By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - Eric Wedge figured he'd take his time on the drive from Ohio to spring training in Florida. Soak in some of the sights. Relax on the road.
But once Wedge got behind the wheel last weekend, it was Winter Haven or bust.
Other than stopping to refuel his SUV or his stomach, the
Cleveland Indians' first-year manager floored it -- all the way to Florida.
"I got on a roll and didn't want to stop," Wedge said from his office at Chain O' Lakes Park.
And on Monday morning, days before Cleveland's pitchers and
catchers were due to report, Wedge was in uniform at his desk ready to greet his players.
"I'm ready to get on the field, man," he said.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Indians are heading into spring training unsure of what their starting lineup will look like on opening day.
The 35-year old Wedge -- baseball's youngest manager -- will try to get the Indians back into contention after one of the AL's perennial powers slipped to 74-88 and third-place in the Central Division last season.
"We've got a lot of questions," Wedge said. "Now it's time to start getting some answers."
Cleveland's pitchers and catchers reported Friday and will have their first workout on Sunday. Position players are due in camp next Wednesday and will have their first full-squad practice on Feb. 21.
The Indians will open their exhibition season on Feb. 28 with a pair of split-squad games.
"This is going to be a lot of fun," said Wedge, who managed
Cleveland's Triple-A Buffalo affiliate the past two seasons before getting the Indians' job in October. "I can't wait to get started."
The Indians are entering their first full season since being dismantled by general manager Mark Shapiro, who has traded Roberto Alomar, Bartolo Colon and a few other veterans as part of the club's rebuilding process.
Shapiro thinks the Indians can be a contender by 2005. That's not soon enough for Wedge.
"We're done rebuilding," said Wedge. "I'm not going to use
rebuilding as an excuse. It's time for us to establish ourselves as a ballclub. It's time to get this thing going."
There will be competition at nearly every position this spring. But not at shortstop where Omar Vizquel will go after another Gold Glove and try to duplicate his offensive output -- career-highs in homers (14) and RBIs (74) -- of a year ago.
Josh Bard inherited the starting catcher's job when Shapiro
traded Einar Diaz to Texas, and the 24-year-old switch-hitter will be behind the plate until Victor Martinez moves him aside.
Travis Hafner, acquired in the Diaz deal, will compete with Ben Broussard at first, a spot vacated when Jim Thome signed as a free agent in Philadelphia.
John McDonald and Brandon Phillips will fight to be the starter at second. McDonald batted a respectable .250 last season, but Phillips is a potential superstar, who if he hits well this spring, could make the 25-man roster.
"We don't want to rush things with Brandon or any of our young players," Wedge said. "That doesn't mean they can't win jobs, though."
Casey Blake appears to be the front-runner at third, but Bill Selby and Greg LaRocca will get a shot. Ricky Gutierrez is coming off major neck surgery and can't be counted on yet.
Matt Lawton, Milton Bradley and Karim Garcia will likely break camp as the starting outfield with speedy Coco Crisp battling Bradley to play center and bat leadoff.
Wedge is blessed with a talented group of young pitchers. Now he has to figure out which ones are ready.
C.C. Sabathia, Jason Bere and Brian Anderson are the only
certainties in the rotation, with the two other spots coming from a group of six -- including pre-camp favorites Ricardo Rodriguez and Jason Davis.
Left-hander Cliff Lee had two strong September starts last
season and should make the squad.
Danys Baez is now the closer, but that's one of the few things known about an overhauled bullpen. Wedge will have plenty of arms to choose from, however.
"We've got some big decisions to make. No doubt," Wedge said. "We need to make good ones with our younger players."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)