If hot shot indians keep winning, They'll be ahead of schedule

By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
June 18

It's the 18th of June and the Cleveland Indians are six games over .500, one game better than the Braves in the won-lost column, 1½ better than the Yankees, two better than the Cubs, better than the entire National League West.

Five weeks earlier, the Indians were 12-18 and floundering. Mark Shapiro resisted the temptation that general managers sometime find irresistible -- to feed their egos by making trades to show the fans and media they are "doing something" -- and stuck with what he and manager Eric Wedge believe is a building team that can and will contend next season. "We believed that we are closer to what we hit last season than the first six weeks of 2005," says Shapiro.

Coco Crisp, Travis Hafner, Ronnie Belliard and most everyone other than Victor Martinez has crept toward their expected norms, the Indians have developed two middle-of-the-diamond regulars in their first full seasons. Grady Sizemore, 22, has an .834 OPS, second best among AL center fielders behind Johnny Damon. Jhonny Peralta, 23, has an .848 OPS, third among AL shortstops after Miguel Tejada and Michael Young.
Outfielder Coco Crisp is one of a host of young Indians players meeting expectations.

With the presence of
Bob Wickman at the end of games, Cleveland's bullpen has been the best in the league: Its 2.54 ERA through Friday was .30 lower than runner-up Minnesota, and it has led in strikeout/walk ratio and -- as a stuff indicator -- lowest OPS against. That has allowed C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and, now that he has some support, Jake Westbrook to build as a rotation with Kevin Millwood. Incidentally, Millwood has earned deep respect from his general manager. "This is a guy who threw 200 innings four times before he turned 30," says Shapiro. "When I see that and I see how he stays in games even when he doesn't have his best stuff makes me appreciate how badly he wants it and how he does not ever give in. He's been a very positive influence on the younger pitchers."

Beginning with the 2006 season, the Indians will be able to enter the free-agent market. But they will also have several young pitchers ready for the major leagues, like relievers
Fernando Cabrera (5-0, 0.97, 52-7 K/BB in 37 IP) and left-hander Brian Tallet. And Double-A starters Dan Denham (5-3, 3.10, but .201 opponents' average) and J.D. Martin, who in eight starts has a 2.82 ERA and a 56-7 K/BB ratio in 44 2/3 innings. Then there are also two starters who may be on the horizon by this time next year, top prospect Adam Miller, returning from arm problems, and lefty Jeremy Sowers, their 2004 first-round pick from Vanderbilt.

Not that this season is over. The Indians were three games out of the wild card on Saturday, a far cry from where they were five weeks ago, and right where they thought they might be when the season began. Another reminder that even when you're 12-18, only a fifth of your season has been played.