Young Indians stagger through season

By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Omar Vizquel shifted his crutches, gazed down at his surgically repaired right knee and assessed the Cleveland Indians' 2003 season.

"It was awesome," the shortstop said.

Yeah, maybe for the team orthopedist and local X-ray technicians.

With Indians players dropping on an almost daily basis, trainer Paul Spicuzza had as many pregame media briefings in Cleveland's dugout as general manager Mark Shapiro.

A season devoted to development and rebuilding became one of survival for baseball's second-youngest team.

"Being a major leaguer is nothing like it says in the brochure," said outfielder Jody Gerut, who emerged as the Indians' top rookie. "There's a lot more to it."

Cleveland staggered to the finish -- going 7-18 in September -- with 11 players on the disabled list, including veterans such as Vizquel, Ellis Burks, Matt Lawton, Ricky Gutierrez, Mark Wohlers, Jason Bere and Bob Wickman.

Some of the Indians' kids also went down. Milton Bradley, Ryan Ludwick, John McDonald, Billy Traber and Brian Tallet all suffered season-ending injuries. Traber and Tallet may miss all of 2004, too, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in the offseason.

It was a grind for the Indians, who used 21 rookies and ended the season with 18 first-year players on their roster. Many of them hadn't played so many games in two seasons, let alone one. By the end, most were worn out.

"Guys were dragging," reliever David Riske said.

But although they went 68-94 -- their worst record since losing 105 games in 1991 -- and only had a better record than Detroit and Tampa Bay in the AL, the Indians considered the season a success.

From April until October, the club held an open audition for its future. Shapiro and first-year manager Eric Wedge got a chance to evaluate players. A bunch of them.

"They got to see everybody, and anybody," Vizquel said.

From the outset, Cleveland's stated goal was to identify the players for another championship run, and in that regard, Wedge thinks there was progress.

"We accomplished most everything we set out to accomplish," said the rookie manager, who was rewarded with a two-year contract extension. "At the very least, I'd say we're right on schedule, but we're probably a lot further ahead than most people believe."

The plan will move into a different phase next season. Winning will again be the top priority.

"Our expectations will change," Shapiro said. "Not only are we going to play to win, we're going to put our best lineup on the field."

Gerut will be in the middle of it.

He was the club's clear-cut MVP this season, batting .279 and leading the club in homers (22) and RBIs (75) in just 127 games. He was equally solid in the field, recording nine assists and going after balls with a controlled recklessness that made him an instant fan favorite.

"I think I did as well as I could," said Gerut.

He wasn't the only rookie to shine, either. Catchers Josh Bard and Victor Martinez, shortstop Jhonny Peralta and pitchers Jason Davis, Cliff Lee, and Jason Stanford give the Indians a solid nucleus of young players to build around.

Second baseman Brandon Phillips was the year's biggest disappointment. Handed the starting job in training camp, he didn't hit, got demoted and showed little improvement when recalled.

The Indians may sign a veteran free agent this winter to play second.

C.C. Sabathia bounced back from a shaky 2002 and established himself as a bona fide No. 1 starter, going 13-9 with a 3.60 ERA. He still needs to improve his conditioning, but Sabathia matured into a team leader.

Cleveland's pitching staff posted a 4.21 ERA, the AL's fifth best.

Danys Baez appeared in a team-high 73 games, but was stripped of his closer's job. The Indians are not expected to pick up Baez's $5 million contract option next season. They could re-sign him at a 20 percent pay cut, but it's more likely that he'll leave as a free agent.

"I want to be with the Indians, but it's not my decision," Baez said.

Bradley is in a similar situation. The volatile outfielder has All-Star talent but the Indians need to decide if he's worth the headache. Trading him could be difficult.

Perhaps the best thing about 2003 is that it's over. Next year, the Indians will be older and hopefully better.

"There's only one first year in the majors for a rookie," Wedge said. "And everything they've gone through this year is going to help them in the future."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)