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Indians target 2005 for title run
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
It is painful. Losing leads, three and four times in a week. Being closer to the Tigers than first place a little less than a year after starting off 11-1. Watching young players' growing pains. Knowing that at the end of the season, two million fans coming to The Jake will be a stretch.
"What makes it so painful is that I was here in Cleveland when we had great teams and the ballpark was sold out every night," Mark Shapiro said. "If I had come in from one organization to one that is rebuilding -- like Dave Dombrowski (in Detroit) or Doug Melvin (Milwaukee) -- that would be different. But I know how great the Cleveland fans are and what it means to them when they have a really good team with which to identify."
But when Bartolo Colon -- raised in a farm system that Shapiro directed -- came into Jacobs Field last week and beat the Indians, that did not bother the Indians general manager. "I didn't feel anything but proud for what Bartolo's made himself," said Shapiro, who has seen Colon evolve from a gunslinging kid to that Tier II of No. 1 starters right below the Pedro Martinez-Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling class, where Matt Morris, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder reside. "I watched him add and subtract, use the changeup I always knew he could throw when he was in the minors, go from two-seamer to four-seamer ... and I felt great for him. I knew what I had to do last year (when he traded Colon to Montreal) and I know what I have to show for that trade and can see Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore and what they are going to be to the future of our franchise."
Shapiro knew by last May 1 that the Indians could not beat Minnesota and make the playoffs. With a mandate from ownership to raze and rebuild, he had to act quickly. "What Mark did was remarkable, because the value of young players is so great today that I think one has to be lucky to get legitimate top prospects in any contract deals," said a National League GM. "I'd be surprised if a reliever brings anything more than an A prospect, and anyone who is moving a contract will have to pay some of that contract if he wants to get prospects. That actually happened last year, only Mark got eight to 10 legitimate top prospects in the deals moving Colon, Alomar, Chuck Finley and Paul Shuey."
Which brings the Indians to where they are now. "I liken us to the 2000 Twins," Shapiro said. "They were in every game and while they lost 97 games, they developed over the season and by 2001 were ready to start winning, and by 2002 were a first-place team. We've been in every game, and we will develop. The important thing is to never lose sight of where we want to be and one advantage we will have is that when we are ready to be back in contention in 2005, we should have some money to spend on acquiring the pieces we need."
Shapiro hired the manager he believes is the right person to guide them through the development to the championship stages in Eric Wedge. The core of the rotation is there with C.C. Sabathia, rookie right-hander Ricardo Rodriguez and the tremendous stuff of Jason Davis, who hadn't pitched above Double-A when he was recalled last September. Jeremy Guthrie (2-0 with one earned run in 14.1 innings in Akron), Lee and Brian Tallett will arrive in the near future. Danys Baez is one of the league's best young closers, with 6-foot-5 Fernando Cabrera on the immediate horizon.
Travis Hafner's start in Cleveland was made difficult by a wrist injury at the end of spring training that caused him to lengthen his swing, but Shapiro believes Hafner will hit. Everyone believes Phillips is a special middle-infield talent, and that 24-year-old switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez, who was the Eastern League MVP last season, will be an impact two-way catcher. In SS-3B Jhonny Peralta, the Indians have the youngest everyday positional player in the International League. In Sizemore, the center fielder in the Colon deal that has been compared to Darin Erstad, they have the youngest everyday position player in the Eastern League. Corey Smith, the former No. 1, is 21 and started off over .300 in the Eastern League after jumping from the Carolina League.
Milton Bradley is off to a productive start in Cleveland. Covelli Crisp, who has shown signs of being a legitimate leadoff-hitting center fielder, had 11 walks and a .529 OBP in his first 10 games for Buffalo. Jody Gerut had 16 RBI, eight walks and a 1.015 OPS in the first 11 games at Buffalo. On the horizon are Sizemore and Alex Escobar, who is struggling to find his swing after a year's layoff.
The Indians had an extraordinary pitching draft in 2001, then last year loaded up with what appears to be another strong draft starting with Guthrie, who is considered by several teams the best college pitcher in the pool and third baseman Matt Whitney, who is currently out until August with a broken ankle. Shapiro has four more high picks this June.
"This process is actually very exciting for all of us involved because we feel we have a chance to have a special team again," Shapiro said. "I feel very good about where we are now, knowing where we started when we began this process (trading Alomar at the December 2001 winter meetings). We will be down to $34 million in payroll next year, with virtually no outstanding contracts for 2005, which will afford us the opportunity to acquire what we have found out that we haven't developed.
