2004 Cleveland Indians Preview

Monday, March 15 2004 @ 01:40 AM EST

Contributed by: robertdudek

When Mark Shapiro succeeded John Hart as General Manager of the Cleveland Indians in 2001, he was faced with a challenge. Hart had overseen several poor drafts and left the prospect cupboard nearly bare. By the time Shapiro took the job, the core of the Indians' championship teams was suffering from attrition - many of the old guard had left via free-agency or soon would. The Indians were at a crossroads: Would Shapiro continue to bring in veterans to prop up an aging core, or would he cash in his chips? Stay tuned.

But first, a brief sketch of the history of this storied franchise ...

Past Eras of Tribe Greatness

The first great Indian was Nap Lajoie, who led the Tribe to five winning seasons in a six year stretch during the first decade of the 20th century. That team, however, never won a pennant. From 1917-1923, Tris Speaker helped establish the first era of Tribe greatness, with seven straight winning seasons, among them a world championship and threee second place finishes. Through the '30s, Cleveland fielded good teams, improving gradually as the decade wore on, but always falling short of a pennant.

After World War II, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Lou Boudreau, and Joe Gordon built the foundation for the second era of Tribe greatness. The Indians won their second (and to date, final) world championship in Larry Doby's first year as a regular (1948). The Tribe strung together ten straight winnings seasons from 1947 to 1956, producing two league titles including the famed 1954 season (111 wins, 43 losses). The Indians of the '50s featured stars such Early Wynn, Al Rosen, Herb Score, Mike Garcia and Bobby Avila as well as the four mentioned earlier.

The Long Exile

And then the most popular athlete in Cleveland - Rocky Colavito - was traded. From 1960 to 1993, the Indians best single-season winning percentage was .537. In 34 years they poked their heads above .500 six times, while losing 100 or more four times. That's one of the most "impressive" stretches of baseball mediocrity most of us have seen. As one of the inmates noted - "There is a fog over this team" (Toby Harrah). Young players emerged and either stagnated or were traded. Nearly all the veterans wanted to leave. The Indians would bring along promising youngsters, but never in enough quantities to put them over the hump. Their options were limited because their limited finances did not permit them to acquire high-priced players on the open market. The faithful had no other recourse but to wait for the next crop of hopefuls, over and over again.

In 1986, the Indians won 84 games on the strength of several good young players. Most of them, including Joe Carter, Brett Butler, Brook Jacoby, Julio Franco and Tony Bernazard, were acquired in trade for veterans. In the spring of 1987, Sports Illustrated put Cory Snyder (a home-grown player) and Joe Carter on the cover, and wrote an article titled: "Indian Uprising. Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League". [from Terry Pluto's The Curse of Rocky Colavito]. The Indians proceeded to lose 101 games that year. Most of those young players were gone within a few years and the rebuilding started over.

The Third Era of Tribe Greatness

Fortune turns when we least expect it. The 1993 club finished with 76 wins, but a keen observer would have noted the impressive hitting talent in the organisation. At the major league level Albert (Joey) Belle had emerged as one of the best power hitters in the AL. Jim Thome dominated AAA, had 5 weeks in the majors and showed he wasn't overmatched. Former Astros farmhand Kenny Lofton emerged as one of the top leadoff men and centrefielders in baseball. Carlos Baerga forced everyone to consider whether he, and not Roberto Alomar, was the best second baseman in baseball. Sandy Alomar was regarded as the second best young catcher around (Pudge Rodriguez was obviously #1). The man-child, Manny Ramirez, had flashed through the minors like a comet before a brief showcase in the majors. Joining them was an obscure weak-hitting shortstop named Omar Vizquel Toiling away in AA was a guy named Brian Giles. The chief problem was going to be clearing people out so these guys could find a position.

On the pitching ledger, there was much less cause for optimism. A boating accident in March of 1993 took the lives of Tribe pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews, and severly injured Bob Ojeda. Charles Nagy had had a breakout year in 1992, but went down with a serious shoulder injury in May and missed the rest of the season. Jose Mesa was the only Indian to pitch more than 110 innings in 1993. However, his strikeout rate wasn't impressive and he would soon be transferred to the bullpen. The top pre-season pitching prospect, Alam Embree, had surgery on his left-elbow and missed most of the season. Chad Ogea was one of the few other quality arms in the system.

