Heavy expectations

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- If this is the farewell tour in Cleveland for reigning American League Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia, the Indians and their still-only-27-year-old left-hander are determined to make it as joyful and painless a final season as possible. While making no other guarantees, a smiling Sabathia promised to have a fun season, whether it be the finale or not.

When a reporter suggested that this was a "tough situation'' to be in, Sabathia looked at the fellow like he was an alien (which is possibly even lower than a sportswriter).

"Why's that?'' Sabathia said, smiling wide. "It's a great position to be in.''

Indeed, Sabathia knows that unlike an October matchup with Boston, he can't lose here. The Indians, whom he loves, this winter offered a four-year extension believed to be worth close to $20 million a year, which would have bumped his contract to five years and about $90 million. Meanwhile, Sabathia, who is to make $11.25 million this year, is thought to be seeking a significantly longer deal at $100 million-plus, exactly the sort of contract that would stretch the Indians' budget, which has been cleverly kept to the lower end of the mid-market range.

The Indians are among the best in the game in recent years at convincing their stars, like DH Travis Hafner, to stay long-term at unusually reasonable rates -- even GM Mark Shapiro practiced what he advocates by signing his own five-year contract to remain rather than test the free-agent market. But whatever transpired in talks with Sabathia's representatives back in December seemed to convince some intimates that his chances to remain beyond this season are less than exceptional. Someone connected to the Indians lamented to me shortly after those talks in December, "No way he stays.''

However, top Indians executives refuse to characterize their chances quite that pessimistically. "We'll always remain hopeful,'' said assistant GM Chris Antonetti."But at this point we both felt there wasn't enough common ground to continue dialogue during spring training.''

And Shapiro said, "I believe C.C. does want to be here, and we want him here. But obviously, I'm not naive enough to think there may not be someone out there willing to exceed our threshold for risk.''

"Sure,'' Sabathia answered without hesitation in answer to the $100 million question of whether he wants to remain an Indian. "I've been here since I'm 17 years old. I just don't feel like this is the right time to discuss anything like that. It's tough enough to pitch. I just want to play, and have fun.''

Sabathia has been a big winner, is coming off his best year (19-7, 3.21 ERA) and has never been seriously hurt. Yet, the Indians are well aware that not one $100 million deal for a pitcher has proved to be a bargain yet (Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Barry Zito and the just-signed Johan Santana are the only four, and those last two names haven't had those contracts long enough to make a fair judgment.). And while Sabathia is also viewed as an unusually good person, it's fair to say he's also a special case, as there's no one like him; he's 6-foot-8 and about 300 pounds. "My genes are terrible,'' he admitted. "I have to work my ass off just to look like this.''

Nonetheless, Sabathia appears to remain unfazed by the pressure of his walk year. He knows that whatever transpires, riches lie ahead. After a rough spring opener, he and his boyhood pal from Oakland, Dontrelle Willis, joked and compared notes outside the cramped visitors clubhouse here.

Both before and after he convened with Willis, Sabathia happily spoke to reporters about almost all matters, though he's trying to steer clear of two subjects -- past negotiations and future plans. To that end, both he and the Indians suggest inquiring minds review his thoughts on those savory subjects, on an in-house Web site under multimedia.Indians.com. So at least, he and the Indians are working amicably to thwart the potential distraction of the contractual situation.

Considering what's at stake here (and the likelihood that this will be it for Sabathia), the sides remain on remarkably good terms. Indians people talk about Sabathia in glowing terms, speaking about what a great person, family man and teammate he is. It's a tribute to their admiration for Sabathia that they didn't even whisper or hint at the risk his shape could bring in a multiyear deal when I brought it up.

The conventional wisdom suggests it'll be quite a coup if Cleveland can keep Sabathia beyond this season. Santana's new Mets deal for $137.5 million, with a chance to make $150.75 million, didn't help -- though deferred monies put the true value of that deal closer to the $125 million range. "Santana is one reference point, and (Jake) Peavy, (Carlos) Zambrano, (Roy) Halladay and (Chris) Carpenter are others,'' Shapiro points out, naming contracts of aces that ranged from $14 million to $19 million.

