The Cleveland Indians are what most people would like to be: young, talented and thin. Since this is baseball, the last, an absence of bench strength, could present a problem. But when it comes to starting lineups, as centerfielder Brett Butler boasts, "We know we've got a good ball club. We know we can field eight guys with anybody in the game. Rodney Dangerfield is out of Cleveland. We get respect."
No one expects the Indians to contend for the AL East title; no one expects them to do anything. But before you write them off, consider the following: 1) the Indians were 42-38 after the '84 All-Star break; 2) they were third in the league in runs scored with 761, the most by an Indian team in 31 years; 3) the everyday players, with the exception of 35-year-old DH Andre Thornton, are all in their 20s; 4) hey, last spring who expected anything from the Cubs?
But let's get back to thin. Cleveland won't improve if it suffers more than a few injuries, and already Thornton (33 homers and 99 RBIs in '84), who surprised everyone by re-signing with the Indians for four years after becoming a free agent last winter, will miss at least the first two weeks of the season because of arthroscopic surgery to his left knee. But even without Thornton, the Indians will present a more muscular offense, thanks in part to some good '84 trades.
"We had to start somewhere," says manager Pat Corrales. "In '83 we hit rock bottom [86 homers]. We started making trades and ended up with [Joe] Carter and [Mel] Hall. We had to trade good players to get young talent, but we've managed to put together a pretty good offensive threat."
Oddly, the Cubs' success has been the key to the Indians' turnaround, too. Everyone knows what Rick Sutcliffe did for Chicago, but few outside of Shaker Heights realize what the trade did for Cleveland. Leftfielder Carter, 25, the second player chosen in the June 1981 draft, hit 12 homers and had 37 RBIs in the last two months of 1984. Rightfielder Hall, 24, scored 43 runs in a half season, and brought with him a certain brashness that normally doesn't survive outside of the minors.
"He's supposed to have had trouble in Chicago," says Corrales. "I can see why. Chicago had a lot of veterans, and he's a kid who's very talented and very cocky. Here, he's just another talented, cocky kid. I love to have kids like this. They have a good time, and they hate to lose."
Along with Butler, 27, who scored 108 runs and stole 52 bases last year, and shortstop Julio Franco, 23, who has driven in 159 runs over the last two seasons, Carter and Hall are the soul of the new Indians. "Our youth makes it more comfortable," Carter says. "We don't have 15 or 20 veterans. On and off the field, we hang out together. It's a little easier to adjust. Actually," he says with a grin, "I thought I could get away from Mel with the trade. We broke in together in 1981. He seems to follow me around."
Righthander Don Schulze, 22, also came over from Chicago and will follow 1984's best AL starter, Bert Blyleven (19-7, 2.87 ERA), and lefty Neal Heaton in the rotation. The success of the starting rotation depends on righty Rick Behenna, who missed nearly all of last season with shoulder problems.
Laugh if you must, but this year's ugly-duckling story could well take place on the shores of Lake Erie.
PAT TABLER (R)
TONY BERNAZARD (R/L)
JULIO FRANCO (R)
BROOK JACOBY (R)
JOE CARTER (R)
BRETT BUTLER (L)
MEL HALL (L)
CHRIS BANDO (L/R)
GEORGE VUKOVICH (L)
CARMEN CASTILLO (R)