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January 27, 2008

Every Given Sunday

The Tribe Bounces Back

by John Perrotto

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The Cleveland Indians could be still suffering from an October hangover, understandably, even with the date for pitchers and catchers to report to Winter Haven within sight.

The Indians had a painful ending to the 2007 season. They held a 3-1 lead on the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, then missed three chances to put the eventual world champions away, losing 7-2, 12-2 and 11-2.

Thus, the Indians blew their chance to go to the World Series for the first time since 1997. The Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948.

However, the Indians insist they are past the disappointment of last season.

"Personally, coming so close to the World Series and missing has only motivated me," first baseman Ryan Garko said. "We would have liked to have gone to the World Series and it hurt to be that close and come up short. But we also had a great year and accomplished a lot.

"Five or six days after that last game, I started working out again. Knowing how close we came to the World Series made me want to start getting ready for 2008. I knew a break here or a break there and it would have won that series. It's made me want to work extra hard in an effort to make sure that break goes our way next time.

"I know the guys on our team. I know how much they care. We're not going to be hanging our heads when we get to spring training. We'll be ready to go to work."

Indians manager Eric Wedge would have it no other way. He has a great way of compartmentalizing disappointment.

When the Indians rallied from 15 games on July 22 to nearly overtake the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central in 2005 before losing six of their last seven games, Wedge said he put the disappointment of a bad final week behind him before he had finished the short drive from the ballpark then known as Jacobs Field to his home in suburban Cleveland.

Nothing has changed this winter.

"Our entire focus when we start spring training is to win the Central division," Wedge said. "Our guys do a good job of separating, understanding what they went through, learning from it and moving forward. We've got a pretty tough group. They've toughened up a lot over the last three years. They've experienced about everything you can experience with the exception of the World Series."

Detroit experienced success in 2006, but was knocked from its perch as AL Central champions by the Indians.

The Tigers took a major step towards trying to regain the division crown by making a blockbuster trade at last month's winter meetings with Florida that netted left-hander Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera, after earlier dealing for Atlanta shortstop Edgar Renteria and Chicago Cubs outfielder Jacque Jones.

The Indians, conversely, have been nearly silent on the transactions front this winter. Their only additions have been to sign Japanese set-up reliever Masahide Kobayahski, who is not related to the hot dog-eating legend, and to trade for Colorado utility infielder Jamey Carroll, whose 15 minutes of fame came when his sacrifice fly drove in the winning run for the Rockies in the bottom of the 12th inning of their wild-card playoff victory over San Diego.

Therefore, it seems the Tigers should be able to make up the eight games they finished behind the Indians last season. However, the Indians insist they are not worried.

"I'll take the team we have right now and go into the season feeling good about our chances," Garko said. "We won the division last year and we have everything necessary to win it again this year. Our situation is a little different in that we're never going to sign free agents to $100-million contracts but, [General Manager] Mark Shapiro and his staff are excellent and they've put together a team that is a contender."

Just as he insists he isn't looking back at 2007, Wedge also says he is not looking at the Tigers in his rearview mirror with the hope that they do not appear larger than the actual objects.

"Our focus is always going to be on the Cleveland Indians," Wedge said. "We control what we can control. We're a good baseball team. When we get out there and play the way we're capable of playing, we can beat anybody."

Locking Up Tulo

The Rockies, another team that had its dreams dashed by Boston last October when they were swept in the World Series, have also had a quiet winter when it comes to adding players.

Their only major addition has been reliever Luis Vizcaino, signed to a two-year, $7.5-million contract as a free agent.

Beyond that, the Rockies have dealt Denny Bautista to Detroit for Jose Capellan in a trade of enigmatic relievers, signed left-hander Mark Redman and right-hander Kip Wells as free agents to challenge rookie left-hander Franklin Morales for the fifth starter's spot and signed left-handers Micah Bowie, Chris George and John Koronka, right-hander Josh Towers, infielder Matt Kata and catcher Mike Rose to minor-league contracts as free agents.

History has made it quite easy for the Rockies to avoid trying to make a big splash.

