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Indians waiting to make a deal



Published: Wed, June 13, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



CLEVELAND -- Over the past six baseball seasons, Indians general manager John Hart has often gone into his wheeler-dealer mode when mid-June hits.

Last year, Hart trimmed some payroll when he sent injury-prone, expensive outfielder David Justice to the New York Yankees for Ricky Ledee.

A month later, Ledee was sent to the Texas Rangers for rent-a-star David Segui, whose strong bat helped keep the Indians in the playoff hunt until the final day.

This summer, Hart's last one with the Indians, presents a different puzzle -- he's waiting for other teams to call.

In the hunt: At the moment, five teams are in the hunt for the American League's four playoff berths: the Indians, the Minnesota Twins, the Seattle Mariners, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

No one knows what injury problems await the Indians, but it's hard to imagine they will suffer more than they already have during the first two-and-a-half months of the 2001 season.

Three of the five main starters in the rotation have spent time on the disabled list. Right-handers Charles Nagy, 34, and Jaret Wright, 25, are back on the mound after missing a year's worth of action.

Left-hander Chuck Finley, 38, has a sore neck and is on the 15-day disabled list until at least Sunday.

Despite a makeshift rotation, the Indians have the third-best record in the league even though third baseman Travis Fryman missed the first two months with a sore throwing arm and Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome began the year with horrible batting slumps.

Picking up the slack have been newcomers Juan Gonzalez (.351 batting average, 15 homers, 54 RBIs), Ellis Burks (.301, 14, 44) and Marty Cordova (.337, 9, 34). Roberto Alomar has enjoyed a solid start (.352, 6, 40).

As the Indians get healthier, the other four AL contenders have to wonder how good this team can be when it returns to full strength.

Too many: Hart's dilemma is one of baseball's rarest: too many starting pitchers. Rookies Tim Drew and C.C. Sabathia filled in adequately for Nagy and Wright during the first six weeks.

Their returns sent Drew down to Triple-A Buffalo. Sabathia might have lost his rotation spot when Nagy returned on June 3, but Finley's neck injury required him to stay in a Tribe uniform for at least two more weeks.

Tuesday, Sabathia pitched one of his best games, but didn't get a decision. The 20-year-old left-hander limited the Brewers to two runs and three hits over seven innings, but got into trouble with his pitch count.

"He's still learning," said Tribe manager Charlie Manuel, downplaying Sabathia's role in the tight game. "He's got to learn to keep his pitch count down."

Manuel's lack of praise could be a sign that Sabathia will be making a trip down soon.

Hart also has a disgruntled pitcher -- Steve Woodard, who says he wants traded to a team where he can be a starter.

Unless two pitchers get hurt, it won't be in Cleveland. The 26-year-old was passed over when spring training ended, and Sabathia and Drew were named starters.

Woodard unhappy: Woodard, who came to the Tribe last July with Bob Wickman in the Richie Sexson-to-Milwaukee deal, wants to start, even if it's for a non-contender.

What's Hart to do? Since he's not going to send him to an AL contender, Hart needs to sit by the phone to see if one of this year's losers or National League contenders might want Woodard, who could bring a high-priced rent-a-player (also known as a free agent-to-be). More likely, Hart will be offered prospects.

What a switch that would be.

As for Sabathia, he threw well enough against the Brewers that he probably will get the start Sunday at PNC Park, a ballpark that favors left-handers.

Finley's return can wait, but when he does come back, Sabathia is likely to be the odd-man out and sent to Triple-A Buffalo.

XTom Williams covers Major League Baseball for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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