Knowing how strong the offence was, management brought in veterans Dennis Martinez and Jack Morris to fill the holes in the rotation for 1994. Well, one out of two isn't bad. Nagy returned from injury with a solid campaign and Mark Clark was a pleasant surprise. A true bullpen committee emerged after Jeff Russell lost his closer job: Seven men recorded at least one save with no pitcher recording more than five. The bullpen stalwarts were journeyman Eric Plunk and converted starter Jose Mesa. Before the strike, the Tribe had tallied a .584 winning percentage, the best mark for a Indians ballclub since 1955.

The next year, everything fell into place. The Indians won 100 out of 144 games before losing to the Braves in the World Series. That campaign harkened back to 1954, when the Indians blew away the AL field only to falter at the last hurdle. Six more winning seasons followed, including another league championship in 1997. Faced with an aging club and a depleted farm system, a new GM might have been tempted to keep rolling the dice, bringing in veteran after veteran to plug up holes. Mark Shapiro (and ownership) decided that the chips were going to be cashed in.

Where are those Blueprints from the Nineties?

The Indians farm system has been rebuilt at rapid speed, with the help of some cash-chip trades that netted several highly-touted prospects. Baseball Primer's Matthew Rich put it well:

"Once Shapiro realized his mistake he embarked on a remarkable plan to effectively re-create the lost drafts of the late 1990s. John Farrell, John Mirabelli, and Neal Huntington had finally put organization's scouting and player development apparatuses back on track, and after 2000 the team's drafts were much stronger. But there was still a complete lack of talent at the upper levels of the farm system, and the major league team was expensive, old, and getting older. So rather than try to rebuild via free agents or wait for future drafts, Shapiro decided to rewrite history."

Amomg the players acquired from other organisations were Alex Escobar, Travis Hafner, Jody Gerut, Josh Bard, Ben Broussard, Coco Crisp, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Billy Traber. Together with C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Milton Bradley, these players constitute one of the best collections of under-30 talent in baseball. The Indians farm system depth is reflected in the on-field performance of their affilliates.

Winning Percentage by Minor League Level, Indians
Level199219931994 ... 200120022003
High Minors.588.577.514 ....560.632.567
Full A ball.516.561.533 ....601.550.609
Short Season.507.616.511 ... .399.521.528
Overall.543.579.521 ... .543.577.576

2003 in Review

The Indians continued the work they started in 2002. They brought in boatloads of inexperienced players (young and not so young) and gave them a chance. Among the pleasant surprises were Jody Gerut, Jason Davis, Cliff Lee and Billy Traber. There was one outstanding failure, however. Brandon Phillips, regarded as the best prospect in the organisation a year ago, played miserably in his first full major league trial. Despite losing Jim Thome and having to do without Omar Vizquel and Ellis Burks for much of the year, the overall performance of the club suffered not one wit.

In the off-season, the Indians decided not to exercise the option on Danys Baez for 2004 that would have paid the Cuban $4.1 million this season. Though there was some talk that Baez would revert to the arbitration system now that he was no longer under contract due to lack of sufficient service time, he was allowed to become a free-agent and signed a two-year deal with a third option year with Tampa Bay. I'm still puzzled as to why Baez was converted to relief after a solid 2002 as a starter; as a starting pitcher, Baez would have been easily tradeable at $4 million.

The other big story was the attempted trade of Omar Vizquel to the Seattle Mariners. Vizquel is one of four high-priced veterans the Indians would like to offload to a contending team. That idea was put on hold when Omar failed the physical and the Mariners turned their attention to Rich Aurilia. If he proves himself healthy there will be some interest in Omar in July.

The Players Section

Before reading this section, readers are encouraged to avail themselves of two online sources of quality information. The first is the Cleveland Indians Report, a weblog that follows the day to day activities of the Indians organisation in fine detail. The second is a concise preview of the 2004 Indians available at Baseball Primer, written by Matthew Rich. Matthew provides excellent observational insights which I will attempt merely to supplement, not rehash.

To be honest I'm not all that interested in whether the Indians can win their division this year. If they do it won't be because they're put a championship caliber team on the field, but rather because of weak rivals. As such, I'm going to group players according to what their impact on the franchise might be a few years down the road, when (if all goes well) the Tribe will parlay it's impressive minor league depth into a 90-plus win machine. To wit, I begin with an examination of the precious gems of the organisation.

