Last season, it seemed as if the Cleveland Indians' success came out of nowhere. All of a sudden, hitting coach Eddie Murray's stable of young bats came of age at the same time. All of a sudden, pitchers such as Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook emerged.
But to the Indians, none of it was sudden or unexpected -- though maybe it was a little sooner than anyone thought. When GM Mark Shapiro dismantled the team's roster in 2002, he said it would take four years to build it back into a contender. Last year was only Year 3, and the Indians improved by 12 games and contended briefly in August.
_____ Breakdown _____
Lineup • CF Coco Crisp • 3B Aaron Boone • C Victor Martinez • DH Travis Hafner • LH Casey Blake • 1B Ben Broussard • RF Juan Gonzalez • 2B Ron Belliard • SS Jhonny Peralta Rotation • LHP C.C. Sabathia • RHP Jake Westbrook • RHP Kevin Millwood • LHP Cliff Lee • RHP Scott Elarton Closer • RHP Bob Wickman
• Best move: Snagging 2003 ALCS hero Aaron Boone, who missed all of 2004 with a blown-out knee. • Biggest loss: SS Omar Vizquez was a franchise cornerstone for more than a decade before leaving for San Francisco. • Top rivals: Minnesota Twins.
This year, then, is the targeted Year 4, and the Indians are in perfect position to fulfill Shapiro's promise of contention.
To do so with the division's lowest payroll (roughly $45 million) will be no small task. Already the Indians are suffering with injuries -- ace C.C. Sabathia will miss at least the first few weeks of the season with a strained abdominal muscle.
To challenge the Twins for the division title, the Indians will need newcomer Kevin Millwood to regain his Atlanta form and anchor the rotation. They will need 22-year-old shortstop Jhonny Peralta to make people stop lamenting the departure of Omar Vizquel. And they will need the bats to keep producing.
But none of those things seems impossible -- and thus, neither does a title run that would make Shapiro look very, very smart.