Indians have cut power, but are better than ever

ON BASEBALL

September 22, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

The Cleveland Indians don't abuse opposing teams like they did last year, when they had Carlos Baerga hitting third and Jim Thome batting seventh or, sometimes, eighth in the lineup. They're not as capable of scoring 20 runs in a game; their offense isn't as dynamic as it was in 1995.

They might win 100 games in this 162-game season after going 100-44 in 1995.

But, believe it or not, the Indians are a better team than they were last year; much better equipped for the demands of postseason play; more capable of beating the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. General manager John Hart was the target of much criticism for trading Baerga to the New York Mets, but, with a week to go in the season, the Indians are the best team in baseball.

"We feel better about our club," said Dan O'Dowd, the Indians' assistant general manager. "After last year, we sat down and talked about our club and made some serious, objective observations: We had about four or five guys in our lineup who could be pitched to in the playoffs by good staffs."

In other words, young sluggers such as Manny Ramirez were capable of bashing homers against mediocre pitching, but when the Indians ran up against a Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine, when the opposing pitcher was having a good night, Cleveland's lineup wasn't capable of banging out two or three singles and scoring a run or two.

The bunches of home runs were great in July and August, but the Indians needed somebody who could hit good pitching in October, and they signed Julio Franco in the off-season.

And Cleveland's defense wasn't good enough to compete in low-scoring games often decided by an error or a play that wasn't made.

Baerga had a great offensive year for the Indians in 1995, but he lacked range. Indians pitchers, seeing balls roll past Baerga, privately hoped the team would get another second baseman. It did, trading for Jose Vizcaino, who isn't going to be an All-Star and won't make anybody forget Baerga's offensive ability. But he has good range, relative to Baerga, and strengthens the pitching staff.

The Indians have had trouble with left-handed starters in the past, and, like the Orioles, they added a right-handed hitter shortly before the midnight deadline for acquiring players for the postseason roster -- Kevin Seitzer, one of the toughest hitters in the American League, particularly in clutch situations.

Last week, the Indians faced Chicago White Sox ace Alex Fernandez, and O'Dowd, sitting in the stands behind home plate, remembers thinking in the first or second inning how good Fernandez's stuff looked to him.

"But our guys made adjustments against him and we beat him," O'Dowd said, reciting a series of ball-strike counts and how hitters -- good, professional hitters such as Franco, Albert Belle and Seitzer -- reacted, punching hits to the opposite field, sometimes when they were behind in the count.

"We have guys capable of hitting a guy like that, on a day when he was throwing pretty well," said O'Dowd.

They have better right-handed balance, Franco and Seitzer and Belle offsetting left-handed-hitting Thome and Kenny Lofton. They have a much stronger and deeper bench, an improvement that might come into play should the Indians reach the World Series and play without the designated hitter.

Instead of Ruben Amaro and Wayne Kirby coming off the bench to pinch hit, they'll have Brian Giles and Jeff Kent, who can do some damage in certain matchups.

They've got good starting pitching, with Orel Hershiser, Charles Nagy and Chad Ogea, and Jack McDowell has thrown better in his past two outings. "I tell people we signed Jack for $4.8 million," O'Dowd said. "Eight hundred thousand of that is for the first four months of the season and $4 million is for August, September and October."

The one area where the Indians aren't quite as strong is in their bullpen. Julian Tavarez had a great year in 1995, but he has fallen off this season. Paul Shuey has picked up some of that slack, compiling a 2.98 ERA in 39 games.

"We should still be considered the team to beat [in the AL]," said Hart, "because we're the defending champs. We feel we have a World Series-caliber team. But now it's up to the players."

For Leyland, time to go

Jim Leyland is leaving Pittsburgh, and who can blame him? The Pirates already have traded Denny Neagle, and general manager Cam Bonifay has told other teams that the Pirates must slash their payroll to $10 million, or about one-fifth of the Orioles'. Bonifay has been told he must move shortstop Jay Bell and his $4 million salary, even if he must swap a prospect along with Bell just so another team will absorb Bell's contract.

The word is that Leyland is headed to Florida to join his old friend, Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski. There are good reasons for the Yankees to prefer that the Orioles make the playoffs instead of Seattle. New York beat the Orioles in 10 of 13 this year, and the Yankees are 9-21 against the Mariners over the past two years, including playoff games.

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