Notes on stats: (1) numbers in yellow indicate minor league performance in 2003 only; (2) numbers in red indicate OBP/SLG (AB in parentheses) splits from 2001 to 2003 inclusive; (3) WHIP is walks plus hits per inning pitched

Keys to the Franchise

Milton BradleyAge: 26.3CentrefieldBats SWITCHv R .336/.408 (665)v L .396/.469 (275)

One of the three crown jewels acquired from the Expos organisations. Milton Bradley was in the storm of controversy again in 2003 because of several on-field and off-field incidents. He has vowed to turn a new page and now recognises that he needs to work hard to play baseball at the highest level. Bradley has all the tools and showed what kind of player he can be when he puts them all together. Without question the most improved Cleveland Indian in 2003. If he can sustain that level and work on his remaining weaknesses, the Indians will have an excellent #2 or #3 hitter for years to come.

Victor MartinezAge: 25.5CatcherBats SWITCHv R .338/.317 (123)v L .351/.397 (68)

Along with Bradley, Martinez is expected to be an offensive star on the next Indians divisional champ. The knock on him is a weak throwing wing, which is why the Tribe will keep Bard around for defensive purposes. He has shown an impressive ability to hit for average in the minor leagues.

Grady SizemoreAge: 21.9 OF,  Bats LEFT AA(Eastern) 496ab, 50xbh, 46w, 73k, .304/.373/.480 (.288 GPA)

Athletic player (highly recruited high school quarterback) who will be able to handle centre if the need arises. Possibly ready to challenge for a spot on the 25-man roster, but for service time reasons Sizemore will start at AAA while the Indians evaluate some older outfield prospects. Most observers consider him the number one prospect in the organisation because his tools and impressive performance at AA at a young age. Sizemore may not possess them in abundance, but he has all the skills an outfielder can have. He's young enough to develop either as a power hitter or a line-drive hitter. By all accounts, a fierce competitor.

C.C. SabathiaAge: 23.9Southpawv RHB .321/.400 (1698)v LHB .325/.344 (488)

As a fireballer not long out of high school, Sabathia got by with stuff, producing an impressive strikeout rate in his rookie year (22.4%) in 2001. Inevitably, big league hitters adjusted to his repertoire and his strikeout rate dropped to 16.8% in 2002 and 17.0% in 2003 - still well above average for an American League starting pitcher. He's thrown a lot of innings at a young age, but I think he'll continue to be an effective innings eater for at least several more years. Can he develop into a dominant pitcher?

Cliff LeeAge: 25.8Southpawv RHB .310/.297 (158) v LHB .284/.460 (63)

Above average stuff and in the process of refining it. He'll turn 26 this year and so has passed through the ages of greatest injury concern. He blew away AA hitters to the tune of a 30% strikeout rate, which is why I've tipped him for possible greatness. His adjustement to the majors was relatively painless and the strikeouts could go up this year. A nice 210-inning season with 170 strikeouts would not surprise me in the least.

Promising Youngsters

To qualify for this section, a player had to be under 25 as of July 1,2004. I made an exception for Alex Escobar, since he missed all of 2002 with a serious knee injury, and Jeremy Guthrie, entering only his second pro season.

Jhonny PeraltaAge: 22.1Middle InfielderBats RIGHTv RHP .286/.272 (169) v LHP .316/.452 (73)

The heir apparent to Omar. He can handle the position defensively and should develop his offensive skills to be at least an average major league shortstop (if his listed age can be believed).

Brandon PhillipsAge: 23.0Second BaseBats RIGHTv RHP .248/.327 (297) v LHP .259/.298 (104)

Possesses good power for a middle infielder and doesn't strike out a lot. His weakness was drawing walks and in retrospect it would have been a good thing to have sent him to AAA in spring of 2003 to see if he could inch his walk rate up. Instead, tools-based hype overrode objectivity, and the Indians handed him a starting job in the major leagues. Phillips had a BAD year. His work-ethic was questioned and he spiralled so far down he couldn't even hit AAA pitching (that's known in these parts as Felipe Lopez disease). He'll start in AAA and attempt to get his career back on track. He's still young enough to develop into a competent major league second baseman and if all goes well he could be the next Jerry Browne.

