This is the Cleveland Indians' master plan for 2003:
General manager Mark Shapiro turning Jacobs Field into an outdoor Romper Room, while shuttling some of the Indians' most promising young players on the Buffalo-to-Cleveland Express.
Separating the men from the boys while preparing for an exciting baseball future.
Before carrying out his grand experiment, Shapiro had to analyze whether the Indians - young or not, rebuilding or not - needed to manufacture a trade before the July 31 deadline to help facilitate a speedy return to the postseason.
Not going to happen, Shapiro told reporters last week.
He sounded definite.
Try to understand Shapiro's stand-pat approach. The Indians appear to be a year or two away from playoff contention, not three or four years. For the Indians to climb out of the ditch, Shapiro believes they must stick to the plan.
If it becomes necessary for Shapiro to make a deal to improve the ballclub before next year's trade deadline, try to understand that, too.
But none of this means that the 2003 season can't have some bright moments for the Indians, and also be the jumping-off point to better things in 2004 and 2005.
Shapiro's strategy is the best thing in the long run.
The product the Indians put on the field is not always going to function smoothly. However, Shapiro realizes that to some degree, the worst is already over.
This is a transitional season in Cleveland. Looking ahead, however, there's a foundation of young talent on the immediate horizon.
The Indians' on-field talent is not the problem. They're an intriguing blend of proven players, unproven players and players on the rise.
We already know what C.C. Sabathia, Matt Lawton, Omar Vizquel and Ellis Burks can do.
We're discovering what Milton Bradley and Danys Baez can do.
Their potential is limitless.
We're still learning what Casey Blake, Ben Broussard, Brandon Phillips, Jason Davis, Jody Gerut, Coco Crisp, Travis Hafner and other youngsters can do.
They need more time.
Even with the Indians languishing a bunch of games under .500, what's not to like about their future?
The best thing about the Indians is their youth.
You can build a winning ballclub around Sabathia, Bradley, Baez, Broussard, Blake, Phillips and Davis.
The worst thing about the Indians is their youth.
Cleveland is 3-9 in extra-inning games, including yesterday afternoon's 7-4 loss in 10 innings to the White Sox after leading 4-2 with two outs in the ninth.
Baez fielded a high chopper and threw wildly past first base for what should have been the third out and the ballgame.
The same Baez who's already considered one of the top young closers in the American League.
Shapiro believes he can field a team of players who are talented enough to make positive contributions while learning on the job.
Thus far, his master plan is right on schedule.
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