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Shapiro puts Indians in position to win

By Sheldon Published: January 9, 2009

But for the depressed economy, the Indians would be the proud caretakers of a roster that includes Manny Ramirez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez.

OK, maybe not. Not even General Manager Mark Shapiro would allow himself the luxury of imagining such a fantasy. Especially Shapiro, who is charged with the job of making hard-headed decisions for a team with definite budgetary limits.

Maybe I shouldn't focus on the money. After all, Shapiro seems to have done more with less this winter than perhaps any GM in the big leagues. He filled four holes -- mostly with cement rather than quicksand -- for a total outlay of about $28 million, including Kerry Wood's $10.5 million 2010 salary.

Has any Central Division general manager done a better job of strengthening his team in this offseason? Probably not. Does that make the Tribe the favorite? It's too early to tell, but one thing is certain: Shapiro has put his club in position to contend for the division championship.

Wood became an everyday closer for the first time last year with the Chicago Cubs. Logic dictates that experience should make him more effective the second time around. On the other hand, baseball doesn't always pay much attention to the demands of reason, because the sport is such a head game and dependent on the good health of its participants.

That surely is the case with Wood, who over the years has had most of the vital components of his right arm surgically replaced. But if he can remain injury free, saving games should not be one of manager Eric Wedge's problems.

At this early juncture, the bullpen, the most troublesome part of last year's team, appears to be solid with backenders Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez and Rafael Betancourt supporting Wood, and middle relievers Masa Kobayashi and Joe Smith, also acquired over the winter, behind them.

For those of you who were hoping to see Jhonny Peralta move from shortstop to third, better luck next time. It probably isn't a good idea, nor is Peralta anxious to make such a switch. Instead, Shapiro landed Mark DeRosa, who played mostly second for the Cubs. Should there be a question about a second baseman suddenly being given the everyday job at third? Of course, but DeRosa seems to have answered it.

‘‘Mark told me that third base feels more natural to him,’’ Shapiro said. ‘‘He says he has to work a lot harder at second.’’

DeRosa brings a solid resume to Cleveland. In addition to his versatility ` he can play every infield position plus left and right ` he has a penchant for getting on base and is at least an average runner, a scarce commodity on recent Indians teams.

He is not a power hitter, and Shapiro cautions that the 21 home runs he hit last year ` a career high ` might be a consequence of playing home games in Wrigley Field rather than an increase in muscle mass. But batting second in the lineup will not require him to hit balls over the fence.

In addition to adding to the roster a closer, a middle reliever and a third baseman, Shapiro wanted to bring in a pitcher who could live up to the demands of being a No. 3 starter. When he signed Carl Pavano last week, many fans wondered what was up.

Isn't this the same pitcher who for four years has been plagued by serious injuries, including Tommy John elbow surgery? Isn't this the same Carl Pavano who became one of the more prominent failures in free-agent history by missing all but 26 starts while being paid $40 million by the New York Yankees?

Because he had little cash left, Shapiro was working at the margins of the free-agency market, looking at any pitcher who because of injury, advanced age and nonproduction had become a forgotten man. Among this group were Mark Mulder, Kris Benson, former Tribe ace Bartolo Colon and Pavano. Shapiro checked them all out, and Pavano seemed to be the best of the lot.

‘‘We were dealing with a certain segment of the market,’’ Shapiro said. ‘‘All of these guys had warts. Pavano finished the year healthy. His shoulder and his elbow are strong. The way we are set up, we can exist without him. But if he's healthy and pitching well, he can have a stabilizing effect on the rotation.’’

In other words, Pavano's base salary of $1.5 million isn't going to break the team and to earn any portion of $5.3 million in incentives, he will have to be an asset. If Pavano gets hurt again, the Tribe is fortified by Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey, Scott Lewis and David Huff, three of whom will not make the rotation.

But beyond good health, does Pavano have anything left?

‘‘His stuff is not quite what it was,’’ Shapiro said. ‘‘But it's similar and it could come back to what it used to be.’’

Even if Pavano does not dazzle opposing batters in spring training, he will start the season as the No. 3 starter behind Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. At least that's the plan.

‘‘We're not going to evaluate the guy in spring training,’’ Shapiro said. ‘‘It's not his performance that we'll be looking at but his stuff, his delivery, those kinds of things. If there are no red flags (healthwise), he will be in our rotation.’’

As usual, the winter produced no blockbuster Indians trades or marquee free-agent signings, just a workmanlike effort to become incrementally better. As a result, there's no danger of fans' hearts racing out of control, but there is every reason to be cautiously optimistic.

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