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Indians have game plan, at last: keep younger players and hope


SEATTLE -- What team do you think of when these past and present ballplayers are mentioned? Roger Maris, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Tommy John and Mel Hall? Yankees, right?

How about Brett Butler and Bud Black? Julio Franco? Greg Swindell? Joe Carter? Tom Candiotti? Rick Sutcliffe? Dennis Eckersley? Or Pete O'Brien?

Those players, some stars but all competent players, can trace their playing history at some point to Cleveland, which, in major-league terms, is a good place to be from. They went in trades or as free agents, sometimes because of stupidity by the organization, but mostly because it could not afford them. Sound familiar?

The Indians haven't finished higher than fourth place since 1968, a result of bad trades, a perennially underfunded farm system and an organization seemingly without direction.

This season does not hold much hope either -- they entered last night's game in Seattle against the Mariners as a 13-28 team, 5 1/2 games out of sixth place.

But at least now they have a plan -- the Cleveland Plan, under which the Indians got rid of high-priced veterans and signed promising youngsters to long-term contracts to avoid baseball owners' worst nightmare, salary arbitration.

"Cleveland always has been a pit stop for the major leagues. We wanted to erase that stigma," Cleveland General Manager John Hart said. "We've told people this year will be a painful one, but it will be an exciting team. At least people know what we're doing."

Hart is correct, in both regards. The Indians are on course to wind up worse than last season's 57-105 team. But the winner-starved fans have a glimmer of hope based on the plan devised by Hart and Indians President Rick Bay.

What Hart and Bay are trying to do is hang on to as many good young players as long as they can amid baseball's chaotic salary climate. They focused on a group of players who they believe represent the club's future and offered them security. All had completed one or two major-league seasons. In general, players are eligible for arbitration after three full seasons in the majors.

Pitcher Charles Nagy, a former No. 1 draft choice, and All-Star catcher Sandy Alomar, along with Mark Whiten and Carlos Baerga signed three-year contracts that included club options for a fourth year. Jack Armstrong, Steve Olin, Scott Scudder, Glenallen Hill, Alex Cole and Dennis Cook signed two-year deals that included club options for a third. Rod Nichols signed a

one-year deal, also with a club option. Only Albert Belle declined to participate.

"These players have a chance to be the cornerstone of what we're trying to do here," Hart said. "It's a risk/reward situation. If they fail, it's our risk. They are also giving up their arbitration rights, but we were fair. We've given them security and we're showing to the community our commitment to the players."

At the same time, the club got rid of eight million-dollar-plus contracts by trading or releasing players. According to Associated Press figures, the Indians payroll now is $8,132,667, $4 million below the 2nd-lowest club, Houston at $12,747,000. The New York Mets have the highest at $44,402,000.

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