It's about experience. The Indians did the oh-so-fun rebuilding phase. They did the core player identification. They did the learning that comes with the ups and downs of losing 94 games in 2003 and winning 93 games in 2005. Look at the Indians on paper, and they don't look any better than they were a year ago.
Look at them from the perspective of experience, as manager Eric Wedge does, and you might come away with a different prediction about their chances of contending for the AL Central title this season. "They've got the history out of the way," Wedge said of his players. "When you don't know what's coming around the corner, you have to handle it in real time. When you do know what's coming around the corner, you're that much more prepared for it and you know what to do." So much of the Indians preparation this year has revolved around their recent history of sluggish Aprils. It's about a strong start. One need look no further than the club's 9-14 record in April last season and the 17-7 record put up by the eventual champion White Sox to determine where the Tribe's season went wrong. Yes, the Indians made their resilient and resurgent run from 15 games back of Chicago on April 1 to 1 1/2 games back on Sept. 24. But that run only served to drain an Indians team that faltered in the season's final week. For the Indians, a better April, which, for the record, included four one-run losses to the White Sox, could have changed the late-season playoff picture dramatically last year. "Those games in April," ace left-hander C.C. Sabathia said, "came back to bite us in the [rear end]." Once bitten, a team comes away with a valuable lesson. "We know the first month has got to be good if we're going to make a run," second baseman Ronnie Belliard said. "We know that. That's why we're doing the best we can to get ready and do better than last year." How do the Indians avoid a similarly slow start? It's about stability.For the first time since general manager Mark Shapiro put the club firmly in rebuilding mode with the 2002 Bartolo Colon trade, the Indians came into Spring Training with the everyday lineup locked in. When seventh reliever, backup catcher, utility infielder and fourth outfielder are your only jobs to fill in camp, it says something about the stability and security of your roster. "In years past," Sabathia said, "guys were battling for spots. So from the middle of March, we had to play like it was on. We ran out of steam early. This spring, we pretty much know who's going to be where. So guys are getting ready in the spring, instead of having to play hard every game in March." Playing hard isn't a requirement until Sunday, when the Indians open the season in Chicago. That the game will give the Indians an early feel for where they're at in relation to the defending champs is a fact not lost on the players. "They're the team to beat," left-hander Cliff Lee said of the White Sox. "We want to knock them out of first." To do so, the Indians will have to rise above some of the inconsistencies they showed last year. Aaron Boone, Casey Blake and Ben Broussard, specifically, must have bounce-back years, and the pitching staff must account for the losses of Kevin Millwood and Bob Howry. The young core of the club, though, is the strength. Jhonny Peralta and Grady Sizemore had breakout, "Leap"-type seasons; Lee had a year that put him in the Cy Young voting; Sabathia was a model of efficiency in the season's final two months; and Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner were polished run-producers in the middle of the order. Now the club must take the next step, simple as that sounds. And the Indians know that step really has to be made in nail-biter ballgames, where they were dismal last season. It's about one-run games. The Indians played a lot of them last season (58, to be exact), and they lost a lot of them, too (36, to be exact). The loss total was the most in the Majors and the most by an AL team since 1968. To ensure such heartbreak is not endured in '06, the club has put extra emphasis on the game's fundamentals this spring. Bunting, situational hitting and controlling the running game have been as much a part of the players' spring routine as golfing, fishing, and baking in the Florida sun. "We have more experience," Hafner said, "and we've put a bigger emphasis on situational hitting and bunting, the kinds of things that will help us in one-run games." Again, it's about experience. It's about growth. It's about improvement that comes from within, rather than through flashy free agent signings. Those are the ideals the Indians are selling this season. And those are the ideals, the club feels, will make this team a contender from Day 1. "Because of the experiences [the players] have gone through," Wedge said, "because of the improvement from a maturity standpoint, because of where we are as a ballclub, the players we brought in and the overall complexity of our team, we have multiple reasons to believe that's going to happen." And if it happens, and the Indians do reach the promised land that is the postseason, Tribe fans will breathe a sigh of relief. "It's about time," they'll say.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.