"But it doesn't make it any easier for the Cleveland fans," Shapiro said. "I know. I was there when there wasn't a great place to be, night after night."
Benitez not going anywhere for now
Yes, the Mets are an older, veteran team. But while Steve Phillips is in the uncomfortable position of being in the last year of his contract, he is not trading any more of their top prospects for immediate gratification because they are going to need an influx of cheap, young talent and they will have some cash to spend at the end of this season. Phillips will not throw Jose Reyes to the wolves, not until the prize shortstop talent learns the strike zone (two walks in 14 games at Norfolk, .328 OBP). The biggest separator between Triple-A and the big leagues for hitters and pitchers is control of the strike zone.
When Pedro Astacio comes back this week, Jae Seo will go back down despite pitching well. But what the Mets gleaned from Ty Wigginton's 127 plate appearances at the end of the season is that he learned from that major league experience and is doing what he's doing now because of that experience. That was the thought the Royals had in bringing all their young pitchers up in September. Next spring, the Mets are going to need Seo and Aaron Heilman to be potential starters and each will get major league time this season in preparation. The Mets think by the start of next season that Pat Strange and Tyler Yates -- the hard-thrower coming off Tommy John surgery --can be ready to help out of the bullpen, so they will get some time. And by season's end, other prospects like catcher Justin Huber and third baseman David Wright will move on to Double-A to speed their development.
Hey, the Mets have a lot of problems beginning with subpar defense and too many strikeouts in the middle of the lineup. But they also realize they cannot live just for the Back Page moment, and they cannot lose sight of what they have to do to move out of a solely mercenary territory and back to being a franchise that develops at least some of its own players.
Braves just fine, thank you
Then the Braves went into San Juan to face the streaking Expos. John Schuerholz said, "I feel very good about how we're coming together. We get Mike Hampton back soon (Saturday). Paul Byrd will be back. He just had a bone spur removed and it did not impact the ligament. We're very happy with the development of Horacio Ramirez, not to mention Trey Hodges. Roberto Hernandez is throwing in the high 90s. We'll be fine." Oh, they swept the Expos and re-established their contention for a 12th consecutive NL East crown.
One of the most pleasant developments has been the defensive play of Marcus Giles, who they always thought to be an offensive second baseman. "I'll be honest," Schuerholz said, "I never thought Marcus could be this good defensively. It's a tribute to hard work and determination." Which obviously runs in the Giles family.
Diamondbacks not so fine
"I know it's early and Randy, Schilling and Byung-Hyun Kim haven't yet gotten rolling," said an NL West general manager, "but you don't want to be 12 down to the Giants, no matter what time of year."
The Dodgers have had their struggles offensively, with no offense in the middle of the infield and the ruffled egos of Fred McGriff and Adrian Beltre, whom Jim Tracy had to sit for moments. Now with Odalis Perez bothered by an ankle injury, the six starting pitchers seems a necessity (scouts had Kevin Brown at 89-92 mph Friday night because of his mysterious illness).
The Rockies have had a terrific start that would be better without a couple of Jose Jimenez meltdowns. Shawn Chacon and Aaron Cook have been outstanding, the speed/power outfield is working and management is convinced that Clint Hurdle is not only the right manager for the insanity of Coors Field, but a great manager in the making.
On the other hand, the Padres knew this would be a struggling season without Trevor Hoffman and Phil Nevin. But Oliver Perez has been a major disappointment from the time he walked into spring training hyped and seemingly unprepared for the season to the current dropoff in stuff from last season.
What am I?
The Cincinnati Reds starting pitching on Easter Day. Fifty four walks and 32 strikeouts?
There is already a boatload of criticism over the move of Danny Graves from closer to the rotation. But while a team like the Red Sox would love Graves as a closer, there is no way they would take that contract -- $23.5 million over four years.
Speaking of rumblings and grumblings around a team, Jim Bowden and Bob Boone saw enough after Saturday's sweep in San Juan, and switched 16 percent of the roster, including the release of Jimmy Anderson and Josias Manzanillo, who had great springs.
Chad Fox has thrown well. Mike Timlin has been solid. Kevin Tolar and Jason Shiell came out of Pawtucket, pitching coach Tony Cloninger thinks he has Ramiro Mendoza straightened out and Little expects to have Robert Person in the bullpen by the end of the week. "Still," cautions one veteran player, "there's a big difference between closing out Tampa Bay and Toronto than trying to close it out with Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui." It should be noted that Casey Fossum went into his Easter start leading AL starters in strikeouts per innings pitched, but he knows that he will need better command of his 93-94 mph fastball against teams like the Yankees, Texas and Anaheim.
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