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Published: Saturday, 2/13/2010

Indians lean on talent acquired in trades after quiet offseason

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Indians fans don't need to be reminded how bad things got last season.

They remember that last year's team finished with a 65-97 record, which tied them for worst in the American League Central and was only one game better than Baltimore.

They were disappointed, naturally, and so was the Tribe's front office.

“That disappointment in the last two seasons is understandable,” said John Mirabelli, the Indians' assistant general manager in charge of scouting operations. “We don't accept a 90-loss season, so we don't expect them to accept it, either.”

So how does the Cleveland front office explain an off-season of virtual inactivity?

This winter the Indians' “big” trades were for pitcher Mitch Talbot and infielder Brian Bixler, and the “big” free-agent signees were catcher Mike Redmond, infielder Mark Grudzielanek, and pitcher Jamey Wright.

Is that enough to reverse last season's tailspin and get Cleveland back into the playoffs?

“If you look at the last two seasons, and the moves that we made in-season, those could be our off-season [moves],” Mirabelli said when the Tribe visited the Toledo area in late January. “We've acquired 15 players in trade the last two seasons, all of those guys under the age of 25 and 11 of those guys being pitchers.

“Those guys may need a chance to develop, some seasoning, but they also need an opportunity. To go out and sign a one-year veteran, a bridge-the-gap kind of guy, isn't making productive use [of] the 162 games that we have.

“Yeah, it's been quiet this off-season — by design.”

The Indians have traded some big names, including left-handed pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee along with catcher Victor Martinez. And the results probably will begin showing up around the diamond this season as players acquired in those trades appear on the big-league roster.

Among the potential Opening Day starters for Cleveland are first baseman Matt LaPorta and outfielder Michael Brantley, who came from Milwaukee for Sabathia, as well as catcher Lou Marson, part of the package that came from Philadelphia for Lee.

Potential starters such as right-handed pitchers Justin Masterson, one of the pitchers Cleveland picked up from Boston for Martinez, and Carlos Carrasco, another part of the Lee trade, also were part of the in-season barrage of new blood.

Mirabelli said that the result of these trades is a group of younger players who should be hungry for the chance to earn a berth on the big-league roster.

“I think there are opportunities all over the field,” he explained. “I think there also will be competition all over the field. We feel we have a very deep minor-league system right now, and we've got good balance between position players and pitchers.

“I don't think we'll hand anyone a job — I think there will be good competition. You can look at the depth chart and see that there are spots that aren't spoken for.”

There aren't many positions that are certain. Grady Sizemore is expected to bounce back from injury and patrol centerfield, while Shin-Soo Choo should start in right.

In fact, one of the biggest unknowns the Indians face is the recovery from injury of once-promising veterans such as designated hitter Travis Hafner and right-handed pitcher Jake Westbrook.

“We feel good about all of these guys bouncing back, at least from a physical standpoint,” Mirabelli said of the injured players. “We know they all have ability. What it comes down to is these guys bouncing back to their previous levels of productivity.

“If they do, now maybe we've got some surprises. If some young guys jump up and surprise, maybe we do better than some people expect.”

Without question the biggest move the Indians made this off-season was naming Manny Acta as manager.

“I think his passion, his energy, his leadership are going to be evident,” Mirabelli said. “I think the dynamic in spring training is really going to be a positive.

“It's absolutely the right time for us to bring him into the system.”

It also helps that the Indians play in the American League Central, where last season the Minnesota Twins needed only 87 wins to claim the division title.

“Obviously it's a lot different than playing in the American League East,” said Mirabelli, with obvious reference to the high-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. “In the last four years, four of the five AL Central teams have made the playoffs at least once.

“I think it's a competitive division, but it gives you hope that you get back in [the pennant race] quicker than if you were in another division. We know we're not a favorite. But if you look at what we have to do to get back to being a championship team, playing in this division gives you a sense that you can get there sooner instead of going through a long period of rebuilding.”

Contact John Wagner at:jwagner@theblade.comor (419) 724-6481.



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