If Sabathia should leave, it'll be a blow -- as Antonetti conceded, "You can't replace him in house'' -- but they'd have some money to spend elsewhere and are better prepared than many to absorb such a blow. The Indians have another potential ace, Fausto Carmona, and are fairly well-stocked with young pitchers, including the highly regarded right-hander Adam Miller. The reason they didn't seriously entertain the possibility of trading Sabathia is a good one; they're returning practically the same team that came within one game of reaching the World Series. Shapiro said, "I couldn't conceive of any trade that wouldn't compromise our desire to contend and win this year.''

This was their only choice since they couldn't exactly throw away another real chance at glory (and their first World Series title in 60 years). This could well be a fun finale for Sabathia and the Indians. No sense spoiling that.

Assuming the Indians can't bridge the gap of millions to keep him beyond this season, here are the three most likely landing spots:

1. Yankees. Long seen as the most logical destination for Sabathia, the big reason they balked at Santana was their reluctance to part with top pitching prospects Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. Since it'll only cost them money (and draft choices), and Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte could be coming off the books, they remain the favorite. A perfect replacement in case this is Pettitte's last year, a real possibility.

2. Dodgers. They can afford Sabathia, and they have a some age and injury questions in their rotation.

3. Giants. Pitching isn't their problem. And they already sunk $126 million into a left-hander (Zito). But they have the wherewithal and desire to win, and perhaps Sabathia has a hankering to go home.

• Before Manny Ramirez switched agents to Scott Boras, Ramirez dialed up his fellow South Florida resident Alex Rodriguez to make sure he was doing the right thing. Though A-Rod has said publicly that he disagreed with some of Boras' negotiating strategy this winter, and ran back to the Yankees on his own, it is believed he told Ramirez the move would be a good one for him. Rodriguez also told Ramirez that he thought the twin $20 million options for 2009 and '10 in his current contract could cost Manny $100 million by delaying his free agency.

• One scout predicted big things from the Yankees' Ian Kennedy, perhaps 14 to 16 wins. "He can throw pitches for strikes, he fields his position well and he shows exceptional poise,'' that scout said.

• My impression of Phil Hughes is that he's exceptionally bright and mature, so the Yankees may be two-for-two there.

• The Dodgers are weighing Detroit's Brandon Inge for third base, as first reported by Danny Knobler of Michigan's Booth Newspapers. Inge's contract, which has $19.1 million over three years remaining, could be a hindrance, though.

• The message of Dodgers GM Ned Colletti's spring speech was to tell the team that they want to see players do the little things to help the team win rather than worry about stats, because it's winning that will keep the players up in the majors. That's the right message for a team that underachieved so badly last season.

• I liked where Prince Fielder said he "respected the Brewers scale.'' Fielder was talking about pay scale, but still, I never expected Fielder to say anything nice about a scale. Anyway, I do agree with him that $670,000 is awfully cheap when you consider Ryan Howard was renewed at $900,00 by the Phillies the year before. The Brewers admitted they'd have paid more if Fielder won MVP, as if third in the final voting was his fault (Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday finished one and two because their teams made it to October, not because they outplayed Fielder).

• The Mets appear to be looking for a right-handed-hitting outfielder to platoon with Ryan Church.

• No surprise that Lou Piniella snapped back at Jason Marquis after Marquis suggested he'd like to pitch elsewhere if he doesn't make the rotation. Piniella is believed to have already wanted Marquis gone, anyway. So maybe it can work out for both of them. Piniella apologized the next day. (No sense blaming someone they'd hope to trade, of course.)

• When I mentioned Arizona's "two aces,'' GM Josh Byrnes reminded me that it could be "three aces'' if Randy Johnson comes back strong.

• Looks like even the Astros want to distance themselves from drugs -- at least when it comes to camp visitors. So it was so long, Rog.