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Indians expecting better year

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WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Jim Thome remembers sitting in the clubhouse that final day of the season, waiting. "We had to sit there and wait to see if someone else lost," Thome says. "It was very uncomfortable. Very unfamiliar, waiting for someone else to decide whether or not we played on, or went home."

Oakland won. Seattle won. Despite winning 90 games -- three more than the Yankees -- the Indians were out of the postseason for the first time since the year of The Strike.

Kenny Lofton
Kenny Lofton had a .386 OBP after the All-Star break last year, just .348 before.

"We'd all grown so used to the expectation of playing in the postseason and after we realized early on that the White Sox were real," says Thome, "we kicked it in (and had the best record in the league the second half). But things caught up to us.

"But you know what? That might have been the best thing to happen to this franchise. Up and down this team, down onto the minor-league fields, there's a new sense of purpose with the Cleveland Indians. I honestly believe everyone learned a lesson."

While the Indians lost Manny Ramirez to Boston's dollars in the offseason, now that they are lined up in the shadow of the Orange Dome of Winter Haven, they look like a far better team than the 2000 Indians. Ellis Burks, who batted .344 and knocked in 96 runs in 122 games with the Giants, brings presence to the lineup and locker room. "He's one of the only two players I've been around -- Matt Williams was the other -- that when he walks in the door into the clubhouse, everyone says, 'It's time to play,'" says Thome. Burks will add production to the six-hole and an opportunity to play more because he can rest his knees as a DH. Juan Gonzalez, in astounding condition after a winter's work with trainer Nao Presinol, looks like the monster who won two MVPs.

"The big thing is that most everyone is healthy," says Kenny Lofton, who played with a sore shoulder at the start of last season and didn't get healthy until August. "The top three in this order is the key to this offense," says Lofton. "If we get on, I could hit in the four-hole and knock in runs. Manny is a great hitter, but so is Juan Gonzalez, and Juan now has us in front of him and Thome and Burks behind him."

Projected lineup
CF Kenny Lofton
SS Omar Vizquel
2B Roberto Alomar
RF Juan Gonzalez
1B Jim Thome
LF Ellis Burks
3B Travis Fryman
DH Russ Branyan / Wil Cordero
C Einar Diaz / Eddie Taubensee

Bartolo Colon
Chuck Finley
Dave Burba
Steve Karsay / Charles Nagy
Steve Woodard / Jaret Wright

"Actually, Kenny is the key," says Robby Alomar. "If he gets on and is running the way he has been this spring, Omar (Vizquel) and I get fastballs, then we're on for the big boys." How big? Travis Fryman hits seventh, Russell Branyan eighth -- and these people believe Branyan can hit 40 homers.

"There's a great atmosphere here, and I am really happy," says Gonzalez. Essentially, Gonzalez turned down $148 million from the Tigers because he didn't feel comfortable. "What good is the money if you're not happy?" asks Gonzalez. "I'll make enough to be happy. Cleveland is a place I wanted to play."

Some of his Latin teammates felt the Tigers were too much of a white American team, and that Gonzalez was happy with the Rangers, who had several Latino players. Ditto Cleveland. "The Indians' organization is one that Latins want to play for," says Gonzalez. "They have a very good reputation. This is a very good atmosphere. They do a lot of things behind the scenes to help players."

There is, to be honest, a motivational factors known as The Contract Year at play here, as well. Lofton, Alomar and Gonzalez are all free agents at the end of the season. There's also a lot of depth, from the catching platoon of Einar Diaz and Eddie Taubensee to glove magician John McDonald at shortstop to outfielders Wilfredo Cordero and Jacob Cruz. "There's little question," says one AL scout, "that when you take that lineup and that brilliant infield defense, the Indians are the best positional-player team in the American League. They won 90 games with everyone hurt."

"I think this is the best lineup and team in the field we've had since we started our run," says manager Charlie Manuel.

The injuries crippled the pitching. They used 32 pitchers. "Lightning can't strike twice," says Alomar. Bartolo Colon, one of the league's elite starters, is throwing the ball very well. Chuck Finley and Dave Burba are solid and reliable. Then come the last two spots.

