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2 Cleveland Indians
Peter King
April 03, 2006
Strong up the middle, the Tribe is still rough around the edges
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April 03, 2006

2 Cleveland Indians

Strong up the middle, the Tribe is still rough around the edges

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LH C.C. Sabathia 57 15 10 161 1.26 4.03
RH Paul Byrd [New acquisition] 113 12 11 102 1.19 3.74
LH Cliff Lee 21 18 5 143 1.22 3.79
RH Jake Westbrook 104 15 15 119 1.30 4.49
RH Jason Johnson [New acquisition] 140 8 13 93 1.34 4.54

With a week remaining last season, the Indians appeared poised to win the AL wild card. They were a half game up on the Red Sox with an enticing schedule in front of them: one game at Kansas City and six at home, three each against the Devil Rays and the White Sox, who had already clinched the Central title. With a 37--12 record since the start of August, the Tribe seemed destined to be a major force in October. "They were the team nobody wanted to play," says Paul Byrd, who pitched for the Angels last year before signing a two-year, $14.25 million free-agent deal with Cleveland in December.

Then it all came apart in a 1--6 finish. In the game against the Royals, centerfielder Grady Sizemore lost a ball in the sun, allowing K.C.'s winning run to score. The immortal Seth McClung (6.59 ERA in 2005) threw a shutout for the Devil Rays, who took two of three from the Indians. And, despite resting several regulars, Chicago swept Cleveland. Over those final seven games the Indians scored 20 runs and hit .227. The word choke filled the airwaves in Cleveland, but Sizemore has a different explanation for the sudden collapse. "I'd chalk it up to inexperience," says Sizemore, who, at 23, is one of the Indians' 19 players who are under the age of 25. "Maybe our downfall that last week was trying too hard. But from being around the guys in this room all last year, I can tell you we try hard every single game. I mean, if I don't get a hit in a game, I want to jump off the top of a building."

In 2005 Sizemore, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, 23, and DH Travis Hafner, 28, emerged as three of the game's best hitters at their positions. And the Indians tied the world champion White Sox for the league's best ERA (3.61) while scoring 49 more runs than Chicago. But at the same time, the Indians averaged less than one sacrifice every four games and succeeded on only 63% of their steal attempts. The White Sox, by contrast, excelled in those areas, which helps explain why Chicago took 14 of its 19 meetings against Cleveland, including nine of 10 at Jacobs Field. The two teams played nine one-run games, all of which the White Sox won; for the season the Indians set a franchise record with 36 one-run losses.

Therefore, during the spring Cleveland focused on such things as bunting, stealing bases and advancing runners. "Eric addressed it with us right away," says Hafner of manager Eric Wedge's extra attention to smallball. "When we're not scoring seven, eight runs a game, we've got to be able to manufacture runs."

And that has to start with Sizemore, a handsome, graceful, 6'2", 200-pound native of Seattle, who became a matinee idol in Cleveland in his first full major league season. (Swooning women wore T-shirts with mrs. sizemore on the front.) He is just one example of the exceptional job fourth-year general manager Mark Shapiro has done in mining young talent. Since his 2002 acquisition of Sizemore, lefthander Cliff Lee and Triple A second baseman Brandon Phillips for pitcher Bartolo Colon--a deal that laid the foundation for the Indians' renaissance-- Shapiro has continued to stockpile first-rate prospects. Among those who could soon make a Sizemore-like impact are third baseman Andy Marte (On Deck), lefthanded starter Jeremy Sowers (14-4, 2.37 ERA in the minors in '05) and righty closer-of-the-future Fernando Cabrera (2-1, 1.47 ERA in 15 appearances with the Indians).

While their youthfulness may have cost the Indians down the stretch last year, it also has its benefits. Sitting with Sizemore, one can see why the club has so much confidence in him and is so excited about the seasons to come. He has a humble aura and exudes a passion for the game that is unusual for someone of his generation. Asked if he had been shocked by his success in his first season, Sizemore smiled and looked away, in an aw-shucks manner. "What's shocking," he said, "is that I get to play baseball for a living. I get to come to the ballpark every day and do what I love most. I mean, look at this. Look at my arm right now."

Sizemore's outstretched left forearm was covered in goose bumps. "See," he said, "and we're just talking."


Last year Cliff Lee (18) and C.C. Sabathia (15) became the first pair of Indians lefties to each win 15 games in the same season since Al Milnar (18) and Al Smith (15) did it in 1940.

a modest proposal

The Indians' eight every-day position players averaged 146 games each last season, more than any other team's except the Yankees' (148). Considering that Cleveland lost six of its last seven games--and the Marlins, who ranked third in average games played (142), dropped 12 of 17 at the end of the year--Tribe manager Eric Wedge should consider giving his regulars more days off during the season. Reserves such as Eduardo Perez, 36, who hit 11 homers in 161 at bats for the Devil Rays last year, and Todd Hollandsworth, 32, (right) who has a career .275 average and .772 OPS, could help the Indians avoid another swoon.

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