MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio -- They were billed as the youngest members of Mark Shapiro's player procurement staff. As Shapiro sat on stage at The Boneyard to answer questions from fans during the first night of the Indians' annual winter Press Tour, his 6-year-old son, Caden, and 4-year-old daughter, Sierra, sat at his side. And Shapiro earned some grins and his groans when he jokingly used his kids to explain last year's disappointment. "They planned the bullpen last year," Shapiro said with a smile. "That was the problem."
All kidding aside, Shapiro had a couple other youngsters with him on this night -- outfielder Ben Francisco and first baseman Beau Mills -- and they stand to make an actual impact on the organization this year, albeit at different levels. Had Francisco been at this tour stop a year ago, it would have been as a prospect coming off his first taste of the big leagues. Now, Francisco was fielding questions as the starting left fielder for the Tribe. But his hunger remains, as evidenced by the remark he made when that very subject came up. "I'm not looking at myself as the starting left fielder," he told the crowd of about 100 fans. "I'm looking at myself as a member of the team. And if I end up as the starting left fielder, I'll be pretty happy." The Indians would be happy to see Francisco improve upon the .266 average, 15 homers and 54 RBIs he put up in 121 games last season, batting primarily in the No. 3 spot of Eric Wedge's lineup. "Success in the big leagues is all about being able to adjust when the other team adjusts to you," Francisco said. "I spent a lot of time in the middle of the order last year, and it was a good experience. I learned you can't be too aggressive. You've got to be patient up there. I'm excited to put that to use this year." Mills also figures to make some adjustments in 2009, as he's expected to make the leap to Double-A Akron in his second full professional season. Mills batted .293 with 21 homers and 90 RBIs in 125 games at Class A Kinston last season and was named the Carolina League MVP. "Wherever I end up, my goal is to play the hardest I can and help my team win," Mills said. "All I can control is how hard I play." It's been a hard life for followers of the Tribe, as one 59-year-old fan pointed out when handed the microphone. He asked Francisco and Mills if they had studied the Indians' history and appreciated the 60-year championship drought and what it means to a fan base dying for a World Series title. "I didn't have to look it up," Mills said. "The first time I came here, that's all I heard. The fans have our back here, and that's pretty cool to see." Added Francisco: "Being here for the playoffs [in 2007] was a great experience. I saw the city rally around everybody, and we're looking forward to getting back." The man in charge of getting the Indians back to that point is Shapiro. And when it was his turn to speak at this event, which raised more than $1,500 for Cleveland Indians Charities, he talked about the work done this offseason to construct what he hopes will be a championship team. "I try not to put too much stock into the offseason," he cautioned. "You don't know what's going to happen, but we have the ability to adjust to the things we don't know are going to happen. We're in a very good position." Shapiro was asked if he'd like to see a salary cap instituted -- yes, of course he would -- and if it's frustrating to see the Yankees invest nearly as much in three free agents as every other team has invested in the rest of this winter's free-agent class. "I focus on the Cleveland Indians and what we can do to build a championship team," he said. "Once you get on the field, anything can happen. I'd sign up right now for facing the Yankees in the postseason and seeing what happens." Speaking of the Yankees, Shapiro compared his job with that of New York general manager Brian Cashman, who doesn't have to worry about a tight offseason budget when building his ballclub. "I've had options to leave [Cleveland]," Shapiro said. "But I value the opportunity I've been given to lead this organization by Larry and Paul Dolan. Brian Cashman has a lot of money to spend, but he deals with a lot of other junk that I don't have to deal with." When it came to the questions about the '09 club, Shapiro talked about Victor Martinez's return from last year's elbow surgery ("If Victor's healthy, he's going to hit"), Travis Hafner's return from shoulder surgery ("You look at his body, and he's put himself in a physical position to maintain his health"), Adam Miller's move to the bullpen ("He has a chance to make the club out of Spring Training"), and Shin-Soo Choo's military obligation in South Korea ("We're on top of the situation, and we're confident it's not going to be a concern"). The topic of Shapiro's working relationship with Wedge also came up. The two are often painted as like-minded leaders who never veer off the same page. But Shapiro disputed that claim. "The way we communicate is on the same page," Shapiro said. "We have an underlying trust and respect for one another, and we have similar values. But we see the game very differently. I see it from a box; he sees it from the dugout. When we do disagree, we go at it with a common voice." No word on how well Shapiro works with those two young assistants he brought with him to the stage. But if they really were responsible for last year's bullpen, they might want to stick to their toys.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.