Notes: Contract talks take back seat
Westbrook, Hafner focus on games, hopeful of deals
CHICAGO -- Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook have something other than contract extensions to focus on now."Now, the fun starts," Hafner said while dressing for Monday's season opener against the White Sox. "The focus goes into the season." And as far as Hafner and Westbrook are concerned, they'd like the focus to stay there. Regardless, the Indians will continue to negotiate with both players about new contracts, as Westbrook is eligible for free agency after this season and Hafner is eligible after '08. It is the hope of both sides that a resolution, one way or another, will be reached soon -- as it was during Spring Training with ace left-hander C.C. Sabathia, with whom contract talks were officially halted. "I definitely would like something to get resolved before we get too far down the road," Westbrook said. "I'd like to get out there without any distractions at all. It would be easy to say it wouldn't be a problem, but it would definitely be on my mind, in some aspects." Hafner felt the same way. "When I play baseball, I'm focused on baseball," he said. "But obviously some time and energy goes into [negotiations]. You have to deal with the business side." A specific deadline for the talks with both players does not appear to have been set. The Indians and the players' agents will gauge the momentum of the talks and work off that. "As long as we're moving forward, we'll keep talking," Westbrook said. "But the more and more it lingers on, I would venture to say we'll have to come up with some sort of deadline. We'll see what happens." On the road again: Manager Eric Wedge was asked what the benefits are of opening a season at home. "I don't know, because I've never experienced it," Wedge said with a laugh. "I'll let you know when I find out." The Indians haven't opened a season at home since 2001, when Charlie Manuel was still at the helm. The club had the opportunity to open at Jacobs Field this year but opted not to, in order to avoid conflicting with the NCAA women's basketball Final Four, which is taking place next door at Quicken Loans Arena.
Wedge said he definitely hoped to open at home next year."It's more special for the players and fans," he said. No set setup: Wedge has made it clear that right-handers Rafael Betancourt and Roberto Hernandez and left-hander Aaron Fultz will be the Tribe's primary eighth-inning relievers. Still, the club does not have a clearly defined setup man. That's a role that will have to develop as the season gets under way. "We hope it shows itself to us early on," Wedge said. "We're going to work off what we see." Wedge seems open to the possibility of youngsters like Jason Davis and Fernando Cabrera getting opportunities in the late innings. Here's the question: The Indians have now opened their season in Chicago each of the past three seasons. Can you name the starting left fielder in the first of those three games, in 2005? Let the games begin: Wedge had individual and small-group conversations with his players before Monday's opener. "Today, we start the journey," he said. "I told them to trust in what you've done and focus on what you need to focus on." A year ago, sitting in the visitors' dugout at U.S. Cellular Field before Opening Night against the Sox, Wedge was confident his club was primed for big things. Later that night, he saw Sabathia go down with an oblique injury and the bullpen cough up the winning runs in the middle innings of a rain-soaked loss. Wedge knows similarly optimistic feelings can be met with similarly disastrous results. Nonetheless, he said he's feeling good about where the Indians are and where they're heading. "Sitting here today, I feel better about things," he said. "We've got quite a bit of experience to draw from and work off of." Finding motivation: Hafner told reporters the other day that he's not expecting to be named MVP of the Grapefruit League, after batting just .208 (11-for-53) with no homers in 17 games. It was jokingly pointed out to Hafner on Monday morning that, perhaps, he could win the league's Most Improved Player award with a bounceback '08. Hafner seemed to like the fictional idea. "I think I'll hang a picture of a grapefruit in front of me during my offseason workouts," he said with a smile. Tribe tidbits: Wedge said he will have no restrictions on right fielder Trot Nixon, who was eased into Spring Training games after having offseason back surgery. "Obviously, we'll keep a close eye on him," Wedge said. "But he should be good to go." ... Paul Byrd started an extended Spring Training game in Winter Haven, Fla., on Sunday as his last bit of preparation for his start in the home opener against the Mariners on Friday. "He got his work in and felt good," Wedge said. ... The Indians are 55-51 in their 106-year history on Opening Day, but they've lost four straight openers since 2003 and five of their last six since 2001. ... The Indians finished the spring schedule with a 16-14-1 record. The pitchers finished third in the AL in ERA with a 3.67 mark and limited hitters to a .253 average against. The batters hit .260 and average 4.5 runs per game. And the answer is: Jose Hernandez got the start in left in the '05 opener, which the Indians lost, 1-0, to the White Sox. On deck: The season-opening series against the White Sox will take a short break, as the Tribe has Tuesday off. On Wednesday, right-hander Jake Westbrook will get the 2:05 p.m. ET start opposite right-hander Jon Garland.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.