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Winning time from Tribe (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 27, 2007 2:20PM; Updated: Tuesday February 27, 2007 4:33PM
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The Indians have failed to make the playoffs the past couple of seasons despite the efforts of young stars such as Grady Sizemore, left, and Victor Martinez.
The Indians have failed to make the playoffs the past couple of seasons despite the efforts of young stars such as Grady Sizemore, left, and Victor Martinez.
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• The defense -- another less-than-solid part of the team in '06 -- should be better, too, with the addition of young Josh Barfield at second base and the two new outfielders, Dellucci and Nixon. Big shortstop Jhonny Peralta, ripped by manager Eric Wedge late last season for his play in the field, is looking fit and determined in Winter Haven. The catcher Martinez is not good at throwing runners out, but the Indians are happy with his defense and how he calls games, so they're content with him there than at first base.

More than because of what the Indians have now, though, the clock is ticking because of what they might not have in a year or two. Westbrook is eligible for free agency after the season. Sabathia can become one after the '08 season. Hafner has a club option for '08, but could be too expensive to keep after that. The basic makeup of this team could be drastically different in '09.

Shapiro already has made overtures this spring to the agents for Westbrook, Sabathia and Hafner about possible extensions. But the general manager knows that the Indians, 25th in payroll last season at around $56 million, won't be able to keep everybody. "Our guys know we care," said Shapiro, who downplays the importance of signing Westbrook as a signal to the other players. "It's never a question of whether we want to keep them. We do. It's can we do that and still build a team around it?

"Do we want to? Yes. Whether we can? Maybe."

The players understand that, too. Sabathia, picked by the Indians in the first round of the 1998 draft, saw his first big-league action in 2001 at 20-years-old, when the Indians captured the Central with 91 wins. In the ensuing years, he watched the Indians trade away ace righty Bartolo Colon and All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar, turning the dynasty of the late '90s into a 94-loss team in 2003 as Cleveland fans scattered.

But Shapiro proved shrewd, using the trades (both Lee and Sizemore came in the trade for Colon, for example) and draft picks to rebuild the team more quickly than most anyone could expect. If not for a last-week stumble in '05 and last year's odd breakdown (the '06 Indians had one of the biggest discrepancies between run differential and wins in baseball history, outscoring their opponents 870-782 but winning only 78 games), the Tribe already might have been back in the postseason.

As it is, the Indians are working on a stretch of five straight years without a postseason appearance. They play in the best division in baseball, the AL Central, where the Tigers, Twins and White Sox all won at least 90 games last season.

It's not getting any easier, but the clock continues its ticking. The pressure is on.

"It's definitely getting to that time. The window is definitely getting smaller on us," Sabathia admitted. "The nature of the game, the business of it, you never know what's going to happen. So, while we got the guys here, why not take advantage of it? We got the guys here to win."

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