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CLEVELAND INDIANS Bullpen may be key to season



Published: Fri, February 18, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Tribe needs a solid closer for full year to compete for the Central title.

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) -- For the third consecutive year, Indians manager Eric Wedge drove from Ohio to Florida for spring training, stopping only for fuel and food.

On the 1,100-mile trip south, Wedge had time to contemplate an upcoming season he feels should end with Cleveland returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

"This year, our expectation is to go out and compete for an AL Central title," Wedge said. "Everybody to a man feels that we can do that."

As long as the bullpen cooperates.

The Indians officially opened their spring training camp Thursday with pitchers and catchers reporting to Chain of Lakes Park. Some arrived last week to begin workouts in anticipation of the 2005 season. They'll practice for the first time on Saturday.

The club's position players are due by Tuesday and Wedge will hold his first full squad practice on Feb. 24. The Indians open their exhibition season March 3 against the Houston Astros.

Indians finish strong

A strong September enabled Cleveland to finish 80-82 and in third place in the division last season. But if the Indians' shaky bullpen had only been better in the first half of 2004, there's no telling what might have happened.

"We'd have been right in it at the end," Wedge said.

While Bob Wickman was out until early July with an elbow injury, the Indians didn't have a proven closer and it cost them. Cleveland's relievers blew 21 of 36 save chances in the first half and posted a league-worst 5.60 ERA.

To guard against another calamity, the Indians added quality depth to their bullpen during the off-season by signing left-handers Arthur Rhodes and Scott Sauerback. In addition, the club re-signed Wickman to a one-year deal worth $2.75 million. He blew just one save in 14 tries and converted his final 12 chances.

Wedge knows there's a risk in having a 35-year-old with elbow problems as a closer. But unlike last season, Wedge has other options and could turn to Bob Howry or David Riske if Wickman struggles.

One spot open

Entering training camp, five of the seven bullpen slots have already been guaranteed with Jason Davis, the club's No. 2 starter last season before being sent to the bullpen, the leading candidate to fill the sixth.

That leaves an open competition between several pitchers, including Rafael Betancourt, Matt Miller, Paul Shuey, Jeremy Guthrie, Cliff Bartosh, Kaz Tadano and Fernando Cabrera for the final relief role.

Of that group, Betancourt and Shuey, who signed a minor-league deal after not pitching last season for Los Angeles, have the most experience.

Betancourt went 5-6 with a 3.92 ERA in 68 appearances last season. Before Wickman came back, the right-hander briefly held down the closer's role before a tired arm landed him on the disabled list.




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