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Indians target 2005 for title run

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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."

Ricardo Rodriguez
Ricardo Rodriguez, who has a 2.08 ERA in four starts, came over in last year's Paul Shuey deal.

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
Cleveland Indians
72 3 5 .375 0 .425

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
A couple of teams have already felt out the Mets about trading Armando Benitez because he is a free agent after the season and, after blowing more saves by Easter (four) than he did all last season (three), has fallen out of favor with Mets fans. But unless someone comes forward with a Colon-esque deal, he isn't going anywhere, not for awhile. First, the Mets aren't about to wave the white flag, not in a division that lacks a clear 95-game winner. Second, even if they are languishing in the second division in June and decide to try to get prospects for free agents like Benitez, Alomar and Jeromy Burnitz, they want to wait and try to build some market. Boston, St. Louis, San Francisco and Montreal could all be interested in Benitez come the All-Star break depending on development and injuries.

Armando Benitez
New York Mets
10.1 0-3 5 8 12 6.97

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
Last weekend, those whacky, creative marketing buffs of the Marlins ran a print promotion for Sunday's game encouraging fans to come out and watch the Marlins take batting practice against Greg Maddux. Zip.

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.

Junior Spivey
Second base
Arizona Diamondbacks
51 0 2 .176 1 .276

Diamondbacks not so fine
That the Arizona Diamondbacks would have three wins from their starting pitchers (3-10, 5.26) on Easter morning and that the top third of their order -- including Junior Spivey -- would be so weak that Carlos Baerga had to be cast in the role of savior is one of the early-season shocks. For three weeks they have looked as if they are aging, although it's easier to look old when Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling have one win between them. But opposing teams sense some rumbling and grumbling heretofore unheard, and the esteemed Joel Sherman of the New York Post this week raised the possibility of Schilling being traded to Philadelphia or Boston before the Aug. 1 deadline.

"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 Giants still worry about when -- and if -- Robb Nen will return healthy, although Jason Christiansen should return before the Ides of May.

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?
18 2-10 7.99 94 134 54 32

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.

Diamond Notes

  • Red Sox manager Grady Little has deemed Brandon Lyon his closer for now, less than 10 innings into his major league career as a reliever. "He throws strikes and he's fearless," said Little, who in time will see if his stuff holds on back-to-back days and whether or not Lyon's old bugaboo, pitching out of the stretch, gets him. Teammates kid Lyon that he doesn't know the difference between the ninth and sixth inning, which is why he got nicknamed "Spicoli" (from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") by the Jays.

    He throws strikes and he's fearless.
    Red Sox manager Grady Little on Brandon Lyon

    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.

  • Tim Wakefield is surprised to get off to such a good start. "It's much harder for me to throw a knuckler in cold weather," he said. "My ball moves much better when it's hot and there's more air pressure." His great 15-1 stretch in 1995 was in an unusually hot summer. "There's no comparison," said his catcher, Doug Mirabelli, between Wake's knuckler in hot and cold weather. "But he makes so many adjustments he now knows how to survive when he doesn't have great movement."

  • Make one thing perfectly clear: Mike Mussina is throwing the ball so well -- harder than he has in five years -- that he is right there in the early Cy Young mix.

  • The Cardinals now expect Albert Pujols to be relegated to pinch hitting and some work at first base for three weeks because of the sprained ligament in his right elbow. "It just seems as if we can't get our team together," said GM Walt Jocketty. They will get J.D. Drew back Tuesday and the signs seem to point to Jason Isringhausen's return in three weeks.

  • Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca said "the Twins bullpen may be the best I've ever seen. They have those three power guys (J.C. Romero, LaTroy Hawkins, Johan Santana) leading up to Eddie Guardado. It's amazing." Going into Sunday's game, opponents were held to a microscopic .496 OPS by the Twins relievers, far and away the best in baseball.

  • Speaking of Santana, one AL scout said Wilfredo Ledezma, the lefty taken by the Tigers in the Rule V draft from Boston, "is the next Santana. His stuff is really something." Boston had only 28 players on its 40-man roster when Ledezma was left unprotected.

  • Lou Piniella on the signing of John Rocker: "He threw OK, 90 (mph) in our workout, but that could pick up. I told him that this is probably his last chance and we won't put up with any stuff. I think he wants it badly."

  • It was driving Piniella crazy that it took until Saturday for a Devil Rays starter to win a game. "If we can spend a little money and get a couple of veteran starters for next year, we can be a lot better," said Piniella, whose team is playing its heart out. Wisely, they signed some veterans who play hard and are good people -- Terry Shumpert, Damion Easley, Al Martin -- to help the Rocco Baldellis and Carl Crawfords. "These guys have so much ability we have a chance to help their development to being stars," said Shumpert. Athletes? Piniella said he thinks Crawford is the fastest player in the league and the Red Sox haven't timed Baldelli down to first in anything slower than 3.8 seconds, astounding for a right-handed hitter. Crawford was offered a basketball scholarship to UCLA and a quarterback ride to Nebraska, while Baldelli was offered a volleyball scholarship to UCLA and a hoop scholarship to several big-time schools. Baldelli added that "if I had gotten into Princeton (basketball and baseball), I would have gone there mainly because of (baseball coach) Scott Bradley. He's as good a person as I've ever met." No argument here.

