Finding a closer top priority for Wedge

Finding a closer top priority for Wedge

CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Eric Wedge, dressed for a business meeting more than for a postseason press conference, walked into the media dining room at Progressive Field and shook hands Tuesday with the men who followed his ballclub throughout the 2008 season.

They had seen what Wedge had seen: a season that ended in disappointment. They were here now to ask Wedge what happened and what was next.

He was ready with answers.

Wedge pointed to a myriad of reasons for why the Indians, the darlings of baseball coming into the season, aren't returning to the playoffs.

"In essence, we lost our Nos. 2-, 3- and 4-hole hitters from '07, our closer, our bullpen -- which really went south on us -- and two of our starters," Wedge said. "It's tough to overcome that.

"But nobody cares about that in the end, you know. What they want you to do is play out with the expectations that were in front of you."

Wedge was sitting in this dining room now because those expectations didn't play out as fans and baseball insiders had thought they might. Those insiders and fans had expected the Tribe to make a return trip to the playoffs.

Those expectations were Wedge's, too.

"Rarely does it play out the way you expect it to," Wedge said, "or [how] you'd hope it would play out."

He'd get no argument from Tribe fans on the latter point. They were looking for better than an 81-81 season, and they surely weren't looking for the Indians to be sitting home and watching either the Twins or the White Sox represent the American League Central in the postseason.

But theirs was a season of unfulfilled expectations, and as much as the Wedge's talk with the media was about the past, it was also sprinkled liberally with talk about what awaits the Indians in the future.

They are a team with plenty of questions to answer between now and Opening Day. The first question might be what to do about the bullpen.

Under his leadership, Wedge said the Indians have been successful each year the bullpen has performed well. Its performance in 2007, as an example, was central to a season that had the Indians within a win of going to the World Series.

With Joe Borowski as closer and Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez and Aaron Fultz all playing major roles in the bullpen, Wedge had a ballclub that didn't demand so much from its starting rotation.

In 2008, Borowski's arm pulled up lame, Fultz never found his bearings, and Betancourt and Perez had their struggles early. Once Wedge decided to let Borowski go, the Tribe had no experienced option to close out ballgames.

Even as he looks ahead to '09, Wedge sees the bullpen as an area of concern. While he liked the promise Jensen Lewis showed in taking over the closer's role, Wedge isn't ready to anoint the 24-year-old Lewis as his closer.

Nor is Wedge, five months before Spring Training opens, ready to pencil in more than four people (Lewis, Betancourt, Perez and Masa Kobayashi) as surefire candidates for jobs in the bullpen.

With a handful of spots to fill, Wedge knows that the offseason might find the Tribe shopping for relief help in a market where the competition for those arms might be stiff. His preference, he said, is to find a closer first. But Wedge said closers don't grow like grapes, which might mean he'll have to leave the job with Lewis.

Even if the Indians do find a closer or an additional arm or two for their bullpen, they go into the offseason with other needs. Those include a power bat for one of the corner infield positions or for one of the corner outfield spots.

It's not that Wedge doesn't see productive bats in Shin-Soo Choo, Ben Francisco or Ryan Garko. All did plenty down the stretch to show they deserve consideration for starting jobs. So did second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who rebounded from an abysmal start and a trip to Triple-A Buffalo to have a productive August and September.

Yet more than anything, Wedge said the Indians need Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez to stay healthy and come close to replicating their '07 seasons. Wedge would also like to see Fausto Carmona return to '07 form, and a repeat of 2008 from Cliff Lee -- a 22-game winner and the AL Comeback Player of the Year -- wouldn't be a bad thing to have, either.

Are all of these things possible?

Yes, Wedge said. Nothing he saw in the last half of the season -- in the post-CC Sabathia, Casey Blake days -- has led him to believe otherwise, he said.

"Hey, nobody wants it more than I do," Wedge said.

But the realities of the season forced Wedge to rethink '08 and its objectives. Those objectives had to be realistic in the face of a changing landscape. The Indians weren't contenders, so they had to prepare themselves to contend next season.

"We traded some of our key players, which we felt like it was the best decision to make at that point in time," Wedge said. "And then you have to still go out and play and work hard.

"We wanted to do the best we could with the team we had -- with young players that we felt like could help us this year and on into the future. That's the way it played out."

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.