- he has a very pedestrian slash line of .250/.313/.375.

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