Jaret Wright and Charles Nagy are coming off surgery. Wright's last two outings have been encouraging, especially the way he's been loose and rediscovered the curveball of his youth. Nagy had one good outing, one bad, and doesn't yet know what's left. Steve Woodard and Steve Karsay are in the mix.

If Karsay starts, then Manuel may need a seventh-inning reliever. He has Bob Wickman and Paul Shuey for the last two innings, lefty Ricardo Rincon for situations. They, like several teams, looked at a Florida showcase of Dan Miceli on Friday, but he may not be the answer.

What may be the answer, in time, is their young pitching. "This is the best group of arms we've had since I've been here," says John Hart. Left-handed monster C.C. Sabathia is coming so fast that not only does the front office call him "special," but now there is some thought he could make the majors by August. Tim Drew is hitting 92 mph, has great presence and mound sense, and could step in. So could sinkerballer Jake Westbrook, and his fellow ex-Yankee from the David Justice deal, Zach Day.

As for the bullpen, some feel that 6-foot-6 right-hander Roy Smith may be ready right away. What a story. He's a baseball rat out of St. Petersburg who was released by the Mariners, pitched two years for St. Paul in the Northern League, then decided to drop down low sidearm. All of a sudden his velocity jumped 3-5 miles per hour, and he is filthy. Oh, yes: Danys Baez is hitting 97 this spring.

If Gonzalez and Burks stay healthy, they keep their pitching in line and can make the one or two necessary trades, this has a chance to be a special team. "We can really be very good," says Alomar. "If we do what we should do, we will be."

Braves going after Urbina?

  • As Kevin Malone tried to find an acceptable deal for Gary Sheffield, knowing that Adrian Beltre's season is a virtual loss and that there are grave concerns about Shawn Green's thumb, several teams have denied what the Dodgers are telling teams they were offered.

    The Reds adamantly and angrily deny that they offered Pokey Reese and Dmitri Young for Sheffield, an offer that never made sense. The Braves are angry that some Dodgers folks claim John Schuerholz offered John Rocker and Brian Jordan. While the Yankees keep their toes in the water, the only known offer is Greg Vaughn and Gerald Williams from Tampa Bay. Too late now.

  • There are indications that the Braves are in on Ugueth Urbina, along with the Yanks, Rangers and others. One club official admits the Braves have listened on Rocker offers, but the coaching staff is more certain that Kerry Ligtenberg and Odalis Perez can close games than the front office. Remember, the Braves were willing to do Rocker and a prospect for Urbina and Miguel Batista last spring. Of course, the Indians were ready to deal Manny Ramirez and Jaret Wright to Montreal for Rondell White, Urbina and Javier Vazquez last March and even pulled Manny out of a game at Baseball City, only to kill the deal when they thought the Expos were going to turn Manny around to the Yankees.

  • While the Angels are casting their nets for a shortstop -- and they're not going to get John McDonald from the Indians unless they deal Scott Schoeneweis -- they are talking to the Mets about Garret Anderson. Apparently, Glendon Rusch would have to be in any such deal. ... But you can ask the Mets for Grant Roberts, who has been a vast disappointment, in terms of maturity and declining velocity. ... The Royals, realizing they're on the verge of being very good, are looking for a catcher. ... The Dodgers are the first team to commit $100 million in salaries for next season. ... SFX, which bought the agencies of Hendricks Management, Arn Tellem and Speakers of Sports but ended up in a messy divorce from SOS founders Jim Bronner and Bob Gilhouley partly because of the purchase of SFX by Rangers owner Tom Hicks' Clearchannel Communication, claims it will be free of Clearchannel in two weeks, ending all conflicts. Randy and Alan Hendricks avoided meeting Hicks because of the appearance of conflict.