"The last time we had one of those winters, you know the result," manager Clint Hurdle told the Rocky Mountain News.

That was following the 2000 season when the Rockies invested $172 million in free-agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. They combined for minus-8 PRAA in their years together in Colorado before Hampton was traded and Neagle was released.

"One thing we have done well the last four years is honestly evaluate our organization and stay focused on what we feel we need to do to get better," Hurdle said. "That isn't going to change."

However, the Rockies have taken major steps to keep their young nucleus intact. The six-year, $31-million contract they gave to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki this past week is the largest guarantee ever given a player with less than two years of major-league service time.

"Obviously I'm excited," Tulowitzki said. "This team's success is a big part of why I signed. If I didn't think we could win here, I wouldn't have done this deal."

The deal, which Tulowitzki can void if he is traded, also includes a $15-million club option for 2014 with a $2-million buyout.

The signing of Tulowitzki comes after Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis received a four-year, $13.25-million contract last winter and right-hander Aaron Cook signed a four-year, $34.5-million contract in December. Left fielder Matt Holliday agreed to a two-year, $23-million contract earlier this month. First baseman Todd Helton is signed through 2011 as part of his nine-year, $141.5-million contract.

Next up on the Rockies' list for a long-term deal is right fielder Brad Hawpe.

"I'd love to do it," Hawpe said. "To play with Cook, Francis, Helton and Tulo long-term would be great."

Rays Spending Money

The Tampa Bay Rays are really putting their money where they mouths are.

The Rays have been saying they would spring to keep their best players when the time was right and they have been doing that in recent weeks.

They signed right-hander James Shields to a contract that guarantees him $11.25 million for four years and could be worth as much as $44 million over seven years if club options are exercised and various performance-bonus and escalator clauses met. That came after the signing of first baseman Carlos Pena to a three-year, $24.125-million contract. A salary arbitration hearing was also avoided with left-hander Scott Kazmir as he signed to a one-year, $3.785-million contract.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said he is living up to the promise he made since gaining control of the Rays from Vince Naimoli following the 2005 season.

"We've been very up front in everything we intended to do," Sternberg told the St. Petersburg Times. "We had a plan, and it wasn't an overnight thing that was going to happen. It's still early in the game as far as where we want to get to and need to get to. Fans can look at this and see we've got a guy [Pena] committed to be here in his free-agent year, following [Carl] Crawford and [Rocco] Baldelli and now Shields as well, guys that are well-above-average players that want to be here, and the team is making a commitment to it."

At this rate, the Rays are on the verge of losing their distinction of being baseball's laughingstock.

"We're trying to reverse the image of the Rays organization in the industry,'' Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman said. "Our goal is to become a destination spot where players want to play and people want to work. We've made quantum leaps, but we still have a lot of work to do."

Towers Extended

Kevin Towers is the longest-tenured GM in the major leagues. He is assured of staying that way for at least three more years as the San Diego Padres signed him this past week to a two-year contract extension through 2010.

The Padres have won four NL West titles and one pennant since Towers replaced Randy Smith on Nov. 17, 1995. Towers believes the franchise is ready to add to its trophy case.

"I think we're really in the best position we've been since I've been here," Towers told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "A lot of that comes from the international presence that we're going to have, our spending ability in the free-agent draft as well as internationally, and the upper-level prospects we have in our system.

"We've gotten to a point to where we're competitive at the big-league level and we've got a strong farm system. To me, that's a sign of a good organization."

Towers interviewed for the Arizona GM job following the 2004 season but opted to stay with the Padres. He will have been on the job for 15 years by the time the contract ends.

"This is the perfect place for me," Towers said. "I love the city, the club and the people. I like what we're doing and the direction we're taking."

