Indians' Hart needs to find an ace in the hole for staff

On Baseball

March 08, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Cleveland Indians can expect a soft ride in the American League Central this year, but that should not keep general manager John Hart from moving decisively to upgrade the pitching staff.

The club can get to the postseason as configured, but the loss of right-hander Ben McDonald -- apparently for the season -- leaves manager Mike Hargrove with a starting rotation that is less than World Series-caliber.

What to do? What to do?

If you're Hart, you should do what you do best. Pull off another breathtaking deal and send another message to the rest of the American League. The Indians will not be outmaneuvered.

They stood by while the New York Yankees acquired All-Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch from the Minnesota Twins, ostensibly because they could not justify giving up the talent necessary to acquire him or the money required to sign him to a contract extension.

Perhaps Hart also knew that he needed to retain the flexibility for a more important acquisition. The Indians need a go-to starting pitcher to round out an otherwise questionable rotation.

The club will open the season with a starting rotation that features just one premier veteran pitcher, right-hander Charles Nagy. The Indians are depending heavily -- too heavily -- on breakthrough prospect Jaret Wright, and three other starters of varying dependability.

Right-hander Chad Ogea pitched great during the World Series last year, but was 8-9 with a 4.99 ERA in 21 regular-season starts. Veteran Dwight Gooden was 9-5 with a 4.91 ERA before leaving the Yankees to sign a multi-year deal with the Indians. And Steve Karsay, another pitcher acquired as an indirect result of last year's Kenny Lofton trade, was 3-12 with a 5.77 ERA with the Oakland Athletics.

Of course, every one of those pitchers could crank up a career year and carry Cleveland to a world title, but Hart has never been known to leave that kind of thing to chance.

He is known for making the deals no one thinks can be made. He pulled off the blockbuster trade that sent disgruntled outfielder Lofton to the Atlanta Braves last spring, and ended up getting him back for less than it would have taken to sign him in the first place. Look for Hart to do something similarly dramatic in the next few months, perhaps involving a very tall pitcher from Seattle.

There's no big rush. The Indians don't figure to face any stiff divisional competition during the regular season, so they have until Aug. 31 to make a trade to improve the club for the postseason, but the news that McDonald will not likely return this year probably will galvanize Hart's effort to complete the pitching staff.

Cooperstown awaits

Braves ace Greg Maddux hasn't reached 200 victories, but it isn't too soon to fit him for a plaque in Cooperstown. His numbers over the past decade are so impressive that -- if he retired today -- voters probably would overlook his short tenure the way they did with Sandy Koufax.

Maddux has at least 15 wins for 10 consecutive seasons, and his 2.14 ERA from 1992 to '97 is the lowest over a six-year span of any pitcher since World War II.

"It's the greatest total of good, quality, consistent innings you can find anywhere in the history of the game," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "Bobby [Cox] told me he knew a pitcher like him -- Catfish Hunter. That's pretty good company. You're always going 'Holy Mackerel' when he pitches. It never stops. It's amazing."

That kind of talk makes the low-key Maddux uncomfortable. He has never sought the limelight and says he hasn't even thought about reaching the Hall of Fame.

"I could walk away right now and be totally happy with what I've done in the game," he said. "I've gotten more out of this game than I ever thought was possible, and this game is still giving me more."

Young guns

Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson is placing a lot of confidence in some young players this year. His outfield is expected to feature Jose Cruz, Shawn Green and Shannon Stewart, all top prospects and all unproven offensive players, but Johnson knows from his years as a coach in Montreal that good players have to start somewhere.

"I have no problem with those kids in the outfield," Johnson said. "They are going to develop into outstanding players. It wasn't a problem when [the Expos] had Moises Alou, Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom. These guys are going to be stars in their own right and they'll learn from the veteran hitters."

Taking care of his own

National League Rookie of the Year Scott Rolen may have settled for less than his potential value when he signed a four-year, $10 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies recently, but the third baseman was looking for some security and the chance to make a dream come true for his mom and dad.

He has been waiting for the opportunity to reward his parents for all the sacrifices they made to advance his baseball career. Now he can make good on a promise to buy them a beachfront retirement home in Florida.

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