Indians downsize payroll but not hopes


The payroll has been slashed by more than $40 million the past two years. The starting lineup is short on star power and long on inexperience.

The outlook of a once-proud franchise appears to be riddled with uncertainty as the regular season opens today at Camden Yards.

The Cleveland Indians seem to have a lot in common with a certain rebuilding team near you.

New manager Eric Wedge will have three rookies and a second-year player in his starting lineup when Orioles starter Rodrigo Lopez takes the mound against Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia at 3:05 p.m. The Indians also will have two rookies in their starting rotation.

So why isn't the club's first-year manager clinging to the rebuilding label that would keep the pressure off a team that lost its last real impact player - slugger Jim Thome - to free agency last winter?

"In my mind, rebuilding is just an excuse," Wedge said yesterday. "It's real, but it's what happened in the offseason. Now, let's go out and play. I feel our players will match up and compete. How it plays out, I don't know.

"We'll be prepared and then see what happens."

The Indians finished the exhibition season with the second-best record (19-11) in the major leagues. Of course, preseason success doesn't necessarily correlate to the regular season - the beleaguered Kansas City Royals were the only team with a better record - but Wedge saw enough solid baseball to justify mixing short-term optimism with the franchise's promising long-range rebuilding plan.

"I felt like we did everything we needed to do in spring training to prepare for the season and initiate a foundation that I feel will lead to a championship ballclub," Wedge said. "We're trying to make the transition as smooth as possible.

"This is major league baseball and we're going to go out there and our athletes, when they step on the field, are going out there to win. There will be a degree of individual development. I want to be realistic, but I don't want to have any limitations."

That doesn't mean anybody in Cleveland is predicting the Indians will upstage the favored Minnesota Twins or the improved Chicago White Sox this season. Cleveland looks very much like the third horse in a two-horse race, but there is enough unrealized potential in the starting lineup and enough pitching promise to create hope for a quick turnaround.

The Indians are just two years removed from their last American League Central title. New general manager Mark Shapiro has presided over a dramatic downsizing program that has cut the payroll by nearly half and exchanged most of the club's veteran players for young talent or compensation draft picks.

"I'm very realistic about the process," Shapiro said, "but we're very confident about our ability to return to a championship-caliber team. The only thing we're unsure about is the timing. We know it's going to happen, but we don't have an exact timetable."

This must sound familiar to Orioles fans, who have suffered through a five-year rebuilding effort and now can only hope that a new baseball operations team can get things righted in relatively short order.

The difference, of course, is that Indians fans figure to have a much deeper reservoir of patience because they have suffered through just one truly disappointing season since 1993.

Shapiro has never shied from the harsh reality of the situation. He replaced former GM John Hart, knowing there were going to be hard times ahead, and set immediately to rebuilding the roster from the bottom up.

He analyzed the rebuilding efforts that have carried the revenue-challenged Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics back to the top of their divisions and looked for ways to accelerate that process.

"What we saw was that it can take 10 years to get to where those teams are," Shapiro said. "You've got to finish at the bottom for five or six years to get the draft choices that get you the Torii Hunters and Mark Mulders. My thought was, 'How do we speed up that cycle?'

"The first thing we had to do was be honest with ourselves. We were OK at the lower levels of the minor leagues, but we didn't have a lot at Double-A and Triple-A. How could we artificially infuse that level of talent?"

The Indians did what the Orioles tried to do a few years ago. They traded such veterans as Roberto Alomar, Chuck Finley and Paul Shuey for solid minor league players and picked up high draft choices in compensation for lost free agents.

There still are some established players in the lineup, most notably shortstop Omar Vizquel and outfielder Ellis Burks, but the future is clearly focused on such youngsters as catcher Josh Bard, second baseman Brandon Phillips, third baseman Casey Blake and first baseman Travis Hafner.

Sabathia is just 22 years old, and the rotation also includes rookies Ricardo Rodriguez and Jason Davis.

"When you see our team this week, you'll see the plan," Shapiro said. "When you see Ricardo Rodriguez on Wednesday and you see Brandon Phillips at second base and Travis Hafner at first, the strategy will be evident and the talent will be obvious. But there is a process that you have to go through."

It probably won't carry the Indians into the playoffs this year, but Shapiro doesn't think a wild-card run next season is out of the question.

Wedge won't even concede 2003, because he doesn't want to create the mind-set in the clubhouse that nothing is expected of this year's team.

"I think you have to look at it as, your business is today," Wedge said.

"You take care of today but you're aware of tomorrow. I think there are people who play for today but are afraid of tomorrow. Today, we're going to work as a team and bust our butts and let the organization think about tomorrow."

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