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Winning time for Tribe

Pressure mounts as window of opportunity narrows

Posted: Tuesday February 27, 2007 2:20PM; Updated: Tuesday February 27, 2007 4:33PM
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C.C. Sabathia, who has won 81 games during his first six seasons, could become a free agent after 2008.
C.C. Sabathia, who has won 81 games during his first six seasons, could become a free agent after 2008.
AP
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WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The Indians fell painfully short of the playoffs in 2005, and they were the game's most underachieving ballclub in '06. If they don't win something soon -- something other than, say, the affection of a bunch of screaming young girls, Grady Sizemore -- they're going to regret it.

There's no getting around it: The time for Cleveland to cash in on its core of young stars is now.

"We've had the pieces in place. We've got the talent. We just haven't been able to do it, and that's been frustrating," said right-hander Jake Westbrook, 15-10 with a 4.17 ERA in 32 starts with the Indians last year. "We just need to figure it out."

The Indians have done just about everything but win in the past half-decade since the decline of their 1990s AL Central dynasty. Now, with their once-green starting pitchers entering their prime and the young position players starting to come into their own, with a front office that has done a top-shelf job of spackling the biggest holes in this very talented team, the Indians are poised, finally, to live up to their promise. But it has to happen now.

Not to put any undue pressure on the Tribe, but that ticking sound here at the team's spring training complex at Chain of Lakes Park? It's getting louder by the minute.

"We definitely have some sense of urgency. But we've had it, so it's not like a reaction to last year," said the team's general manager, Mark Shapiro, who demolished what was left of Cleveland's great 1990s teams and, after years of building and tinkering, has come up with this younger, sleeker, cheaper version. "I think our greatest chances to be a playoff team are going to be this year and next year."

Every team in the major leagues -- with the possible exception of the Cubs -- eventually has its time, and the Indians' time is now for a few reasons. Let's rattle them off:

• The guts of the lineup that scored 870 runs last year, second in baseball to the Yankees, returns mostly intact. The Indians' center fielder and leadoff hitter, Sizemore, may be the most complete player in the AL, a combination of speed, superb defense, burgeoning power and grittiness. At just 24 years old, he is nowhere near his ceiling. And he's really cute, too, according to some people.

The Indians also boast a scary-good designated hitter (Travis Hafner), a dangerous switch-hitting catcher (Victor Martinez), a couple of savvy on-base guys brought in this offseason by Shapiro (outfielders David Dellucci and Trot Nixon) and a young third baseman everyone's just waiting on to break out (Andy Marte).

• They have a solid starting staff topped by Westbrook, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, three guys who have been the backbone of the rotation for the past three seasons -- albeit a shaky backbone all too often. With Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers rounding it out, the rotation can't be considered the best in the AL. But it's certainly in the top half.

• The problems in the bullpen -- the biggest reason for the team's fall to a 78-84 record last year -- have been addressed with the addition of new closer Joe Borowski, lefty Aaron Fultz and veteran Roberto Hernandez. Keith Foulke's sudden retirement notwithstanding, the Indians should be much better in relief in '07, which should help that sometimes shaky backbone, the rotation.

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