  • Whoever finishes second between the Indians and White Sox will have a far more difficult time making the wild card than the Yankees/Red Sox trailer because Kansas City, Minnesota and Detroit are better as a group than Tampa, Baltimore and Toronto. Remember, the Red Sox will play a third of their games against the Rays, Orioles and Jays. ... Kevin Millwood struggled in his two starts for the Braves. In his opener, Millwood had only one swing and miss in 31 pitches, and Saturday he had to be yanked in the middle of the third inning after recording only seven outs. "He'll be fine," says Leo Mazzone. "His delivery gets out of whack because he's long. He'll be fine."

    News and notes

  • John Schuerholz is extremely upset that some of the six scouts and additional minor-league instructors that the Braves had to let go because of the AOL/Time Warner merger have told people in the baseball industry that they were informed by human resources officials and that the Braves didn't try to work the best deal for each for the victims of the merger. "This is an extremely difficult situation for them and for everyone," says Schuerholz. "But whoever is suggesting that they were informed by someone from the human resources department isn't telling the truth. It didn't happen. I take offense because it reflects on the Atlanta Braves organization. Our departments had to make difficult choices all of us would have preferred not to make, but each one of the scouts was called by his supervisor, had the situation explained and were told that there would be a call the next morning in which a human resources representative would be available to help them understand all their benefits." Those fired do get a severence package that includes a year's pay, benefits and the right to go to work for another organization without the package being impacted.

  • Not only does Scott Radinsky believe he has a chance to help the Indians by midseason, but his band Pulley has its own section at the Borders in Tampa. Indians spring training teammate -- and high school mate -- Tim Laker says his 9-year old son does all his skateboarding at Radinsky's skate park. Yeah, and one of Radinsky's audience regulars at L.A. gigs is Dave Hansen. ... Brandon Smith, an apprentice trainer with the Yankees, describes Roger Clemens' day as follows: "He's one of the first players in every morning, runs, does his program with Andy Pettitte, does the team program workout, goes to the weight room, leaves, plays 18 holes of golf and finally meets (trainer) Brian McNamee at 6 -- along with Pettitte, Jorge Posada and a few other players -- for another workout. It's incredible how much energy Roger has." No wonder the man threw a baseball 99 mph at the age of 38.

  • The Padres are relieved that Matt Clement's inflamed liver is responding to medication and think he will be OK. ... McDonald, Cleveland's marvelous rookie shortstop, on working with Robby Alomar and Omar Vizquel: "Perhaps the quality that most sticks out with them is their fearlessness. They are never afraid to try any play at any time." ... As Deion Sanders begins to round into baseball shape, Jim Bowden reiterates, "Deion is going to be on this team." Sanders cannot officially join the team until May 1, but Bowden is convinced Deion will make it back. What Sanders brings to the clubhouse and to the team's energy level is immeasurable. Interestingly, one Reds coach says, "The player on this team with the greatest leadership quality is Pokey Reese. He's the one person who can and will say the right thing at the right time, whether it's a pat on the back or to get on someone he feels isn't playing the game right. He's a unique individual."

  • Speaking of unique individuals, Derek Bell's daily monologues have raised the Pirates' energy level three notches. "We know what we have to do and the kind of ball we have to play," says Bell. "Jason (Kendall) and I can hit either two or three, so between the two of us, we can create some offense. It's going to work." ... Speaking of the All-Star Kendall, he isn't worried about new rules governing armor. "I never wore a big pad on my elbow, so I'm all right," says Kendall, who gets hit a lot. "But they also say that if you get a note from your doctor, you can wear special padding. How tough will that be to get?"

  • A Braves player on the strike zone and Greg Maddux: "The more they talk about the high strike, the easier it will be for him to get batters out down at the knees." ... Dean Palmer's recovery from offseason surgery is proceeding slowly and may force him to open the season as a DH, which would shove Billy McMillon -- who can hit -- onto the bench. Shane Halter is playing third, but Robert Fick is beginning to take ground balls there and may get some playing time at the hot corner. ... Honestly, Yogi Berra really did say this: "I've lost so much weight, my pants are all too long." What he meant was that not only has he lost weight, but as he's gotten older, he's shrunk.

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