02/19/12 5:37 PM EST
Cleveland counting on depth to support core
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
"He's never missed a Spring Training," Hannahan said with a smile.
The atmosphere was noticeably relaxed on the eve of the Tribe's mandatory reporting date for pitchers and catchers. A dozen or so players were on hand for a voluntary practice, and Hannahan's dog, Pete, wandered around with his tail wagging, ready for anyone to throw him a baseball.
Welcome to Spring Training.
By Wednesday, when the Indians hold their first official workout, the intensity level will be up a few ticks. This is a big year for the Tribe, which is convinced that it has the pieces in place to contend for the American League Central crown. Some of that confidence stems from the team's newly added depth.
There are 61 players in the fold for camp, including 21 brought in as non-roster invitees; 12 within that group were added this winter on Minor League contracts. The situation is such that the Indians ran out of lockers in the clubhouse. Four players are sharing two stalls to save space.
It seems that the Indians believe the best way to catch lightning is to round up as many bottles as possible.
"It wasn't surprising," said Hannahan, referring to the high volume of players added through Minor League contracts over the winter. "There's a lot of good players out there. They filled those extra roles with experienced guys that have been there just in case guys get banged up again.
"That's what they did, and they did a good job of it. They got a lot of good players here."
Hannahan is more than familiar with this approach by the Indians. A year ago he walked into the Tribe's spring complex as a non-roster invitee and as a long shot to make the Opening Day roster. An injury to Jason Donald in early March paved the way for Hannahan to earn the starting job at third base come April.
Now Hannahan is here on a guaranteed deal for 2012 and is considered a virtual lock to be on the team at the onset of the regular season.
In a way the Indians seem to be searching for this year's Jack Hannahan.
For the two available bullpen jobs, Cleveland signed Dan Wheeler, Robinson Tejeda, Chris Ray and Jeremy Accardo to Minor League contracts. For possible bench roles, the Indians used similar deals to reel in the likes of Jose Lopez, Andy LaRoche, Ryan Spilborghs, Fred Lewis and Felix Pie.
The list goes on.
Manager Manny Acta said that the surplus of experienced players brought in for depth is a sign of where the team falls in terms of contending.
"It changes from year to year, depending on where you're at in your plans," Acta said. "We started the rebuilding process here a couple of years ago. Obviously, you weren't going to see that many guys two or three years ago when we were concentrating on finding out which guys were going to be the core group here.
"There were a few, because you do have to have some veteran presence on your ball club, but now -- and it started last year -- we proved that we were going to leave Spring Training with the best 25 guys regardless of who [they were]. Jack is a testament to that."
The Indians like the core group that they have in place.
There are young up-and-coming players, such as catcher Carlos Santana, starter Justin Masterson, second baseman Jason Kipnis and reliever Vinnie Pestano. There are more established players, including right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and closer Chris Perez. Then there are the veterans: Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and Derek Lowe.
"It's definitely a good mixture of players," Perez said. "Guys that have been there and guys that are still hungry to try and get there."
And there is, in theory, more protection behind the core group.
Last season, Cleveland stormed to a 30-15 record and a seven-game lead in the division before injuries chipped away at both the roster and the team's place in the standings. The Indians were forced to turn to less-experienced options down the stretch, and that contributed to their slide to second place.
"Once those injuries kind of hit, we didn't really have anywhere to turn," Perez said. "We were bringing up guys that were inexperienced or guys that might not have been ready yet, but we needed to bring them up for necessity. This year, the way it's shaping up, we're going to have options if somebody has a bad performance or injuries happen again."
As camp is set to begin, there are fewer jobs up for grabs. There will be a battle for the fifth rotation job, a fight for a few relief roles and a competition for bench duties. But for the most part, the prominent roles are occupied, which is another sign of progress.
"That's what's fun about the rebuilding process when you do it right," Acta said. "You don't want to be taking steps backward. You want to continue to move forward, and that's what we can point at. ... We're coming in with less spots available. That's what it's all about. We've gotten to this point, but we're not done yet.
"My goal is to come in and have the expectations up in the sky very high. That's our expectations. They're always that way, but [we need to] get to a point where the whole world really knows how good these guys are and puts the expectations on us, too."