TANNED, FOCUSED AND LOADED/AL CENTRAL
To live in Cleveland is to be optimistic. Pro football will
return. Don King will move away. The Indians will win a World
Series again. That's what they believe, those 40,000 folks who
show up at Jacobs Field every night. Heck, last year we weren't
all that good--and we still made it to Game 7! In losing,
Clevelanders found strength. The ballpark is again virtually
sold out for the entire year. Faith in Cleveland is thriving.
Especially in the office of the general manager, John Hart. He's
a hard-nosed guy. He knows that sentimentality makes for lousy
baseball, so nine of the players from last year's World Series
team are gone. But the biggest move he made all winter, he made
with hope in his heart. He signed Dwight Gooden to a two-year
contract for $5,675,000 million. Talk about running on faith.
On its face, that may not sound like much. One pitcher, the No.
3 pitcher in the rotation, accounting for 5% of the team
payroll--what's the big deal? But Doc is no ordinary No. 3
pitcher. "He holds the key for us," Hart says.
The Indians hope for 70 starts from their first two guys,
righthanders Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright. That leaves 92
games. If Gooden, at 33, can start 30 or so--something he hasn't
done since '92--and keep his club in two thirds of those, the
Indians will play October baseball again. If he can't, the
Indians may well struggle, even with their assembly line of big
bats. Gooden is the club's barometer. His whole career, his
entire life, is about hope, about faith, about luck.
The Indians have had miserable luck with their pitchers. Jack
McDowell (now with the Angels) was sidelined most of last season
with an elbow injury. Projected starter John Smiley will miss
most of this year with a broken arm. Projected No. 4 starter Ben
McDonald was sent back last week to the Brewers, who will have
to cope with his season-ending shoulder injury. Chad Ogea is out
until mid-May with a left-knee injury. Decent starts from
Gooden, one after another, will serve as a sign that Cleveland's
luck is changing, that faith is being rewarded.
People root for Gooden. In New York they rooted for him when he
was good, when he was awesome, when he was getting shelled. They
rooted for him through his drug and alcohol rehabs. And through
his arrests, his marital problems, his injuries, his father's
illness. He's likable.
Hart knows all this. He knew it when he coached against Gooden
when he was a high school pitcher in Tampa. He knew it when he
managed against Gooden's team in the minors. He knew it the last
two years, when Gooden pitched for the Yankees. Gooden owned
Cleveland, won five games against the Indians, never lost, had a
Just as he did in New York, Gooden will receive bountiful run
support in Cleveland. All the pitchers should. The '98 team has
more bash in it than even the '95 team, which won 100 games, all
of them, it seemed, on three-run homers. But when it comes to
arms, Hart has a commitment problem, and with the Indians'
recent history, his caution is understandable. Now if you have a
useful bat, Hart has something he'd like you to sign.
Leftfielder David Justice is under contract through 2002, and
the club has an option on 2003. Centerfielder Kenny Lofton,
Cleveland's prodigal son, has returned from a yearlong sojourn
in Atlanta and is signed through 2000. Rightfielder Manny
Ramirez, a 25-year-old with 59 homers and 200 RBIs over the past
two years, is signed through 1999, with a club option for 2000.
A stable and productive outfield.
Hart is moved by productivity. In the off-season, he went
shopping for a second baseman. Instead he found a shortstop with
a career .274 batting average, Shawon Dunston. Hart talked him
into playing second base. "I consider second base to be an
offensive position," the G.M. says. Hart considers every
position to be an offensive position. As for Dunston, he had no
desire to move from short. But what he wants more than anything
is to play in a World Series, something he has never done in his
13 years in the game.
Gooden is saying the same thing. He went to the World Series
with the Mets in '86. Ten years later, when the Yankees reached
the Series, Gooden was left off the roster, out of gas. He knows
the end of the line is coming. In the final years of his career,
he wants to be lucky and good. He wants to go out a winner.
That's his hope. Gooden has a lot of Cleveland in him.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE THE WRIGHT STUFF The pitching-shy Indians will need a lot of help from the precocious Wright to get back to the Series. [Jaret Wright pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Shawon Dunston]
BY THE NUMBERS
1997 Team Statistics (AL Rank)
1997 record: 86-75 (first in AL Central)
BATTING AVERAGE .286(3) OPP. BATTING AVG. .276(10)
RUNS SCORED 868(3) ERA 4.73(9)
HOME RUNS 220(2) FIELDING PCT. .983(7)
WHAT THEY NEEDED: After the departure of four starters, they
were looking for arms, and a second baseman to replace Tony
Fernandez and Bip Roberts.
WHAT THEY GOT: New pitchers Dwight Gooden and Steve Karsay.
Travis Fryman steps in for Matt Williams at third, shortstop
Shawon Dunston is the new second baseman. Kenny Lofton returns
to center after a year in Atlanta.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS: The Indians are one of the rare World Series
teams that got better over the winter. Lofton, if he returns to
form, is an upgrade from Marquis Grissom and has loads of
potential. Dunston could struggle at a new position, but he's a
vet with a good attitude and a good bat.
In his 13 years playing shortstop, Shawon Dunston was one of the
NL's hardest throwers. Now he'll be playing second for the first
time. Not that Dunston is just an arm--he put up some of his
best offensive stats last season at age 35, batting .300 with 22
doubles, 14 home runs, 57 RBIs and 32 stolen bases in 132 games
for Pittsburgh and Chicago. If he gets close to those numbers
and has only 14 errors (the total for Fernandez and Roberts at
second last season), the Indians will be just as solid in the
field and have a better bat in that slot. If not, we have one
word of advice for Thome: Wear a cup, pal.
Projected Roster With 1997 Statistics
Manager: Mike Hargrove (eighth season with Cleveland)
BATTING ORDER B/T BA HRs RBIs SBs
CF Kenny Lofton[***] L .333 5 48 27
SS Omar Vizquel S/R .280 5 49 43
LF David Justice L .329 33 101 3
RF Manny Ramirez R .328 26 88 2
1B Jim Thome L/R .286 40 102 1
3B Travis Fryman[***] R .274 22 102 16
DH Geronimo Berroa[***] R .283 26 90 4
C Sandy Alomar Jr. R .324 21 83 0
2B Shawon Dunston[***] R .300 14 57 32
OF Brian Giles L .268 17 61 13
OF Bruce Aven* (R) R .287 17 77 10
IF Jeff Branson** L/R .200 2 7 1
C Ron Karkovice[***] R .181 6 18 0
STARTERS W L IPS BR ERA
RH Charles Nagy 15 11 6.7 1.48 4.28
RH Dwight Gooden 9 5 5.5 1.66 4.91
RH Jaret Wright[***] 8 3 5.6 1.34 4.38
RH Bartolo Colon 4 7 NA 1.65 5.65
RH Steve Karsay[***] 3 12 5.5 1.67 5.77
RELIEVERS W L S BR ERA
RH Jose Mesa 4 4 16 1.38 2.40
RH Mike Jackson 2 5 15 1.23 3.24
LH Paul Assenmacher 5 0 4 1.20 2.94
LH Ron Villone[***] 1 0 0 1.73 3.42
RH Paul Shuey 4 2 2 1.80 6.20
[***]New acquisition (R) Rookie B/T: Bats/throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start BR: Base runners per inning pitched
*Triple A stats **Combined AL and NL stats