Contenders or Pretenders?
He said it and Cleveland believed it.
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has been constantly, and we do mean constantly, reminded of his promise almost three years ago that in 2005, his Tribe would be a contender.
Here we are: 2005.
"Never has one quote been brought back up so much," Shapiro says. "It's the small-market equivalent of 'No new taxes.'
"In hindsight, I guess it was an ambitious goal to turn over a team and build it back up in 2 1/2 years. We've already exceeded that by contending in August last year. But this year we can say we expect to contend from day one."
Day one. Now that's ambitious.
But ambition isn't enough. Heck, we want a contender. Now. You promised.
We want sellouts, late-inning comebacks, dingers onto the home-run porch, clutch singles and one-two-three in the ninth. We want the Jake thumpin' like it did 10 years ago.
And yes, we know it'll be different now. Omar's gone, our last connection to that magical World Series season. But we're ready to replace him with Victor's hand jives, C.C.'s crooked cap and Pronk wielding a mighty club.
Another pennant? Yeah, we'll take that, too. A promise is a promise. Even the players know it.
"Mark and Eric [Wedge] have put us in a good position to succeed with this roster, and it's on us to be healthy and do our thing," says new third baseman Aaron Boone. "It's on us to come through."
See? We have expectations, too.
Here are 21 reasons why they'll succeed. And 21 why they won't.
Why They Will
1 Closer Bob Wickman's new elbow. Tommy John surgery is serious business, but Wickman's second-half performance last season (13-for-14 in save opportunities) is encouraging.
2 If Wick's elbow flames out, manager Eric Wedge's bullpen has more options for putting out late-inning fires than last season's collection of kindling and gas cans. Arthur Rhodes, Bobby Howry, David Riske and Jason Davis can all work the ninth inning and Scott Sauerbeck should be a reliable veteran lefty.
3 Catcher Victor Martinez' handshakes. With a different hand jive for each team member, it's one of the small ways Martinez has become a leader. One big reason? In just his first full season, Martinez hit cleanup, belted 23 homers and drove in 108 runs to lead major-league catchers (also a team-record for the position). Plus, by upgrading his backup from Tim Laker to Josh Bard, Wedge can rest Martinez with more confidence and keep him fresh down the stretch.
4 No. 1 starter C.C. Sabathia had his uniform number retired during the off-season by his high school in Vallejo, Calif. Maybe this is a good omen. Plus, Sabathia says that after enduring personal loss off the field — three deaths in his family last year — and on-the-field distractions, he's matured and ready for a big year, even citing a desire to keep his weight under control.
5 Juan Gonzalez makes a successful return to the Indians, stays healthy and remembers how much he loves hitting at Jacobs Field. If he even remotely approaches his 2001 form (.325, 35 homers, 140 RBIs), it will be a huge bonus. "We're not depending on him," says Shapiro, "but a healthy Gonzo would be a plus."
6 The addition of some Atlanta Braves pitching mojo in right-hander Kevin Millwood. If any of the good karma that accompanies Braves studs Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux has stuck, now would be a good time to cash it in. Oh, and it'd be good if his elbow holds, too.
7 Veterans with playoff experience — Millwood, Boone, Alex Cora, Jose Hernandez and Gonzalez — can help prevent last season's late freefall. After being a game out of first in the middle of August, the Tribe dropped nine straight to snuff its short-lived threat to Minnesota.
8 Acquiring Aaron Boone taps into a bloodline from our last World Series championship. Boone's grandfather, Ray, stepped in for six games when shortstop-manager (and league MVP) Lou Boudreau was injured late in the 1948 pennant race. The '48 team brought home the Series. Ray went on to play six seasons in Cleveland. But then he was traded to Detroit and the 111-win Tribe collapsed in the '54 Series. Coincidence?
9 These guys can hit. Last season's offense, which scored 858 runs (up from 699 in 2003), should improve and be more consistent with the maturation of Travis Hafner, Ben Broussard, Martinez and Casey Blake, and with the addition of Boone and Gonzalez.
