When Kenny Lofton steps into the batter's box to lead off the first inning on Opening Day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it will signal the start of a new era.
For the Cleveland Indians.
Lofton, one of the top prospects in baseball, is a symbol of the Indians' latest rebuilding strategy. The Indians, who haven't been in a postseason game since 1954, have ripped up the old and planted new seeds at virtually every position.
The plan is that they all will bloom together within the next two years, just in time for the 1994 opening of Cleveland's new downtown ballpark.
In the past year, the Indians have unloaded every player with a big contract -- Greg Swindell, Tom Candiotti, Eric King, Doug Jones and Cory Snyder -- and replaced them with prospects. Cleveland now has the lowest payroll in the majors.
Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, who took over for John McNamara during last year's 57-105, seventh-place season, said: Some people have said we're a Triple-A ballclub. But that's not true. I don't look at it as a development project. We realize we may be a couple of years from being serious contenders, but we have a chance to surprise some people this year."
The front office has made an effort to keep its team intact. The club has signed 12 of its young players to multi-year contracts.
"Everybody is really happy the front office is committing to young players," said right-hander Charles Nagy, 24, today's Indians starter. "With the multi-year contracts, they've really put their money where their mouths are."
And by signing the players to long-term deals at their current market values, the Indians will avert arbitration in many cases. But, if raw talent is any indication, the club could be a good one -- someday.
It starts with Lofton, rated by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Astros system before a December trade made him No. 1 for the Indians. A top candidate for Rookie of the Year, Lofton, 24, is what the Indians had hoped Alex Cole would be -- a speedy center fielder who can bat leadoff and steal bases.
Two other highly regarded prospects, third baseman Jim Thome,
21, and first baseman Reggie Jefferson, 23, will start the season on the disabled list with, respectively, wrist and elbow injuries.
Thome has a .307 average with 23 homers and 145 RBI in 247 minor-league games.
"Jim Thome, for me, is the best left-handed hitter to come around since Don Mattingly," Hargrove said.
Other more familiar names include shortstop Mark Lewis, the second pick in the 1988 draft; Sandy Alomar Jr., two-time Minor ** League Player of the Year; Jack Armstrong, the National League starting pitcher in the 1990 All-Star Game.
Albert Belle proved himself as a power hitter with 28 homers and 95 RBI last season. He also proved himself as a troublemaker. Belle spent four weeks in the minors after failing to run out a ground ball in a key situation and also was suspended for throwing a ball at a fan.
"I think that's behind him," Hargrove said of Belle's problems. "There have already been two or three things this spring where Albert probably would have reacted differently a couple of years ago. He's staying focused now."
The Indians do have one proven player, Brook Jacoby, who was traded by Cleveland to the Oakland Athletics in July but invited back to Indians camp as a non-roster player this spring. Jacoby, 32, said he knew his role would be more of an off-field leader, although the injuries to Jefferson and Thome will result in more time at first and third base.
"There's a lot of talent here," Jacoby said. "They're just going to have to learn by their mistakes in the big leagues."
But the front office apparently is in no hurry. Don't tell the players that, though.
"We know people are all talking about 1994 and the new park, but we've got two seasons before then," Nagy said. "We lost 105 games last year, and we were pretty embarrassed. We want to win now."