TUCSON, Ariz. -- Since Alex Cole burst onto the scene last year, fans have been heralding him as the sign of a new beginning for Cleveland Indians baseball.
But he's not.
"We have not built our ballclub around Cole," manager John McNamara said. "He just came and fit in very well."
Very well, indeed. In his 63-game rookie season, Cole stole 40 bases, including five in one game. Although he has missed most of spring training with a shoulder injury, he is expected to be in center field for the Indians on Opening Day.
Cole's presence is a necessity for a team that lacks punch. The emphasis in 1991, as it has been since 100-RBI-a-year player Joe Carter was traded in December 1989, will be on stealing, bunting, taking the extra base, pitching and defense.
In the past off-season, the Indians made several moves to further their "little ball" approach.
The club traded Cory Snyder to the Chicago White Sox for pitching and chose not to re-sign Candy Maldonado. The two outfielders combined for 36 homers and 150 RBI in 1990.
Indians management moved back the Cleveland Stadium fences 415 feet in center and 400 in the alleys, leaving lots of room for Cole and de-emphasizing home runs.
But perhaps the surest sign of the new style of play is a coach the Indians had in spring training: Rod Carew. During his career with the Minnesota Twins and California Angels, Carew specialized in situational hitting, hitting for average, base stealing and base running.
"We have some players who can steal some bases," Carew said. "My job is to teach them how to do it better -- how to read the pitchers, how to get a good jump. There are a lot of little things you do that help you win ballgames."
That little-ball approach helped the Indians to a 77-85 record and a fourth-place finish in the American League East in 1990. It was their best record in 14 years.
The Indians' reliance on speed in 1991 has one flaw: The fastest players hit so poorly in spring training they may not make the team, much less start.
An outfield of Cole, Turner Ward and former Baltimore Oriole Stan Jefferson could steal bases and cover ground with any trio in the majors. But Ward has only 24 days of major-league service. Jefferson has a .220 career average and never has played a full season in the majors.
The outfielders most likely to be playing beside Cole on Opening Day are Albert Belle (yes, he was Joey Belle last year), Mitch Webster or Chris James. Webster has 142 steals in six-plus seasons, but neither Belle nor James has more than seven in a big-league season.
Ron Kittle, another former Oriole whom the Indians signed as a free agent, probably will see some time at designated hitter or in the outfield. Kittle's lack of speed is well-known.
"The outfielders who have hit are the guys like Belle, Kittle and James," Webster said. "So you've got to wonder where the speed is going to come from. There are still a lot of questions to be answered about this team."
The only infielder who offers even marginal speed is second baseman Jerry Browne, who stole 12 bases last year. Third baseman Carlos Baerga, first baseman Brook Jacoby and shortstop Felix Fermin stole a total of four bases last season.
But because of Carew's presence, the Indians can parlay what speed they have into extra bases, if not stolen bases.
"[Carew] was out here showing guys -- not just the fast guys -- how to get a lead off second," Jefferson said. "He shows you how to find the shortest distance to home, so you can score on a single. That can make a big difference in a game."
Defense, at least up the middle, should complement the Indians' offense. Sandy Alomar Jr. is considered by some to be the best catcher under age 40 in the American League. Fermin and Browne are a competent double-play team, and Cole makes up for his inexperience with his speed in center field.
All the Indians' speed and defense will be for naught if the pitching doesn't come through.
The Indians will be without John Farrell, who underwent elbow surgery in October, for at least the first four months of the season.
Leading the staff again will will be left-hander Greg Swindell, whose ERA has gone up and victories have gone down each year since 1988, and knuckleballer Tom Candiotti.
Eric King, who was acquired for Snyder, probably is the most promising of the remaining starters. King was 12-4 with a 3.28 ERA for the surprising 1990 White Sox.
McNamara also can be confident with closer Doug Jones, who has 112 saves over the past three seasons.
But the rest of the pitchers are unproven. Charles Nagy, 23, was rushed to the majors last season after going 13-8 in Class AA. Rod Nichols, 26, is 5-16, 5.04 in his brief major-league career. Willie Blair, 25, is 3-5, 4.06 in 27 games with the Toronto Blue Jays.
"We feel we've got some kids who are on the verge of making it," pitching coach Mark Wiley said. "It's just a matter of them pitching. The guys who are throwing the best are going to get the first shot at those spots [in the rotation]."
Indians stats and facts
Manager John McNamara (77-85 in 1 season with Indians; 1,125-1,163 overall in 17 seasons.
1990 record 77-85, 4th place, 11 games behind.
offensive leaders BA: Chris James .299 HR: Candy Maldonado* 22
RBI: Candy Maldonado* 95
SB: Alex Cole 40
* -- no longer with team.
1990 pitching leaders Wins: Tom Candiotti 15
ERA: Bud Black* 3.53