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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

With right moves, Tribe a contender ... next year

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Rest easy, Indians fans. Your Tribe is going to the World Series in 2009.

Don't believe me? Haven't you noticed the pattern here?

The Indians were strong in 2005, missing the playoffs by one game. They struggled in 2006, won their division and nearly reached the World Series in 2007, and are almost unwatchable in 2008.

A turn of the calendar shall translate into wins and championship rings, no?

Well, if you're not buying that logic, try this on.

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said the team needs to make moves that will ensure it contends next season.

Ensure, as in guarantee.

I didn't know such a thing was possible, but Shapiro said "ensure," "contend," and "next season" in the same sentence twice during a conference call Friday.

Sounds good to me. One question, though.

If you can ensure contending next season, why didn't the Indians solidify themselves as a playoff team this year?

"That's the reality of this game. There's a human side," Shapiro said. "I believe if some guys were not hurt, we'd still be in contention [this year]."

The Indians entered play last night 37-49 and 12 games behind Chicago for first place in the American League Central. It's Shapiro's belief that had Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, Travis Hafner, and Victor Martinez all not suffered injuries this year, Cleveland's defense of its division crown would not be for all intents and purposes over.

Hmm.

Those injuries do not account for the poor offensive performances of Ryan Garko (.243, six homers), Franklin Gutierrez (.221, three homers), and Asdrubal Cabrera (.184, demoted to Triple-A Buffalo), nor do they explain the bullpen's collapse.

And they certainly do not absolve Shapiro for failing to make moves to upgrade his roster from last season, or at least find insurances in the case that some players who had strong years in 2007 faltered this season.

This is not to second-guess Shapiro, by the way. His players, at least publicly, all applauded him for largely keeping the 2007 AL Central championship team together, and it seemed on paper like the Indians had enough to give the Tigers - forget about Chicago and Minnesota - a run for first place this year.

Only it's clear now that

Shapiro's plan didn't work, and it's time to make moves.

Namely, Shapiro needs to trade C.C. Sabathia.

Not only does it seem foolish to think Sabathia would take less money to remain an Indian than he might get as a left-handed, former Cy Young-winning free agent, but Cleveland needs to deal him to get the prospects it clearly doesn't have in its upper minor league system.

Shapiro needs to get run-producing, power-hitting prospects who play corner positions. He needs to completely revamp his bullpen, but that is easier done through free agency and by getting some of his own pitchers who are struggling now to pitch better next year (see Rafael

Betancourt, Rafael Perez, etc.).

With Cliff Lee and a healthy Carmona, the Indians will still have one of the best one-two punches of any in their starting rotation.

Grady Sizemore remains one of the top players in the game, and his AL-best 21 homers are another sign of what he can do. Martinez, when healthy, has a track record as one of baseball's top offensive catchers.

Westbrook and Hafner are unknowns for next year, but if they can return to their top forms, the Indians are even stronger. Add this group in with the major league-ready talent Shapiro could secure through trades for Sabathia, Paul Byrd, and possibly Casey Blake, and perhaps the Indians will be sure-fire contenders.

Maybe.

RED, WHITE, AND BLUES: Mud Hens infielder Mike Hessman and closer Blaine Neal are among 60 minor leaguers being considered to play for Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Both players gave their consent - as did their parent club, the Tigers - to participate last month, and manager Davey Johnson's final, 25-man roster will be announced July 16.

Hessman and Neal, who were also selected to the Triple-A All-Star Game, are hopeful and excited about the opportunity to play for Team USA.

"The more I think about it, the more I want to do it," said Hessman, who entered play last night batting .261 with 27 homers and 55 RBIs. "For me, it would be an honor to go over there and represent our country."

Neal, the International League's saves leader, added: "You always think about making it to the big leagues or doing what you have to do in Triple-A. This is different, and it's refreshing to think I could be chosen."

Hessman and Neal appear to be the only Mud Hens

under consideration for Olympic competition. Eddie Bonine was also a possibility for Team USA, according to Hessman and Neal, but Bonine is not eligible because he is pitching in the majors.

Rick Eckstein, the Columbus Clippers' hitting coach, will serve on Johnson's Team USA staff. He said he was asked to opine about Hessman and Neal - who he sees in IL competition - and said he "spoke very highly of both of them."

Eckstein declined to discuss the Olympic roster any further.

Here's to hoping both players make the cut and go to Beijing, even though the Hens will suffer for it.

The two would likely leave Toledo around the last week of July to begin preparing for Team USA's first exhibition game - Aug. 1 against Canada in North Carolina - and the Olympic

baseball competition runs from Aug. 13-23.

The Hens have had enough

turbulence shuttling key players to Detroit all season. Losing two of their cornerstones for the final month of the regular

season, well, let's just say it wouldn't ENSURE them of

contending for an IL title.



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