Coco CrispAge: 24.7OutfielderBats SWITCHv RHP .293/.344 (392) v LHP .338/.403 (149)

Acquired from the Saint Louis Cardinals in mid-2002. He reminds me of former Indians prospect and current Dodger Dave Roberts. Crisp doesn't have a lot of power but runs well, makes contact and has drawn walks in the minors. Although unlikely to hold a starting outfield job, he is excellent fourth outfielder material.

Alex EscobarAge: 25.8OF, Bats RIGHTAAA(International) 439ab, 47xbh, 24w, 133k, .251/.296/.472 (.251 GPA)

Tons of power. The main morsel from the Mets system in the Robbie Alomar trade, a serious knee injury in spring training kept him out for 2002. GM Shapiro calls Escobar the most talented player in the organisation; he surely isn't referring to his abysmal strikezone judgment. His K/W ratio was awful last year in AAA, as it was in 2001 before the injury. His chances of becoming the new Sammy Sosa have dwindled to almost nothing, but maybe a late-blooming Raul Modesi-type career is in the cards. He's having a good spring, and is a near certainty to make the club as a fourth outfielder.

Michael Aubrey Age: 22.2  1B,  Bats LEFT A(SouthAtl.) 138ab, 18xbh, 14w, 22k, .348/.409/.551 (.322 GPA)

The consensus second best college hitting prospect in the 2003 draft (behind Rickie Weeks). Aubrey skipped short season A ball to go straight to the South Atlantic League. Aubrey is regarded as an above average defensive first baseman.Look for him to be crowned first baseman of the Indians sometime in 2005.

Brad Snyder Age: 22.1  OF,  Bats LEFT A-(New York-Penn) 225ab, 23xbh, 41w, 82k, .284/.393/.467 (.294 GPA)

Lots of walks and power, but plenty of strikeouts from this 2003 draftee out of Ball State. He led Mahoning Valley in stolen bases, so he's no lead-footed corner outfielder. If he can control his strikeout rate as he moves up the system he has a very good shot at making a big splash in the big leagues in 2006. He was a Baseball America first-team All-American and the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year in 2003.

Corey Smith Age: 22.2  3B,  Bats RIGHT AA(Eastern) 473ab, 39xbh, 50w, 99k, .271/.340/.397 (.252 GPA)

Smith is the top third baseman in Cleveland's minor league food chain. He's shown only moderate power and average strikezone judgment in the minors, making him a grade C prospect at best. Smith posted a .865 fielding percentage (44 errors) in AA. Matt Whitney, drafted out of high school in 2002, missed last year with a broken leg and won't be ready to play until May.

Jason Cooper Age: 23.6  OF,  Bats LEFT A+/A(Car./SouthAtl.) 481ab, 64xbh, 57w, 98k, .301/.383/.542(.308 GPA)

The Indians seem to have more lefthanded and switch-hitters per capita than anyone else in baseball. Cooper is another hard-hitting lefthanded college prospect, about to begin his third pro season. He'll start in AA, but a strong season might mean a September cup of coffee in Cleveland.

Jason DavisAge: 24.1Righthanderv RHB .333/.452 (303)v LHB .312/.436 (383)

Matthew Rich notes Davis' low strikeout rate (4.63 per 9 IP in 2003), considers potential causes (lack of stuff, inexperience, limited repertoire), and speculates that limited repertoire is the most likely. He may be right, but ... (1) Davis skipped AAA, which means he had to face hitters of vastly better plate discipline than before; (2) His strikeout rate isn't that far below average, if you look at AL starters for comparison purposes; and (3) a groundballer can thrive with a relatively low strikeout rate as long as he keeps the ball in the park and doesn't walk a bunch. I'd wait and see if Davis can inch his rate up in 2004 before consigning him to the pen.

Billy TraberAge: 24.8Southpawv RHB .365/.501 (337) v LHB .316/.298 (114)

Traber was part of the Alomar haul, and was a pleasant surprise for the Indians last year. Crafty lefthander with a very good assortment of pitches. Unfortunately TJ surgery late last year shut him down and it's extremely doubtful we'll see him pitch for the Indians this year. In view of his injury and effectiveness against lefthanded batters, Traber is a good candidate to relief conversion.

