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1. Cleveland Indians
Team Page | Schedule | Roster

As usual, precarious pitching will be saved by hitting, which may be even better

By Mark Bechtel

 

Cleveland lost a Ramirez and gained a Gonzalez, and if the new guy stays happy and healthy, it will mean more jacks at the Jake.  Chuck Solomon
ENEMY LINES
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Indians
"If the Indians click on all cylinders, they'll have the best record in the league with a chance to win it all.... Robbie Alomar looks great. Awesome. He's had an outstanding spring and will have a big year.... Juan Gonzalez looks healthy and in great shape. He's going to hit a lot of home runs in that ballpark.... I love Jim Thome and Travis Fryman . They're true professionals. So is Ellis Burks . In San Francisco he seemed to be in the middle of all the rallies. How much he's got left in the tank is a question, but he'll be a major contributor. He could share leftfield with Russell Branyan , who will play third down the road. He's starting to figure it out -- a guy with huge power who's making more contact.... Eddie Taubensee is a good hitting catcher who hits good pitching. He can turn around anybody's fastball.... Kenny Lofton 's still strong defensively, but he's dropped off. There are some people in Cleveland who think he's the Indians' second-best defensive centerfielder, behind Jolbert Cabrera .... The pitching is good enough to win the division. The health of Chuck Finley is the key, especially in the playoffs, because he's had success against the Yankees and the A's. The wild card is Steve Karsay . Can he hold up over the rigors of a full season of starting?... C.C. Sabathia is a kid who can help. He's a lefty who throws hard, but command and conditioning are keys for him. He's got electric stuff -- like a young Arthur Rhodes but with a better delivery.... Bob Wickman doesn't have the same stuff he had five years ago. He's not in the same class as the closers for the other contenders."
For all the talk in recent years about how the Indians would never win the World Series because they lacked a quality front-of-the-rotation pitcher, it was ultimately shoddy work from its innings-eaters that ended Cleveland's five-year stranglehold on the American League Central crown. Dave Burba, Bartolo Colon and Chuck Finley gave the Tribe the league's only trio of 15-game winners, and their combined ERA of 4.17 was better than that of the top three starters on every American League playoff team except the A's. But the rest of the Indians' starters -- and thanks to injuries, Cleveland used everyone this side of Sid Monge -- won only 18 times and had an ERA of 6.97.

In a related story, reliever Steve Karsay suffered through a miserable second half. After nailing down 19 of his first 24 save opportunities, he lost his job when the Indians acquired Bob Wickman from the Brewers. "I was a little disappointed," says the righthanded Karsay, whose ERA was a run and a half higher as a setup man after the trade. "Nobody wants his job taken away when he feels he's doing a good job."

So manager Charlie Manuel was left with two problems this spring, filling out his rotation and finding a role for Karsay. He decided to kill two birds with one stone and make Karsay the No. 4 starter, which made everyone happy. "In my heart I feel I've always been a starter," Karsay says. "We think his stuff translates better as a starter than as a closer," says general manager John Hart. "He's got starter's stuff."

But Karsay might not have a starter's elbow. He had Tommy John surgery in 1995, and the Indians have used him almost exclusively as a reliever since acquiring him from the A's in '97. The Tribe sent Karsay to visit orthopedist James Andrews in Birmingham in late October. "He knows my elbow better than I do," Karsay says of the man who has operated on his arm four times. Andrews poked and prodded the limb before telling Karsay that throwing between 100 and 110 pitches every five days might actually be easier on his arm than getting up in the bullpen two or three times a night.

Now that he's out of the pen, Karsay is throwing his changeup more, and he's become confident enough in his splitter, which he picked up two years ago, to throw it anytime. That gives him a nasty four-pitch repertoire, including a fastball that touches 97 mph. The pitch-count limit Andrews imposed should be enough to get Karsay through six innings, at which point he can turn things over to a solid if unspectacular bullpen. And it's not as if Karsay and the rest of Cleveland's starters are operating without a margin for error: Three fourths of the infield won Gold Gloves last year, and the Indians set a major league record for fewest errors in a season, with 72. Then there's the offense, which scored 950 runs last year (second in the league) and might have actually improved despite losing its most-feared hitter.

With the $20 million a year he saved by letting Manny Ramirez and his 409 RBIs over the last three seasons sign with the Red Sox, Hart obtained free-agent outfielders Ellis Burks and Juan Gonzalez. Burks, who hit .344 with 96 RBIs for the Giants, will bring stability to leftfield. The 32-year-old Gonzalez, meanwhile, brings a big bat and plenty of baggage. He has driven in more runs per game over the past five years than anyone else in baseball, but last season, injuries and a general disdain for Detroit -- with its frigid weather and its spacious new park -- combined to send his numbers, not to mention his market value, south. Hart got him for one year at $10 million. "Hitters don't change," Hart says. "Not at his age. We've seen this guy. We know what he's all about."

Ironically, the one year the Indians were hitting on every cylinder as the season ended -- they outscored their opponents by two runs a game over the final month -- was the one year since 1994 that they missed the playoffs. "We were definitely peaking at the right time," says Karsay.

But as Manuel points out, "We were playing good, but you know what? We didn't get in. And that will be the motivation for us this year."

Issue date: March 26, 2001


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