01/30/2003 3:19 pm ET
Indians Spring Training preview
Tribe is short on experience, but long on talent
By Justice B. Hill / MLB.com
MLB Radio preview
Chain of Lakes Park
CLEVELAND -- Eric Wedge isn't inheriting a team that fans here see as the powerhouse of the AL Central. Instead, Wedge is stepping into his duties as Indians manager with a simple mission: to finish the rebuilding.
Now, it might not sound as complicated as it is; rebuilding, though, isn't something a baseball team can do overnight. Wedge is aware of that fact. His job will be to take brick after brick and turn it into something special.
He has plenty of high-quality bricks to work with, though.
By most accounts, Wedge has as a deep a pool of young talent to manage as any other manager in baseball. His Indians are armed with pitching prospect after pitching prospect, some of whom might be ready for the Majors now. They also have everyday talent like infielder Brandon Phillips, catcher Victor Martinez and first baseman Travis Hafner that reminds people of the kind of players the Tribe had when it started its run of success in the AL Central back in 1994.
They used different bricks to build that powerhouse ballclub. They had more power to rely on than talented arms. They also had a different architect -- John Hart then, not Mark Shapiro as now.
But the goal remains the same: bring a championship to Cleveland.
It might border of rank partisanship of the worst sort to even suggest that the Indians of 2003 are capable of winning a World Series. They might be talented, but they are too young, too untested and too unfamiliar with the Major League grind to have anybody harbor such a thought.
But everybody does have hope, even Wedge. He knows that Indians fans want to see that talent blossom. These fans are as curious about the club as other organizations surely are.
Wedge found that out early on.
"They want to know if these kids are as good as we're hearing about," he says. "They want to know what I expect from 'em this year."
""We have a plan. We just have to make good decisions on players. We're gonna establish a foundation with this team. We're gonna have a set of standards that we live by and play by -- and that's it."
-- Eric Wedge
Wedge can answer the last question without hesitation. He wants maximum effort from Day 1 of Spring Training to the season's last game -- no matter when that game is. He also wants to win.
So stop that talk about rebuilding, he says. He doesn't want to hear. All he knows is that he's going to Spring Training with a division title on his mind.
Wedge, a former Major League catcher, isn't naive. He knows he'll be facing a lot of challenges as he tries to instill the ways of the big leagues into his young players. But he's not going to let them use inexperience as a crutch.
He expects them to showcase the talent that people inside the game rave about. They've been raving for a reason.
Because by anybody else's account, the Tribe has talent; particularly deep is its pool of young pitching.
But that's the kind of hype the Indians are trying to peddle in '03: We're young; we're gifted. But it's also the kind that fans ask: Is it legit?
"I think anybody you talk to in baseball, they all know the group of arms we're gonna have in our Spring Training camp," pitching coach Mike Brown says. "A lot of organizations would love that kind of depth."
That depth starts with a top-of-the-rotation starter who's just 22. C.C. Sabathia, who might have shown more maturity in the last month of '02 than he had the past three seasons, proved the team's workhorse. Yeah, he struggled early. No one will dispute that. But Sabathia righted himself by season's end.
Beyond Sabathia, the Tribe has young pitchers to die for. Start with Cliff Lee, move on to Ricardo Rodriguez, Billy Traber, Brian Tallet and Lance Caraccioli and then throw in Jason Davis, Jeremy Guthrie and Francisco Cruceta and you have enough quality arms to stock two teams.
"But with pitchers," Brown says, "there's a lot of unknown, too. They go to the Major League level, and things get separated out pretty quick."
Still, Brown likes their potential, a label that can often turn into a curse. For "potential" brought Indians fans a string of can't-miss prospects in the 1970s and '80s who all ended up missing. That might well happen to some of these young arms, but if half of them fulfill their potential, they'll be splendid complements to the positional talent that is also bountiful.
Martinez and Phillips head the latter list, though neither man is penciled into a roster spot in the Major Leagues just yet. They will both be bricks to use in the rebuilding at some point this season.
But how successful that rebuilding will be will depend on how everything breaks. Wedge has a handful of questions that only six weeks in Spring Training can answer.
For one, he needs to find someone to take over for Jim Thome at first base; Wedge has nobody's name written in at third; he has questions about Matt Lawton, Ricky Gutierrez and Alex Escobar's health; and he has different questions about John McDonald's bat at second.
Finding the answers, he says, is what Spring Training is all about. Wedge is looking forward to doing that and to seeing the rebuild turn into a finished product -- to seeing it turn into another powerhouse.
"We have a plan," Wedge says. "We just have to make good decisions on players. We're gonna establish a foundation with this team. We're gonna have a set of standards that we live by and play by -- and that's it.
"But we'll get there sooner rather than later."
Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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