Jeremy GuthrieAge: 25.2RighthanderAA/AAA (Eastern/Int.) 159.3 IP, 14.1% K, 1.36 WHIP

According to Cliff Lee, Jeremy Guthrie is the best chess player in the clubhouse at the moment. He's also the highest profile pitching prospect in the organisation. Guthrie has waited a long time to make his professional debut, and perhaps his lofty signing bonus was worth it. Posted an excellent 1.44 ERA in AA, but was hammered in AAA. Media reports indicate that Guthrie tried to rely too much on his fastball and was hammered in AAA after posting a nifty 1.44 ERA in AA. His strikeout and walk rates were similar in AA and AAA; the homeruns (he allowed none in AA) were the big change. Because it was his first pro season, his low strikeout rate isn't a major concern yet.

Kazuhito TadanoAge: 24.2RighthanderAA/AAA/A+ (Eastern/etc) 98.7 IP, 28.4% K, 1.04 WHIP

An Indians signee out of Japanese college baseball, Tadano made an inpressive professional debut. He spent most of his season in AA Akron, working almost exclusively as a relief pitcher. There's been some notoriety pertaining to an off-field incident, but Tadano has apologized and put that behind him. He'll start the year in Buffalo.

Fausto CarmonaAge: 20.6RighthanderA (SouthAtl.) 148.3 IP, 14.5% K, 0.88 WHIP
Francisco CrucetaAge: 23.0RighthanderAA (Eastern) 163.3 IP, 19.6% K, 1.27 WHIP
Fernando CabreraAge: 22.6RighthanderAA (Eastern) 109.0 IP, 25.2% K, 1.25 WHIP
Jake DittlerAge: 21.6RighthanderA+/A(Carolina/SouthAtl.) 137.7 IP, 19.8% K, 1.19 WHIP

Two of the F.C. boys hail from the Dominican Republic; the other from Puerto Rico. Fausto Carmona is the youngest of the trio. He was named 2003 Cleveland minor league pitcher of the year by Baseball America. His major plus is his youth, his control and the fact that he skipped a level and went right to full season A ball last year. The negative is his low strikeout rate. Francisco Cruceta was acquired from the Dodgers in 2002. He's much more of a power pitcher. An excellent candidate to wind up in the Indians' rotation by mid-season if there is a rash of injuries. Fernando Cabrera is the Puerto Rican in the group. He made 21 relief appearances last year (15 starts - an indication that a full-time conversion to relief is in the works.Jake Dittler improved on his walk rate last year and more than held his own at advanced a ball at a young age. He'll start in AA and could make a positive contribution to the big club in 2005 down the stretch.

There are at least a dozen prospects worth mentioning, so here it goes: Maicer Izturis, Matt Whitney, Ivan Ochoa, Ryan Garko, Rodney Choy Foo, Micah Schilling, Ben Francisco, Adam Miller, J.D. Martin, Shea Douglas, Sean Smith and Dan Denham.

Entering Their Prime

Many if not most of these guys are relatively inexperienced at the major league level, and yet their age suggests that they are close to their peaks.

Ben BroussardAge: 27.8First BaseBats LEFTv R .330/.475 (377)v L .239/.289 (121)

Broussard hasn't walked much in the majors, but inexperienced big leaguers rarely do. His minor league walk rates were well above average. He'll hit for power and strikeout more than you'd want but not excessively.

Travis HafnerAge: 27.1Designated HitterBats LEFTv R .339/.502 (263)v L .294/.367 (90)

After a career year in 2002 in with the Rangers' AAA club (Oklahoma City), Hafner was pegged for a starting job in Cleveland in 2003. Great things were expected from some quarters in the sabermetric world, but Hafner did not set the world on fire. His main weakness as a hitter is the strikeouts. Reportedly, he's horrible with the glove, but will spell Broussard at first occasionally.

Ryan LudwickAge: 26.0OutfieldBats RIGHTv RHP .317/.392 (166) v LHP .256/.442 (77)

Ludwick had minor knee surgery over the winter and his rehab is going poorly. The Indians recently announced that Ludwick will stay in Florida for extended spring training. That opens the door for Piatt as a possible fifth outfielder if the Indians decide that Crisp is better served polishing his skills in AAA.

Jody GerutAge: 26.8RightfieldBats RIGHTv R .354/.446 (424)v L .327/.411 (236)

Jody Gerut is an example of why I don't place my complete trust in tools mavens. Gerut emerged as the Indians' top rookie in 2003, despite a relative lack of atrention from prospect gurus. He posted solid K/W numbers with above average power and line-drive hitting everywhere he went. Because he started his career late, he never caught the eye of Baseball America's scouting network (who tend to focus on teenagers and dream about how good they can be if absolutely nothing goes wrong with their development).