10 The Twins, defending AL Central champs, have sustained considerable losses in the past two off-seasons. Eventually, losing talent such as pitchers Eddie Guardado, Eric Milton and LaTroy Hawkins and bats Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz will catch up to them. It could give this Tribe team just enough room to slip past.
11 Coco Crisp proves he's more than just a cute name and ready to replace Matt Lawton as the Tribe's leadoff hitter. Crisp could stand to walk a little more, but if he gets on base, Wedge isn't going to care how he got there.
12 Remember the Bench Bunch back in 1995, led by reserves Wayne Kirby, Alvaro Espinoza and a big pink chewing-gum bubble adorning some unsuspecting player's cap? Well, this year's version may not be as good with the practical jokes as that '95 group, but they should play a lot better than last year's edition. Cora and Hernandez give Wedge flexibility to rest rookie shortstop Jhonny Peralta (or Brandon Phillips) when the pressure of replacing Omar Vizquel becomes too much to bear. Same goes for second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who got tired late last season and could benefit from more rest. Hernandez, Ryan Ludwick and Jody Gerut can provide outfield depth as well.
13 Loving Casey Blake only makes you stronger. He's a hard-nosed, overachieving, team-first guy whose errors on routine grounders at third broke your heart about as often as his dramatic home runs lifted it. He'll likely struggle with his transition to the outfield, but his new position will probably be kinder to him than last year's pounding. He hit 11 more homers in 2004 than in 2003, and a less-fatigued bat could improve his run production.
14 Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee add talent and depth to the pitching rotation. Last season, Westbrook retired 27 consecutive batters over three games — a feat he refers to as his "personal perfect game." He believes he's got another one of those in him, and Wedge won't care if it takes him three games to do it again.
15 Shapiro turned out to be a genius after all. Widely criticized after turning over the roster during the 2002 season, Shapiro's players are paying handsome dividends. Hafner, Broussard, Crisp and Lee are integral parts of the deals he made. "In this job, you can look like a genius one day and an idiot the next," Shapiro says. "The toughest juncture is when you have to make a tough decision for the long-term health of the organization, but in the short term it's painful. But what you want is to be right in the end, even if it's painful along the way."
16 The approach. Wedge says the two most important beliefs that he and Shapiro have tried to instill in this team are respect for the game and being a good teammate. Think New England Patriots here. "Our guys are doing that and it shows," Wedge says.
17 Good run support makes for happy pitchers. "It's exciting to think about our lineup," says Westbrook. "Even when you have a big lead, these guys are going to keep putting up runs. And as a pitcher, it's exciting to know that if you're not going good, this lineup can keep you in the game."
Don't bother calling him Travis or Hafner or Haf.
Especially don't come up with any of those trendy "SportsCenter" nicknames like T-Haf. If you want to acknowledge Travis Hafner and what he's done for the Cleveland Indians, you'll call him Pronk.
"If you call him anything but Pronk, he'll say he doesn't know anybody by that name," notes teammate Casey Blake. "Pronk's all he'll hear. He's funny about that."
Hafner, 27, shrugs. "Yeah, I get like that."
He gets like that over a nickname that combines the words "project" and "donkey." But Indians management figures the team's designated hitter can go by anything he wants as long as he continues what he started last year when he hit .311 with 28 homers and 109 RBIs.
Those numbers came in a season shortened by an elbow injury in September and with Hafner playing in pain for much of the season's second half. Nobody has any reason to think he can't improve on that performance, especially now that the elbow has been surgically repaired.
Hafner, a native of Sykeston, N.D., and the son of wheat and sunflower farmers, is ready to mature more as a big-league star. A touted Texas Rangers prospect in 2002, he was traded to the Indians for then-starting catcher Einar Diaz. Expectations for Hafner grew exponentially when star slugger Jim Thome bolted for Philadelphia prior to the 2003 season. Hafner fought through injuries and a slow start to play in 91 games and hit .254 with 14 homers and 40 RBIs.
