WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The talent level of the Indians' core players generally goes unquestioned. Some, however, might find fault with the remaining talent level of the veterans brought in to surround and assist that core. Past glories, they'll say, are nice, and experience looks good on a résumé, but what are the tangible benefits of the additions of the playoff-tested likes of Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz, Trot Nixon and David Dellucci, in the present tense?
Manager Eric Wedge looks no further than the disappointment of 2006 to find the answer. "The guys we brought in this year," he said, "would have helped last year." In '06, Wedge's club found itself at an even .500 (26-26) and 8 1/2 games back of the Tigers at the end of May. It was not the most encouraging of scenarios, but it was certainly surmountable, as the eventual AL Central-champion Twins, who were 24-28 and 10 1/2 games back at that point, will attest. But the Tribe let the next few weeks of the season spiral out of its control, and any hope of competing for a division crown decayed. For the first time since general manager Mark Shapiro tore up what had been a consistent contender in 2002, the rebuilt Indians took a step in the wrong direction. And so, as an important 2007 season dawns, Wedge, who is in the final year of his base contract, and the Indians are banking on a belief that goes beyond pure statistics. "When you were younger and you've got your big brother or your father around, you feel a little more comfortable, don't you?" Wedge said. "You feel stronger. That's the only way I can equate it." Now, the Indians hope that notion equates to more victories -- and a chance for their core to get a whiff of October. Staff ace C.C. Sabathia hasn't been to the postseason since his rookie season of 2001. Center fielder Grady Sizemore, designated hitter Travis Hafner, catcher Victor Martinez, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, right-hander Jake Westbrook and left-hander Cliff Lee have never made it. The phrase "window of opportunity" is often thrown around in reference to that core, because the clock is ticking. These guys won't be together forever. "It would be special," said Westbrook, a free agent at the end of '07, "to get it done with the guys you've been playing with for a little while." But to get it done takes more than raw talent. The Indians found that out last season. It was backup catcher Kelly Shoppach -- a man whose job forces him to be a keen observer of the sport -- who said the other day, "There's a difference between being good and knowing how to win." The Indians of '06, undoubtedly, did not find ways to win when the pressure to perform was at its peak. After winning 93 games and falling just short of the postseason in '05, it was a club picked by many prognosticators not only to escape the year with a division title but, perhaps, to go the distance. Yet the season, from a standings standpoint, was over by mid-June. Blame a battered bullpen. Blame a porous infield defense. Blame an inconsistent offense. Blame injuries.
But don't forget to blame a lack of experience in coming through when expectations could not be higher. "We kind of thought we were better than we were," Sabathia said. "We thought we could just come out there, throw our jocks out and win games. But you've got to work hard and finish off games. That's what we learned." When the Indians take the field for Monday's season opener in Chicago, Sabathia and company will find themselves surrounded by players who learned that lesson long ago. Take Nixon, for example. His body has been ravaged by injuries, and offseason back surgery considerably slowed up his Spring Training progression, so he'll begin the season facing scrutiny about his durability. But with 10 years of high-stakes baseball in Boston under his belt, Nixon's value as a clubhouse leader is beyond reproach. "Young teams have a tendency to tense up in situations where they know they're expected to come through," Nixon said. "They don't win if they don't have confidence in themselves." It's a confident group that reported to Chain of Lakes Park this spring. But that confidence will be tested thoroughly in a division that produced three 90-win teams a season ago. "With the guys we acquired and the experience each one has, we can only be better," Westbrook said. "Whether or not we take that experience and use it to get over the hump and do things we should have done better before remains to be seen." What also remains to be seen is where the next hurdle will lie. When Shapiro drew up his rebuilding plan, he didn't anticipate the division becoming as strong as it did. And he certainly didn't anticipate the misfortune that plagued his Indians last season. That's why Shapiro made depth a priority in his offseason strategizing. The addition of the five free agents, as well as second baseman Josh Barfield in a trade with the Padres, pushed a number of promising prospects who enjoyed their first real exposure to the big leagues last year back down to the Minors. "Every year, you plan as best you can and address limitations of the year before," Shapiro said. "You try to prepare for the unknown. You try to prepare a club that has depth in the event of injuries and poor performance, because there's not a sage out there who knows exactly where our problems will lie. That's the reality." One look down the Opening Day roster reveals another reality -- the Indians are a little older, and, perhaps, a little wiser from the wear and tear. Will that additional experience blossom from an upbeat idea to a discernible gain? For the Indians, it'd better. Because while one rough year in the grand plan is a step back, two is a trend. "You always want to stay away from that negative domino," Wedge said. "You don't want it to take on a personality, in and of itself. Having that [veteran] presence and that experience around is going to help our other guys be that much more comfortable and confident."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.