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Published: Friday, 3/14/2003

Shapiro plans to put Tribe back on top

VIERA, Fla. - Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro's enthusiasm about his team's core of young talent is what Cleveland fans want and need to hear.

But according to Shapiro, it's what he personally believes, no matter the army of doubters.

Shapiro's trades of key veterans last season, including pitchers Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Paul Shuey, helped replenish the club's farm system in a calculated attempt to upgrade the big-league roster while slashing payroll.

“I couldn't see any better alternative to get us where we needed to go,” Shapiro said yesterday before Cleveland's 5-2 loss to Montreal.

“I think you have to tell [the fans] you understand some level of skepticism, you understand their hesitation to buy into it. What makes them a passionate fan base is that they're passionate about winning. Then you have to tell them that everything we've done here is an effort to provide them with a winner.

“We have a much better chance today of getting back to a world championship than we had one year ago.”

There are tickets to be sold right now. Shapiro was doing his part yesterday.

Spring training is for dreamers, a time of year when expectations are permitted to soar and reality sometimes takes a holiday.

The Indians entered yesterday's contest as the top hitting team in the American League this spring, while ranking third in pitching.

“It's always the time of the year to be hopeful,” Shapiro said. “There's been a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the Indians' future this spring.”

Shapiro, obviously, does not want to present an image that 2003 will be sacrificed for the future.

This is a transitional year for the Indians, the first official “we're starting over” declaration from the front office in over a decade.

Cleveland posted a 74-88 record in 2002, its first losing season since going 76-86 in 1993.

Shapiro should cross his fingers for a .500 campaign. That would make 2003 an excellent starting point for what can come next.

“We've been careful not to set limitations on our club, but at the same time be realistic about the [rebuilding] process we have to go through.”

Looking ahead, however, a foundation of youth is on the immediate horizon.

Cleveland had the top-ranked farm system last season, according to USA Today's Baseball Weekly. The Indians have five players listed among Baseball America's most recent Top 100 prospects: second baseman Brandon Phillips (No. 7), catcher Victor Martinez (No. 16), pitcher Cliff Lee (No. 30), first baseman Travis Haffner (No. 46) and pitcher Jeremy Guthrie (No. 70).

Phillips and Lee came over in the Colon trade, and Phillips has a legitimate shot at making the team. Haffner, who was acquired in another trade, is projected to be in Cleveland's Opening Day lineup.

“When we talk about what we're building here, we're building a championship team,” Shapiro said. “That's never out of the minds of our players or ourselves. That's what we expect.”

John Harris is The Blade's sports columnist. Contact him by e-mail at jharris@theblade.com



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