Frankly Speaking: Indians Are Probably A Year Away

Frankly Speaking: Indians Are Probably A Year Away

Are the Indians capable of challenging for the American League Central title this year? <br><br> Probably. <br><br> Will they? <br><br> Probably not.

General manager Mark Shapiro has done a wonderful job of accumulating a lot of talented young players, guys who could in the next few years emerge as some of the best young talent in baseball.

There's no doubt in my mind Jody Gerut is the real deal. Not only is he physically talented, but he is mentally gifted far beyond most professional baseball players. He is smart enough not to be affected by any off-the-field problems that seem to get the best of many promising prospects.

Position-wise, I also am very impressed by Victor Martinez, the switch-hitting catcher who has been an offensive machine at every minor league level. Normally, it takes him a couple of months to adjust when moved up a level. But given time to get acclimated to his new surroundings, Martinez shows the ability to hit line drives all over the ball park.

He also has come a long, long way defensively, especially considering just a few years ago he was thinking about giving up baseball when the Indians suggested he give up his infielder's glove and don the tools of ignorance. Thankfully, his mother steered him straight and Martinez now has the potential to become an All-Star in the near future.

The third position player who really excites me is Grady Sizemore, who more than likely will start the season at Buffalo.

Much like Martinez, Sizemore has dominated throughout his minor league career. He has the potential to be an all-star center-fielder who can not only hit for a high average, but also can easily be a 15-20 home run guy.

The only thing Sizemore lacks is a strong throwing arm. But there have been a lot of great center-fielders over the years who have gotten away with an average arm. The key for Sizemore will be to position himself well and to make a quick ball transfer from glove to throwing hand.

Having Rick Manning, a Gold Glove center-fielder for the Indians in the 1970s, work with him this spring can only help with Sizemore's development.

Obviously, there are a lot of other position players with excellent potential. Alex Escobar and Ryan Ludwick offer power potential, as do first basemen Ben Broussard and Travis Hafner. If both Broussard and Hafner get off to fast starts this year, I wouldn't be surprised if one or the other is part of a trade in exchange for a powerful right-hand bat, someone capable of filling the first base or DH role.

Unfortunately, Broussard and Hafner both hit from the left side and both hit below .200 against southpaws last year. Don't be surprised to see Martinez play some first base against tough left-handers, which will allow Josh Bard to get some time behind the plate.

There also is a chance Ludwick will see some time at first base because he has had serious hip and knee injuries the past few years. Those injuries could cut into Ludwick's range in the outfield. It also would give manager Eric Wedge the opportunity to get Escobar more at-bats.

Escobar is an interesting case. He suffered a serious knee injury in spring training in 2002 and missed that entire season. Last year, he began to show the power potential the team anticipated when he was acquired from the Mets as part of the Roberto Alomar deal.

Escobar has two problems.

One is that he continues to strike out way too much.

Secondly, Major League Baseball granted the Indians an extra option on Escobar, meaning they can send him back to the minors without exposing him to waivers. Escobar, and the Indians, initially thought he was out of options in that the normal allotment of three had been used. But because of Escobar's injury, the extra option was given to the Indians and that could result in his being sent back to Buffalo once Ludwick is healthy enough to play.

At this point, the start of Ludwick's season will likely be delayed by the fact he now has arthritis in the knee he injured late last season. That probably means Escobar will make the major league roster when camp breaks.

The other interesting young position prospect is Brandon Phillips, who is going to start the season at Buffalo. However, for the first time since joining the Indians in June 2002 as part of the Bartolo Colon trade to Montreal, Phillips began to show signs this spring that he was willing to listen to hitting coach Eddie Murray.

Phillips has been very stubborn in the past. He has worked with coaches, but then hasn't taken what he learned in practice into the games.

The team's hierarchy has grown very frustrated with Phillips, who a year ago was rated the team's No. 1 prospect by some publications. (Indians Ink ranked Martinez No. 1 and Phillips No. 2).

If Phillips does indeed start hitting as well as he plays defense, the Indians will be able to fill one of the key middle infield positions for many years to come. This year, those spots are expected to be filled by multi-Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel at shortstop and Ronnie Belliard at second.

But Vizquel is in the final year of his contract with the Indians and it is very unlikely he will be back in 2005. Belliard was signed as a stop-gap until Phillips is ready either this year or to start the 2005 season.

Of course, the important factor in the Indians' hoped-for improvement will be the performance of the young pitchers. Ace C.C. Sabathia, second-year player Jason Davis and left-hander Cliff Lee will fill the top three spots in the rotation and have the potential to be three of the top young pitchers in all of baseball.

However, that is far from a given.

Sabathia proved a year ago that he is capable of filling the No. 1 spot in the rotation.

Davis, while certainly talented, still has a lot of proving to do. And Lee, while sensational at times over short periods, has certainly never proved he is capable of pitching effectively over extended periods on the major league level. Plus, he is coming off a couple of injuries (abdominal pull and a hernia) that hindered him much of 2003.

The Indians are also hampered by the fact two of the pitchers they thought would compete for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation -- Brian Tallet and Billy Traber -- are both out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2003.

That means recycled veteran Jason Bere will have a good chance at winning a spot in the rotation. Also competing for those spots are lefty Jason Stanford, a rookie who definitely deserves a long look, and Jake Westbrook, whose inability to get beyond four or five innings was a big problem last season.

The question marks in the rotation will mean the bullpen will play a big role this season. Fortunately, the Indians appear to be well fortified, both in the middle roles and the back end of the pen.

Jack Cressend and Rafael Betancourt, both of whom pitched very well last year, are the leading candidates for the middle roles. At the back end are closer Bob Wickman, and setup men David Riske, Scott Stewart and Jose Jimenez, all of whom have been effective closers at various times and for various teams over the past few years.

Any or all could and will be used if Wickman struggles as he comes back from Tommy John surgery that kept him sidelined for all of 2003.

If all goes well … if the young position players and starting pitchers perform up to expectations … and if the bullpen comes through the way Shapiro envisions, the Indians will likely move up to the middle of the pack in the AL Central Division.

Hopefully, they will be able to stay in contention to the point where they get experience playing in games that mean something. That type of experience could play a big role when the tam should indeed be ready to truly challenge for a division crown in 2005.

Of course, in a division where there is no dominant team, a few key injuries to Twins or White Sox might indeed allow the Tribe to make a serious run this year.

It's not as though the Indians are having to compete with any legitimate powerhouses like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. If the Indians were unfortunate enough to be in the AL East, then a return to playoffs might be decades away.

Instead, it could be as early as this season, although a more likely scenario would be 2005 or 2006.

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