* D.Jackson *
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By D. Jackson
Spring Training 2002 will be the most exciting camp the Indians have had in quite awhile. With so many positions up for grabs, things will get very interesting. In the past maybe one, two or three positions at the most were unsettled, but this year as many as 5 position spots and most of the starting rotation is up for grabs. Here is how it breaks down.
All three outfield spots are up for grabs at this point, with as many as six players looking for a spot. In left, Russell Branyan seems to be the preseason favorite. The Indians need to find out if he is for real. This means Charlie Manuel will have to get him 400 to 500 at bats in 2002. Left field would be the best fit for him. If Branyan falters, look for Brady Anderson to get the bulk of the duty in left. Karim Garcia is another possibility. Ellis Burks may also get some time in left, but Manuel will DH him as much as possible.
In center, the Indians are hoping that Milton Bradley is ready to stay in the majors for good. Defensively he is outstanding, but he has yet to prove he can hit. If he has a strong spring he will be the starting center fielder and will leadoff or hit ninth. If Bradley doesnít work out the Indians may have to go with a platoon in center. Besides Bradley there are no pure center fielders in the system. The Tribe may have to alternate Anderson, Matt Lawton, and Jolbert Cabrera.
Right field figures to be the domain of Matt Lawton. As mentioned above, though, Lawton may have to play some center. Karim Garcia would seem to be the next option in right, if he can hit consistenltly.
The outfield is up in the air right now. How it will pan out basically depends on whether Bradley is ready to be a major league player.
At least three of the infield positions are set in stone. Omar Vizquel will play shortsop, Jim Thome will play first base and Einar Diaz will be behind the plate. Travis Fryman will play third, if he can stay healthy. His arm is supposedly 100% now, but with that type of injury and Frymansís age, there is a possibility he may not ever be 100% again. The Indians failed to sign a third baseman in the offseason. At one point, they were looking at Herbert Perry, who has a decent bat and could spell both Fryman and Thome when needed. Donít be surprised if the Indians pick up someone to do that before Opening Day.
Ricky Gutierrez was signed to play second base and will be given every opportunity to be the regular second baseman. If he has difficulty making the transition from short to second, Cabrera or John McDonald may have to step in.
Only two starters have locked up spots in the starting rotation at this time. Bartolo Colon will be the number one starter. The Indians are hoping that Colon finally steps up and becomes the dominant pitcher he is capable of being. C.C. Sabathia looks to follow up his outstanding rookie season in 2001 with another good year in 2002. If Sabathia has the dreaded sophomore slump it could be the beginning of the end for the Tribe in 2002.
Spots three through five are wide open at this point. Danys Baez, Chuck Finley, Jake Westbrook, Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright will compete to fill the vacancies. Baez, Finley, and Westbrook are the current frontrunners. Baez, a Cuban import, looks to establish himself as a tough, young starter. Last year, coming out of the bullpen, Baez blossomed. He fastball was dominating and he is one pitch away from being in the same class as Colon. He finally seemed to make the adjustment to the U.S. last season. That was probably his most difficult hurdle of his young career.
The Tribe is hoping Finley can put the 2001 season behind him. Finley simply imploded. He missed about a month with an injury and when he was pitching it wasnít pretty. Finley put way too many men on base, and gave up home runs at an alarming rate. If he doesnít turn it around this spring he may find himself in the bullpen.
Jake Westbrook is another young promising arm. While Westbrook doesnít have the stuff of Baez or Sabathia he could still develop into a very solid three hole starter. Westbrook isnít overpowing, but he can throw the ball by a hitter if he has to. Westbrook could also end up in the bullpen if he doesnít develop as planned this spring, although it is more likely he would end up in Buffalo.
Nagy is going to try and pitch one more season, but it is likely he will not see much time on the mound. His pitching elbow is bone on bone, and you wonder how much longer he can make it on sheer guts. Nagy is a competitor and tough s.o.b., so he wonít give up without a fight.
Wright is still trying to prove that 1997 wasnít a fluke. He showed so much promise in that season, but has done squat since. He is coming off surgery (again) and scouts say he is throwing the ball well going into spring training. They said that last year too, and he had two decent starts. Wright figures to end up in the bullpen in long relief. However, if he regains his arm strength and finally develops an off speed pitch he could have some impact as a starter later in the season.
This will be the Indians strength in 2002. They are deep and figure to be one of the best bullpens in the American League. The Indians will need the relievers to deliver as they will probably be called on quite a bit.
Bob Wickman is a top notch closer. He always manages to make things interesting. Iíve never seen a pitcher who gives up so many infield hits. But he almost always gets the job done. Wickman should be an All-Star in 2002.
Setting up Wickman will be the job of Paul Shuey and Ricardo Rincon. Shuey was dominant last year when he was healthy. If he can stay healthy this year he could challenge Jeff Nelson as the top setup man in the AL. Rincon started to show his old form in the second half last year. When the Indians acquired Rincon from the Pirates for Brian Giles he was considered the top left handed reliever in the NL. Since coming to the Tribe he hasnít lived up to that billing. But after the way he finished 2001 there is reason to be optimistic in 2002.
Jerrod Riggan, Mark Wohlers, David Riske figure to fill out the rest of the short relief work. Although, Riske could go long if needed. Riggan and Riske are two more of the Indians young promising arms. Riggan was acquired in the Roberto Alomar trade and is a solid reliever. Riske came from the Indians system and may just be biding his time to become a starter. Wohlerís past is well documented. But the past two seasons he has been solid if unspectacular.
The pitcher wheo doesnít make the starting rotation figures to take up the spot as long reliever and spot starter.
The Indians will still have a decent bench, if only because of Jolbert Cabrera. He has proven himself to be one of the top utility men in the game. Very rarely is a player able to play as many positions as Cabrera (he has a tough time at short). He also showed a better than average bat and has a knack for getting clutch hits. The Indians need to get him at bats, as he could be a big contributor. Karim Garcia and Brady Anderson make decent fourth and fifth outfielders if Anderson can regain some of his ability at the plate. John McDonald figures to be a bench player as well. He is solid defensively at short and can also fill in at second. Itís not the bench the Indians are used to, but it will have to do.
This spring training will be fun to watch. Many guys will be fighting for jobs, and some will be fighting for their careers. The infusion of young talent if nothing else will add some much needed energy to the Indians. We will no longer have to watch them put it in cruise control. This will be a fun team to watch in the spring and all season.
As an aside I wanted to post an update on the progress of the young players acquired in the Roberto Alomar trade. The Tribe had been pleasantly surprised by how far along Billy Traber, Alex Escobar, and Earl Snyder are. Word is Traber could be ready as early as late 2002. The Tribe expects him to be in the with the big club no later than 2003. Escobar and Snyder could also be ready in 2003. If these guys are ready that quick and can start contributing next season, the Alomar deal may not look like such a dud after all.
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