"I knew I wouldn't hit 50 home runs like Thome," he says. "All I was trying to do was establish myself in this league." Now, healthy and pain-free, he's ready to make a splash.
"Individually, my main goal this season is to be able to play in 162 games," Hafner says. "I know I'll get a day off now and then, but if I am able to play in every game, then it means I stayed healthy the whole year." Without the elbow injury last year, he could have been a 35-homer, 125-RBI man.
And even though he and catcher Victor Martinez are expected to provide the bulk of the middle-of-the-lineup power, Hafner immediately adds that this team isn't about individual goals. It's about players with team goals.
"We believe in a one-through-nine philosophy," he says. "We don't rely on one or two guys to carry us through. I like being in the middle of the lineup, because guys are on base for you and guys are behind you to bring you home."
Tribe general manager Mark Shapiro is ecstatic to hear his players talk like that. Still, Hafner could be in for a big, big year.
"I don't like to directly compare players and it's unfair to do it, but I really feel like Travis could impact our team as much as David Ortiz impacts the Red Sox," Shapiro says. "He could be a middle-of-the-lineup bat for us for seasons to come."
Tribe manager Eric Wedge admires Hafner's mental approach and how he played through the bad elbow. "He epitomizes what we want in our guys in terms of toughness," Wedge says. "He didn't complain; he just kept going."
Finally, though, Wedge had to remove Hafner from the lineup in the middle of a game. "We finally had to shut him down," Wedge says.
Hafner shows his toughness not only on the field — Pronk led Tribe batters in getting hit by pitches (17) last season — but also in the clubhouse. Although he says he does it less frequently these days, at any moment he's likely to grab a teammate in the clubhouse and emulate a wrestling move he saw on WWE wrestling. "I've watched it since I was a kid," he says. "They do a great job of entertainment."
Hafner even emulates the macho wrestler trash-talking when he's playing well, chess.
He picked up the game when he was in the Texas Rangers' minor-league system and the hobby stuck. "I really have become fascinated with the game," he says. "One thing I really like about [chess] is that, unless you're Bobby Fischer, you can't master it."
Hmm a jock who plays chess? Does this damage his tough-guy athletic image?
"Maybe I look at it like this," Hafner says. "If I play chess, which I do, then I have to do something to balance that out, something with a lot of testosterone. Maybe that's why I like WWE wrestling and baseball. There's a balance there, see? And in chess, you can talk some good trash when you take somebody's queen."
Trash talking or otherwise, Hafner is known among teammates for his humor. "Soft-spoken but funny, too," says pitcher Jake Westbrook. "Travis is a hilarious guy, a great teammate and someone you want to be around. He keeps us all up."
Short of injuring himself or someone else, Shapiro and Wedge don't really concern themselves with what Hafner's up to in the clubhouse. They know he's keeping things light inside and that once outside he has the respect of his coaches, fans and teammates.
"You've got an elite-type hitter here," says Tribe third baseman Aaron Boone. "No fooling, this guy's the real deal. He's got a chance to be a premier offensive player in this league for a long time. I'm looking forward to being in the lineup with him." — JR
19 Since the Browns' return in 1999, every time they've named a new coach, the Tribe contends. In 1999, it was Chris Palmer and the Tribe was 97-65; in 2001, Butch Davis and a 91-71 Tribe. This season, Romeo Crennel is the lucky charm.
20 A strong first month of the season would put a spell on this town and rekindle some of the magic of 455 straight sellouts at Jacobs Field. "Cleveland's great," Westbrook says. "I've been traded three times and I love it here in Cleveland. I think a lot of the guys do." Adds Hafner: "We have really great die-hard fans here in Cleveland. They're very supportive. I'd love nothing more than to bring a world championship here for these fans."
21 That curse thing. Last year, the Red Sox lifted the Curse of the Bambino and 86 years of frustration by winning the World Series. Now, everyone is looking for the next curse-buster. Why not the Tribe? Despite the success of the '90s, the Curse of Rocky Colavito still looms large. Plus, last season, ESPN.com ranked the Indians second (behind only the Expos and above the Cubs and White Sox) in its baseball "Misery Index," which measures a franchise's historic and recent despair and pain, intangible misery and misery outlook. And you know what they say: "Misery loves championships." (Or something like that.)