  • With Anderson released in Cincinnati, the only left-handed starters in the NL Central are Shawn Estes, Glendon Rusch, Wayne Franklin and Jeriome Robertson. In a predominately right-handed division, the right-hand heavy hitting Astros hope Lance Berkman's elbow injury isn't serious. There are concerns about that offense to start with and there's already talk in Houston that Billy Wagner will be gone at the end of the season because of payroll concerns. Jeff Bagwell and Richard Hidalgo have big salary bumps in 2004, and Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, Octavio Dotel and Julio Lugo are all arbitration eligible.

  • Watching Oakland catcher Ramon Hernandez use the whole field and get off to such a good start makes one realize how he won two minor league and two winter league batting titles.

  • John Franco's return will cost Mets ownership $2.7 million in insurance money on which they had counted.

    More Diamond Notes
    Joe Torre's obvious embarrassment with the manner in which George Steinbrenner overruled him and sent Jose Contreras to Tampa instead of Columbus is clear concern about too much Boss-meddling. Steinbrenner added his guys like David Wells and Raul Mondesi to the mix and Torre handled their cases this spring, no small contribution to the concentration involved in the best start in Yankees history. This team has worked best the last seven years when Torre and Brian Cashman managed Steinbrenner's investment, so this may be a date to remember, although the team is so good it's hard to imagine them not being in the playoffs.


    If Bernie Williams were to play to 39 averaging what he's averaged since he turned 30, he will have close to 2,950 hits, 1,700 runs and 1,800 RBI.

    Williams, who is in the kind of shape that could allow him to play that long and is a player who seemingly will be better in his 30s than his 20s, would then face a place in history.

    The only center fielders in the Hall of Fame with 3,000 hits, 1,700 runs and 1,800 RBI are Ty Cobb and Willie Mays.

  • Clubhouse discussions: 1. Who are the three best defensive center fielders in the American League? Winners, in order: Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, Mike Cameron. Best left fielders: Hideki Matsui, Garret Anderson, Jacque Jones, with a vote for Shannon Stewart.

  • One of the few encouraging things for the Tigers thus far is the defense of Eric Munson at third base. Most people laughed when he volunteered to go to Puerto Rico last December to learn the position, but he's made huge strides in a short period of time.

  • Piniella likens shortstop B.J. Upton to Tony Fernandez. "That's who he reminds me of with the bat and with the glove," Piniella said.

  • Mariners manager Bob Melvin doesn't think it's so bad that Edgar Martinez has a slightly pulled hamstring. "When he's completely healthy, he plays so hard he risks tearing something seriously," Melvin said. "This way he goes base to base and stays in the middle of our lineup, where we need him." Now Melvin has to try to get Freddy Garcia to go back to his fastball. "He throws too much garbage and doesn't trust his fastball when he gets ahead," said one scout. Garcia, who should be in that second tier with Colon, is 6-8 with a 5.51 ERA, and has allowed 139 hits in 118.2 innings since the last All-Star break.

  • Hats off to the Red Sox flagship station WEEI, whose "This day in Red Sox history" on Wednesday began with a dark day in Red Sox history -- April 16, 1945, when the City Council forced the club to work out three African-Americans, including Jackie Robinson. Announcer Joe Castiglione emphasized that they were forced into the tryout by the city council. That, friends, is honestly and integrity.

  • And we don't take the All-Star game seriously? Ichiro Suzuki says that in 1996 he was ordered to pitch to Matsui, who in turn had a pitcher bat for him.

  • So the Marlins and Tigers are upset that Boston owner John Henry was quoted in Money magazine as saying the Marlins put too much emphasis on tools and not performance? "The Marlins would draft athletes and the A's would draft ballplayers," Henry was quoted as saying. Check the records. It seems the Marlins have had one winning season -- when Wayne Huizenga bought the pennant. Tools over performance is the reason that the Marlins and Tigers are where they are, although the Marlins' Latin American development has made huge strides. Look for third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who is hitting .365 with 19 RBI in his first 16 Double-A games, to burst onto the scene very soon. The only everyday players signed and developed by the Marlins are Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez. The only starting pitcher is Josh Beckett, who was the second pick in the draft.

  • Billy Beane went to Sacramento on Saturday night to see Rich Harden, who pitched six innings and struck out 11. His season line: 25 innings, 9 hits, 4 runs, 4 earned runs, 1 walk, 36 strikeouts. "His splitter is now a Bryan Harvey split and he just learned that this spring." Beane said. "I haven't been this excited about a young pitcher in the minor leagues, probably since I first saw Steve Karsay. He's such an athletic kid, he's everything you'd want in a first-round pick."

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