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BASEBALL Gonzalez returns to Indians



Published: Wed, January 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The former Cleveland slugger is optimistic about returning to MVP form.

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Juan Gonzalez hasn't been the same since he led Cleveland to the playoffs in 2001. The Indians are giving him another chance.

Gonzalez agreed to a minor league contract with Cleveland on Tuesday that could pay him up to $2.55 million -- if the oft-injured slugger can remain healthy.

Gonzalez's production has dropped since he had 35 homers and 140 RBIs three seasons ago, primarily because of injuries. But Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said the two-time American League MVP has been working with a trainer to overcome back problems and is close to 100 percent.

"Should he come into camp healthy and in good form, I fully expect him to make our club and be a starting outfielder," Shapiro said.

If Gonzalez makes the Indians' 25-man roster in spring training, he would get $600,000 and have a chance to earn another $1.65 million in bonuses based on plate appearances and $300,000 based on time on the active roster.

Little financial risk

Shapiro said the signing involves little risk for the Indians and has the potential to improve the team's run production.

"He's extremely positive. Extremely motivated. Excited to come back here," Shapiro said. "He's conscious of what we're going through right now and wants to be a part of that."

Both the Indians and Gonzalez have struggled since 2001 -- the last time Cleveland made the postseason.

Once one of baseball's most feared right-handed hitters, the 35-year-old Gonzalez has been limited to 185 games the past three seasons with Texas and Kansas City because of a variety of injuries.

He played in 33 games with the Royals last season, batting .276 with five homers and 17 RBIs. He has 434 career homers for Texas, Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City.

Where to play him

Gonzalez could take the right-field job away from Casey Blake, who is moving there from third to make room for Aaron Boone.

If that happens, Shapiro said Blake could be moved to left field, pushing Coco Crisp to center and forcing Grady Sizemore to begin the season at Triple-A Buffalo.

Shapiro said he is still looking to improve the team's bench and is talking to utilityman Lou Merloni about returning to the club.

He said even if he doesn't add another player, he's satisfied with what the team has accomplished this off-season, signing pitchers Kevin Millwood, Bob Wickman and Scott Elarton, infielders Ronnie Belliard and Jose Hernandez, and trading for reliever Arthur Rhodes.

"If we are done, I feel good about what we've done," Shapiro said.




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