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Tribe starts transition loaded with talent

By Jim Ingraham
November 15, 2002

CLEVELAND–It wasn’t that long ago that the Indians were a beacon of stability.

Indians officials helped resurrect the franchise with a plan to sign their best young players to long-term contracts. In an era when player movement reached unprecedented levels, the Indians were able to keep most of their key pieces in place, which helped them win five consecutive American League Central titles and six in seven years.

That ride is now over. The Indians have fallen back to the pack. The sellout streak at Jacobs Field is history. In the last three years the Indians have changed owners, changed general managers, changed much of the front-office personnel and changed managers–three times.

But the biggest changes have come on the roster. In the last 12 months the Indians have undergone a massive overhaul of talent. They have gotten younger. Much younger.

A run of success that began in 1994 when the club moved into Jacobs Field and ran through 2001, when the Indians came within one game of upsetting the 116-win Mariners in an AL Division Series, is officially over.

The Indians are now in full rebuilding mode. If their success in the 1990s is to be duplicated, it will be with a new cast of players.

To that end, the Indians wasted little time in tearing down what was left of the old roster, and laying the foundation for the new one. They were able to do that thanks to several trades that allowed the team to add much-needed young talent to the upper levels of what had become a rather barren minor league system.

Starting with last winter’s trade of Roberto Alomar to the Mets, which brought prospects Billy Traber and Alex Escobar, and extending through a flurry of midseason trades and one of the best June drafts of any team, the Indians are suddenly a team with prospects at all levels, including several players who are already knocking on the major league door.

"I believe this is unparalleled," Indians scouting director John Mirabelli said. "I can’t recall any team, over a 15-month period infusing this much talent into one organization."

The midseason trades involving Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley, Paul Shuey and Ricardo Rincon allowed the Indians to acquire such prospects as infielders Brandon Phillips, Luis Garcia and Marshall McDougall; outfielders Covelli Crisp and Grady Sizemore; and pitchers Cliff Lee, Ricardo Rodriguez and Francisco Cruceta.

In their bountiful draft, the Indians added top college pitchers Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Slocum, and top high school hitters Matt Whitney and Micah Schilling.

"You’d be hard-pressed to find any organization that has done what we’ve done to this level," Mirabelli said. "I don’t know that any organization has added this much talent this quickly."

Still, it’s a time of transition for an organization that had been known for its stability. General manager Mark Shapiro, whose first year on the job included one of the most tumultuous seasons in Indians history, is working with his third manager, which is two more than former GM John Hart had in his first eight years on the job.

Since the firing of Mike Hargrove following the 1999 season, the Indians have been led by Charlie Manuel, Joel Skinner and now Eric Wedge, who was hired after the season to replace Skinner, who was the interim manager in the second half of the season to replace Manuel, who was fired at the all-star break.

At 34, Wedge isn’t much older than many of his players. In fact, he’s actually younger than a couple of them. A young manager learning and growing with a roster filled with young, talented players is a formula that has worked before for the Indians.

They used it when they hired Hargrove in 1991. Four years later the Indians were in the World Series.

When the Indians’ current rebuilding project hit its stride with the midseason trades in 2002, Shapiro indicated that club officials didn’t expect to be a contender again until 2005.

But the volume and quality of talent the Indians have brought in, as well as some other factors, have led Shapiro to reconsider his target date for contention.

He now says the Indians can be contenders again by 2004.

"A lot of it has to do with what’s going on in our division," he said. "I don’t see the White Sox getting any better. The Twins will stay pretty good, but they may have to subtract from their core the next year or two, and we’ve added a lot of good young players in our trades. All those things together lead me to believe that the time frame may be sped up."

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