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The player who walks around the Indians' clubhouse with the nickname "the Franchise" is a 21-year-old rookie with 31 career major league at bats. He listens to Nelly and Outkast before games, and when he's bleary-eyed in the morning it's because he was up late manning the controller of his PlayStation2. On one of those nights midway through spring training, the player, Brandon Phillips, was checking out the newest baseball video game when he let out a yell in his hotel room. "[The game] had me in the starting lineup," he says. "I couldn't believe it." The virtual Phillips went 1 for 3 with a home run that night, hours after the real Phillips had gone 0 for 4 with a strikeout in an exhibition game.
While the prized second-base prospect—acquired from the Expos in a six-player deal for ace Bartolo Colon last June—frequently looked in spring training as if he were in over his head, the nickname speaks to his potential. He is a five-tool talent who hits for power, has good range and can fly. In fact, with half the players on Cleveland's 40-man roster either rookies or wide-eyed prospects, auditions for three infield positions (including second base) and two spots in the rotation looked like tryouts for American Idol.
General manager Mark Shapiro, who enjoys talking about Japanese business models and has on his office bookshelf titles such as The Mind of the CEO, is focused on long-term reward. One year removed from a 91-win season and the team's sixth playoff appearance in seven years, Shapiro, starting with the trade of Colon, overhauled the roster during a monthlong purge in which he made six trades with five organizations, involving six Cleveland players. Now the Indians are loaded with emerging young talent. "There's no timetable with what we're doing," says Shapiro, "but we'll be where we want to be eventually."
Youth movement or not, veteran outfielder Ellis Burks believes the Indians can contend sooner rather than later. "I don't think we're going to have to be as patient as people think," he says. "These guys can grow up fast." No one has had to mature faster than lefthander C.C. Sabathia, who at 22 is the league's youngest No. 1 starter. "Sometimes I do feel older than I am," says Sabathia, who was a combined 30-16 the last two seasons, including 17-5 as a rookie in 2001. But he got off to a horrific start last year, going 6-9 with a 5.34 ERA before winning seven of his last nine decisions with an ERA of 2.54. "I took a lot of things for granted last season," he says. "I didn't realize how much hard work I needed to do, and I wasn't very prepared for games. Last year was a reality check."
Sabathia spent much of the off-season in the living room of his Vallejo, Calif., home studying videotape of his 33 starts in 2002. He took copious notes and scribbled comments into a notebook he plans to carry with him everywhere. Sabathia noted hitters' tendencies and saw glaring inconsistencies in his delivery, particularly in his release point. He's also keeping an eye on his diet. Last spring he arrived at camp weighing an estimated 305 pounds, but this year he came in at around 275, in large part because he has stayed away from KFC and Taco Bell. Sabathia hired a personal chef while at the team's Winter Haven, Fla., spring training camp and plans to do the same when he gets back to Cleveland. "Now it's all about throwing the ball consistently and coming to the ballpark in shape and prepared," says Sabathia. "It should be an exciting year for me."
The most exciting thing for Indians fans may be the future. Rookie first basemen Travis Hafner, acquired in December in a trade with the Rangers, may not be in the starting lineup for the opener, but the club envisions him as its long-term replacement for the departed free agent Jim Thome. ( Hafner hits with Thome-like power from the left side.) Catcher Victor Martinez, 24, is widely regarded as the best young hitter at his position in baseball (an Eastern League-high .336 average for Double A Akron last year; .281 in 32 at bats for Cleveland), and though he'll start the season at Triple A Buffalo, he'll probably be recalled by midseason.
"I'm glad we're bad now," says Phillips. "It gives us younger guys time to get better."