Why They Won't
1 Cash. The Tribe's payroll, which will be between $45 million and $50 million on Opening Day, just isn't big enough. By comparison, the Yankees' is roughly $185 million. Mark Shapiro has done an incredible job of assembling hard-working, high-character players with the third-lowest payroll in the Bigs, but that's no substitute for having real money. "Without a lot of money, it requires a lot of creativity," he says.
2 Bob Wickman hears "pop!" coming from the neighborhood of his right elbow.
3 Rookie shortstop Jhonny Peralta (or Brandon Phillips) is no Vizquel. It remains to be seen if Vizquel's replacement is ready — physically and mentally.
4 Until Peralta learns to spell his name correctly, the Tribe is doomed. Everyone knows there's only one "n" in Jhony.
5 Kevin Millwood's right elbow blows out again. If this happens, Eric Wedge would likely use Jason Davis, who had 19 starts last season, as his replacement in the rotation. But Wedge would rather groom Davis to be the team's post-Wickman closer.
6 The bullpen flames out just like last year. Tribe relievers blew 21 saves in the first half of the season.
7 Juan Gonzalez, who has been plagued with back problems, breaks down early, forcing the Tribe to have the weakest throwing outfield in the league with Grady Sizemore in center, Coco Crisp in left and Casey Blake in right. "We're trying to walk the line there and be realistic but optimistic on Juan," Wedge says. "He has to be healthy, motivated and on board with what we're doing here."
8 Blake has difficulty adjusting to the outfield, where he's never played in the big leagues. "I think I'll enjoy it, though," he says. "My concentration will be tested a little bit at first." Hopefully, that's what spring training is for.
9 The Indians are unable to replace Matt Lawton and Vizquel with comparable No. 1 and No. 2 hitters.
10 The three-time defending AL Central champ Minnesota Twins have lost some big talent, but they re-signed Brad Radke to keep the staff with the lowest ERA in the AL last year (4.03) intact.
11 Ownership fails to ante up for a trade if the team is in contention in late July or August.
12 Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, expected to be significant producers, are struck with Jody Gerut disease. After a good rookie season in 2003, Gerut never got his offense going last season.
13 Gerut's rookie season (.279, 22 homers, 75 RBIs) was the exception and last season (.252, 11, 51) was his norm.
14 Aaron Boone's surgically repaired left knee seriously hinders his performance at third base, which means Blake has to move back to third, which creates an outfield shuffle, too.
15 Injuries to the starting rotation: Beyond Davis and Kaz Tadano, the Indians don't have a lot of depth in the rotation. Adam Miller and Fausto Carmona, two of the Indians' top minor-league pitching prospects, are not ready yet.
16 Maybe Cliff Lee turns out to be more like former Red Sox lefty Bill "Spaceman" Lee — who once asked about The Green Monster, Fenway Park's famed 37-foot wall, "Do they leave it there during the game?" — and flakes out.
17 This team is not the Yankees, the Red Sox or even the Twins.
18 C.C. Sabathia struggles to keep umpires out of his head again this season. ("C.C. knew that got him off his game last year and I think that won't be a problem this year," Jake Westbrook says.) Or, worse, Sabathia gets hungry and those room-service wings start tasting good.
19 The Tribe simply fails to grab the opportunity. "You have to be humble in this game, but there's no room for timidity," Blake says. "This game can take you down."
20 The Tribe's younger players — Davis, 24; Peralta, 22; Phillips, 23; Crisp, 25; Sizemore, 22 — aren't as ready as everyone wants to believe. The season's mental grind can chew up young players. But they won't gain any sympathy from fans, Shapiro observes.
21 The baseball gods have already decided: This is not our year. There's no fighting the baseball gods.
12:00 AM EST
March 23, 2005