Rumors and Rumblings

Baltimore Vice President Andy MacPhail has backed off his Jan. 31 deadline of trading Erik Bedard, and will likely keep the left-hander if he can't make a deal by the time pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 13. Seattle still appears the most likely destination for Bedard, though the Cubs still have interest in a blockbuster trade that would land both the left-hander and second baseman Brian Roberts from the Orioles … The New York Mets are considering reworking their trade offer to Minnesota for Johan Santana by including a major-league player, either right-hander Aaron Heilman or center fielder Ryan Church, in hopes of landing the left-handed ace … Philadelphia is again discussing a long-term contract with first baseman Ryan Howard, who is seeking $10 million in salary arbitration while the Phillies are offering $7 million … Even though Don Mattingly suddenly stepped down as hitting coach, Los Angeles Dodgers insiders say he still will likely get consideration to eventual replace manager Joe Torre, who starts a three-year contract this year … Though he has four years and $36.5 million left on his five-year, $44-year contract, Juan Pierre will be in competition with Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp for the Dodgers' two corner outfield spots beside center fielder Andruw Jones … Boston has interest in signing first baseman Sean Casey as a free agent to serve as a back up to Kevin Youkilis … The Chicago White Sox are likely to start off infielder/outfielder Alexei Ramirez, a Cuban defector they signed to a four-year, $4.9-million contract as a free agent, in the minor leagues unless they deal infielder Jose Uribe to open a roster spot … The Cubs continue to pursue outfielder Marlon Byrd from Texas as insurance in case young center fielder Felix Pie bombs in spring training or early in the season… Free agent third baseman Pedro Feliz's chances of returning to San Francisco likely ended when he turned down a two-year contract offer. The Giants reportedly have interest in signing free agent Morgan Ensberg or trading for White Sox third baseman Joe Crede, though it is doubtful they would give up left-hander Noah Lowry in that deal … Tampa Bay has interest in signing left-handed reliever Trever Miller to a one-year contract as a free agent but he is looking for a multi-year deal … There is a strong chance Washington will release infielder Felipe Lopez before contracts become guaranteed in late March as he is asking for $5.2 million in arbitration and the Nationals are offering $4.9 million even though he figures to be the backup to second baseman Ronnie Belliard and shortstop Cristian Guzman … Second baseman Freddy Sanchez is looking for $4.9 million in arbitration and the Pittsburgh offering $4.1 million, though the two sides are talking about settling with a multi-year contract … Arizona settled potential arbitration cases by agreeing to one-year contracts with second baseman Orlando Hudson for $6.25 million and reliever Brandon Lyon for $3.125 million. The Diamondbacks have had preliminary discussions on long-term deals with both players … Left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, signed to a one-year, $3-million contract, will be one of five pitchers vying for three spots in the Cincinnati rotation behind Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo as he will compete with Homer Bailey, Matt Belisle, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez … It is looking more likely the Reds may be holding spring training in Sarasota, Fla., the for the last time this year as their lease expires and local officials are having difficulty getting funding for improvements to Ed Smith Stadium … Kansas City will give right-hander Brett Tomko, signed to a one-year, $3-million contract as a free agent, a chance to make the starting rotation in spring training. They envision him, however, as a potential set-up man to closer Joakim Soria … Utility infielder Abraham Nunez has agreed to begin the season in the minor leagues if he fails to make Milwaukee's opening-day roster as a non-roster invitee … Khalil Greene's decision not to discuss a long-term contract with San Diego sends a strong signal that he will leave the Padres when eligible for free agency after the 2009 season … The Padres continue to look for a corner outfielder and are focusing on trades for the Cubs' Matt Murton or Pittsburgh's Xavier Nady … Baltimore has interest in free agent right-hander Kyle Lohse, whose options are becoming more limited now that the Mets are close to signing Livan Hernandez as a free agent. The Orioles are also interested in left-hander Ron Villone and right-hander Steve Trachsel, who they traded to the Cubs last August … The Mets are also considering signing left-hander Odalis Perez to a minor-league contract as a free agent and inviting him to spring training … Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire says he is willing to move right fielder Michael Cuddyer to center field, but it is more likely the Twins will sign free agent Kenny Lofton to play center … Former closer Keith Foulke, who is considering coming out of retirement, threw in front of scouts this past week in Arizona and his fastball topped out at just 84 mph … Free-agent outfielder Brad Wilkerson has apparently lowered his asking price from three years and $21 million, which should create more of a market.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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