Though the condition of his shoulder is a concern, barring complications, Gerut will confirm that he belongs in the big leagues. Depending on how Alex Escobar develops, Gerut could become trade bait for a starter or a third baseman.

Josh BardAge: 26.3CatcherBats SWITCHv R .281/.353 (275) v L .293/.424 (118)

The Rockies drafted Josh Bard in the third round and traded him to the Indians along with Jody Gerut for Jacob Cruz in June of 2001. Bard is good enough to be a number one catcher for some teams and that has fueled speculation that the youngish catcher is being shopped. If a trade does occur, Tim Laker will take over as Victor Martinez's caddy. Bard has good defensive skills and has shown decent power and strikezone judgement.

Adam PiattAge: 28.4OutfielderBats RIGHTv R .273/.347 (173) v L .308/.435 (191)

As a non-roster invitee, Adam Piatt is a bit of a long-shot to make the team. Piatt was once a quasi folk hero of the sabr-set after destroying the Texas League with Midland as a 23 year-old in 1999. Midland is a very good place to hit, and Piatt didnt put up monster numbers in AAA. What kind of numners am I talking about? These - .345 average, .451 OBP, .704 SLG, 128 runs, 135 ribbies, 39 homers, 93 walks in 129 games; he led the league in all those categories. Moving to the PCL, Piatt put solid, but slightly disappointing numbers. He hasn't been able to make consistent contact at the major league level - his strikeout rates shot up from about 16% to over 25% of opportunities in the majors compared to the PCL. A very similar skills set to Ryan Ludwick (another Oakland product).

Jake WestbrookAge: 26.8Righthanderv RHB .345/.410 (454) v LHB .370/.439 (478)

Finesse pitcher who has the inside track on #4 starter slot.

David RiskeAge: 27.7Righthanderv RHB .314/.387 (326) v LHB .313/.348 (227)

A fireballer who stepped in as closer for Danys Baez last year. With Bob Wickman's return in 2004, Riske will be his understudy and top setup man.

Scott StewartAge: 28.9Southpawv RHB .320/.391 (366)v LHB .274/.353 (218)

Stewart missed nearly two months as a result of an emergency appendectomy last year. His strikeout rate declined, but his 3-year numbers are excellent considering there were put up in favourable hitting environments. He figures to be the #1 lefty in the pen, and perhaps the only one if Jason Stanford doesn't stick.

Rafael BetancourtAge: 29.2Righthanderv RHB small samplev LHB small sample

Despite an impressive debut season in 2003, he's not guaranteed a job out of spring training. Betancourt is an aggressive pitcher who needs to avoid gopher balls to be successful.

Jason StanfordAge: 27.7Southpawv RHB .317/.400 (145) v LHB .269/.360 (45)

He's still regarded as starter material, but a dearth of lefties in the pen could mean a long relief slot to start the year.

Chad DurbinAge: 26.7Righthanderv RHB .384/.568 (377) v LHB .334/.409 (402)

Most of the splits data is from 2001, when Durbin was a starter for the Royals.

Brian TalletAge: 26.8Southpawv RHB small sample v LHB small sample

Tallet, coming off TJ surgery, will not be available until late in the season.

Stop Gaps

Matt LawtonAge: 32.7Left FieldBats LEFTv R .376/.440 (1015)v L .305/.323 (334)

Matt Lawton is in danger of losing his everyday job and at the very least should be platooned. He can't be traded due to his contract and may take valuable playing time away from Alex Escobar, Coco Crisp and Ryan Ludwick - all of whom need to be evaluated this season.

Casey BlakeAge: 30.9Third BaseBats RIGHTv RHP .304/.377 (430)v LHP .327/.462 (184)

The one position where there is no youngster ready to step in. Blake, a former Blue Jays farmhand, had a career year after several cups of coffee in previous seasons. He's the current poster boy for what free talent can do for you if you need to fill a hole cheaply. Unlike most AAAA players, Blake lucked into a window of opportunity: If he continues to hit he might be able to hold the job for several years.

