Indians' Hart needs to find an ace in the hole for staff

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Cleveland Indians can expect a soft ride in the American League Central this year, but that should not keep general manager John Hart from moving decisively to upgrade the pitching staff.

The club can get to the postseason as configured, but the loss of right-hander Ben McDonald -- apparently for the season -- leaves manager Mike Hargrove with a starting rotation that is less than World Series-caliber.

What to do? What to do?

If you're Hart, you should do what you do best. Pull off another breathtaking deal and send another message to the rest of the American League. The Indians will not be outmaneuvered.

They stood by while the New York Yankees acquired All-Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch from the Minnesota Twins, ostensibly because they could not justify giving up the talent necessary to acquire him or the money required to sign him to a contract extension.

Perhaps Hart also knew that he needed to retain the flexibility for a more important acquisition. The Indians need a go-to starting pitcher to round out an otherwise questionable rotation.

The club will open the season with a starting rotation that features just one premier veteran pitcher, right-hander Charles Nagy. The Indians are depending heavily -- too heavily -- on breakthrough prospect Jaret Wright, and three other starters of varying dependability.

Right-hander Chad Ogea pitched great during the World Series last year, but was 8-9 with a 4.99 ERA in 21 regular-season starts. Veteran Dwight Gooden was 9-5 with a 4.91 ERA before leaving the Yankees to sign a multi-year deal with the Indians. And Steve Karsay, another pitcher acquired as an indirect result of last year's Kenny Lofton trade, was 3-12 with a 5.77 ERA with the Oakland Athletics.

Of course, every one of those pitchers could crank up a career year and carry Cleveland to a world title, but Hart has never been known to leave that kind of thing to chance.

He is known for making the deals no one thinks can be made. He pulled off the blockbuster trade that sent disgruntled outfielder Lofton to the Atlanta Braves last spring, and ended up getting him back for less than it would have taken to sign him in the first place. Look for Hart to do something similarly dramatic in the next few months, perhaps involving a very tall pitcher from Seattle.

There's no big rush. The Indians don't figure to face any stiff divisional competition during the regular season, so they have until Aug. 31 to make a trade to improve the club for the postseason, but the news that McDonald will not likely return this year probably will galvanize Hart's effort to complete the pitching staff.

Cooperstown awaits

Braves ace Greg Maddux hasn't reached 200 victories, but it isn't too soon to fit him for a plaque in Cooperstown. His numbers over the past decade are so impressive that -- if he retired today -- voters probably would overlook his short tenure the way they did with Sandy Koufax.

Maddux has at least 15 wins for 10 consecutive seasons, and his 2.14 ERA from 1992 to '97 is the lowest over a six-year span of any pitcher since World War II.

"It's the greatest total of good, quality, consistent innings you can find anywhere in the history of the game," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "Bobby [Cox] told me he knew a pitcher like him -- Catfish Hunter. That's pretty good company. You're always going 'Holy Mackerel' when he pitches. It never stops. It's amazing."

That kind of talk makes the low-key Maddux uncomfortable. He has never sought the limelight and says he hasn't even thought about reaching the Hall of Fame.

"I could walk away right now and be totally happy with what I've done in the game," he said. "I've gotten more out of this game than I ever thought was possible, and this game is still giving me more."

Young guns

Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson is placing a lot of confidence in some young players this year. His outfield is expected to feature Jose Cruz, Shawn Green and Shannon Stewart, all top prospects and all unproven offensive players, but Johnson knows from his years as a coach in Montreal that good players have to start somewhere.

"I have no problem with those kids in the outfield," Johnson said. "They are going to develop into outstanding players. It wasn't a problem when [the Expos] had Moises Alou, Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom. These guys are going to be stars in their own right and they'll learn from the veteran hitters."

Taking care of his own

National League Rookie of the Year Scott Rolen may have settled for less than his potential value when he signed a four-year, $10 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies recently, but the third baseman was looking for some security and the chance to make a dream come true for his mom and dad.

He has been waiting for the opportunity to reward his parents for all the sacrifices they made to advance his baseball career. Now he can make good on a promise to buy them a beachfront retirement home in Florida.

"My mom was absolutely sobbing," said Rolen, who grew up in Jaspar, Ind. "My dad, he just kind of laughs and lets my mom cry into the phone. For the last 15 years, my parents have wanted to retire and live in Florida. My dad wanted to live on the beach, and what an opportunity this is for me to provide that for them. They are the most unselfish people I've ever known. They've always gone without, so their kids could go with. Now, this is a chance to say thank you, and that's the best part of this."

Staying alive

Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates suffered through a disappointing, injury-marred 1997 season, but he hopes that a healthier club this year will mean a return to the top of the AL West standings.

"My No. 1 goal this year is to have the team we put together in spring training on the field for Opening Day," Oates said. "My second goal is to have them on the field for the second game. I have 162 goals this year."

Rocky start

The Colorado Rockies have to be wondering about new pitching ace Darryl Kile after two questionable spring outings. He gave up five runs in 1 2/3 innings his first time out and four over three innings in his second exhibition appearance to run up an early 13.52 spring ERA. It doesn't mean a thing, of course, but the spotlight gets brighter when you're a big-money free agent.

Imperfect poll

There were some predictable responses when USA Today's Baseball Weekly asked its readers to vote for the player they would pay the most to watch. Seattle Mariners superstar Ken Griffey topped the list, and Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken finished a close second. Then things got a little strange.

Former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Bob Walk got two votes, one more than Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

"I didn't know my kids subscribed to Baseball Weekly," Walk said.

What's the rush?

The Chicago Cubs are planning to keep hot pitching prospect Kerry Wood at Triple-A Iowa this year, but don't be surprised if he forces his way into the majors sooner than expected. He looked impressive in his first spring outing (two perfect innings, 95-mph fastball) and would upgrade the Cubs' pitching staff considerably if he can handle major-league pressure.

The club just wants to make sure he's not the next David Clyde.

"I'd love to see them do something [to make room for Wood]," said catcher Scott Servais, who was on the receiving end of his spring debut. "But that's out of my hands. I will say one thing, speaking for the guys playing out there: If he continues to throw well this spring, they're all going to want to have him on the club. It's fun to play with him. He brings some excitement."

Quote of the week

New Cubs closer Rod Beck said his weight shouldn't be an issue, and he has proof: "I've never seen anyone on the disabled list with pulled fat."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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