Ron BelliardAge: 29.2Second BaseBats RIGHTv RHP .313/.360 (820)v LHP .346/.486 (280)

Strictly a holding action while youngsters Peralta and Phillips are polishing their skills in AAA. The once promising Brewer is notorious for having played out of shape and played himself out of a job. Belliard can handle third base (he played 42 games there for the Brewers in 2002) as well. If Blake struggles or comes down with an injury, Belliard could be shifted to third with Phillips and/or Gutierrez taking over at second.

Ricky GutierrezAge: 34.1InfieldBats RIGHTv R .331/.377 (702)v L .350/.371 (229)

One of the worst decisions of Shapiro's reign was to sign Gutierrez to a long-term contract. It's not a good idea to sign most 31-year-old shortstops to a long-term deal, especially if you're going to ask them to play second base. Gutierrez's main role will be to spell Belliard, while picking up playing time at third or short.

John McDonaldAge: 29.8InfieldBats RIGHTv RHP .272/.298 (366)v LHP .264/.299 (134)

His middle initial isn't A. McDonald must be one heck of a clubhouse guy because he can't hit major league pitching (he hit poorly in AAA too). As the incumbent, he has the edge over the more talented Lou Merloni for the utility job. Interestingly, both men are New Englanders and both went to Providence U.

Lou MerloniAge: 33.2InfieldBats RIGHTv RHP .327/.362 (340)v LHP .345/.409 (181)

The archetypical utility infielder is trying to beat out homegrown favourite John McDonald for one of the final roster spots. It's possible that neither will make the club and Cleveland will go with a fifth outfielder instead. If the Indians cut him, Merloni will likely catch on with someone else.

Jason BereAge: 33.1Righthanderv RHB .278/.386 (634)v LHB .375/.516 (438)

Jason Bere has made over 200 major league starts and has maintained high strikeout rates throughout. Bere suffered a strained rotator cuff early in 2003 and did further damage to it after his mid-season return. He missed almost all of 2003, but is now (reasonably) healthy and will battle Jeff D'Amico, Jake Westbrook and Chad Durbin for the #4 and #5 slots in the rotation this spring.

Jeff D'AmicoAge: 28.5Righthanderv RHB .311/.507 (810)v LHB .343/.441 (655)

A once promising Brewer, D'Amico has bounced around in recent years. He's provided decent innings wherever he's gone.

Jose JimenezAge: 31.0Righthanderv RHB .311/.393 (488)v LHB .367/.471 (437)

Jose Jimenez is an extreme groundballer who walks very few batters. He managed to keep the ball in the park during most of his tenure with the Rockies, no small feat.

Jack CressendAge: 29.1Righthanderv RHB .287/.366 (279)v LHB .356/.477 (222)

So long, and thanks for all the fish

Two of the last veteran members of the last Indians division championship are back for a curtain call.

Omar VizquelAge: 37.2ShortstopBats SWITCHv RHP .342/.379 (1034)v LHP .299/.340 (409)

Ozzie Smith light. A weak hitter in his early and mid- 20's, Omar Vizquel blossomed at the plate and in most eras would have been among the two or three best shortstops of his generation. The Indians won't have much interest in keeping him around at a high price and Vizquel may choose retirement over another organisation. Judging by his spring so far, he's recovered from whatever caused him to fail his physical during the off-season.

Bob WickmanAge: 35.4Righthanderv RHB .264/.325 (200) v LHB .339/.396 (202)

Like Jose Jimenez, Bob Wickman is a groundballer who doesn't walk many guys. What separates him from Jimenez is his (much higher) strikeout rate. I've always liked the idea of using groundballing control freaks as closers - provided you have good defensive infielders available late in the game.

Outlook for 2004 and Beyond

The Indians could, should they choose, add some veteran in July and make a run at the division title. I don't think they will do that: 2004 is to be another year of evaluation and development. By the end of the season, Shapiro and company should know which horses they're going to try to ride to the 2005 Central division title. Their main competition will be the Twins. The Sox farm system is drying up and the Royals will make their push this year, as Carlos Beltran will be playing elsewhere come this time next year. The Indians have potential problems in the infield at third base, and possibly at short and second if one or both of Peralta and Phillips don't develop as hoped. They would be well advised to trade some of their outfield surplus for infield help during the season or immediately after it ends. Cleveland will be in a sufficiently solid financial position to add talent for a run in 2005 if they are in contention.

Predictions: 2004 - 77 wins and third place; 2005 - divisional co-favourites with the Twins