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Indians eye future despite detriment to present

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Cleveland Indians.

2010 record: 69-93
Finish: Fourth place, AL Central
2010 final payroll: $60.5 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $44 million

Offseason action

Perhaps more than any other team in baseball, "action" is a misnomer for the Cleveland Indians' offseason. Sandwiched around the $1.3 million contract they handed Austin Kearns(notes) was a handful of minor-league deals, flyers on the aged (Adam Everett(notes)), the mediocre (Justin Germano(notes)) and the hopeful (Travis Buck(notes)). Only in baseball, it seems, is Cleveland seen as a land of opportunity.

Rather than hit the free-agent market this offseason, the Indians engaged in a fair bit of prayer: that Carlos Santana(notes), their all-everything rookie catcher, would recover from the gruesome broken leg that sidelined him after a scintillating two-month debut, and that Grady Sizemore(notes), who should be their franchise player, would come back healthy from microfracture knee surgery.

For Santana, general manager Chris Antonetti said, "rehab's gone exceptionally well." After working out this winter at the Indians' complex in Goodyear, Ariz., Santana recently started ground-based activities. The Indians will monitor his workload during spring training, and in order to get his bat in the lineup, they plan on playing him at first base, as they did with Victor Martinez(notes). Santana is a converted third baseman, so the Indians figure the transition should go smoothly.

Sizemore's return, on the other hand, isn't as certain. He is something of a guinea pig in baseball for microfracture, a procedure in which doctors intentionally make tiny fractures in a body to promote growth of new cartilage and a surgery more often done on basketball and football players. While there haven't been setbacks following his June surgery, Antonetti said, Sizemore just recently began modified baseball-related activities.

Sizemore likely won't be available for the start of spring training, but the club is optimistic he'll be ready by opening day.

Once he is, the Indians plan to keep Sizemore in center field rather than move him to a position that doesn't necessitate covering as much space. If Sizemore returns near full-speed, it's a canny move, particularly considering the alternative: Though center field requires significant running, corner outfield spots entail quick stops as players approach walls, something that could prove even more harmful long-term.

Reality check

The youngest team in baseball last season likely will get even more green this year. The Indians are in full-fledged rebuild mode after dealing CC Sabathia(notes) in 2008 and Cliff Lee(notes) in 2009, and not fetching a single impact player for either superstar didn't exactly help in the effort.

Still, the Indians' farm system is far from bare. By the end of the summer, Jason Kipnis should be manning second base and Lonnie Chisenhall third. Alex White could join an Indians staff that posted a 3.89 ERA after the All-Star break. Plant them alongside Santana, Shin-Shoo Choo, a recovered Sizemore, Fausto Carmona(notes) and Justin Masterson(notes), and it's the makings of a solid core.

Which is integral in an AL Central that is leaving in the dust its old Comedy Central moniker. Minnesota is loaded with talent, prospects and money. Chicago's rotation is one of the majors' best, and Adam Dunn(notes) brings the pop that was missing last year. Detroit is cash-rich again, and its Justin Verlander(notes)-Max Scherzer-Rick Porcello(notes) troika could by year's end stack up against the game's elite. Even Kansas City, Central sewer dwellers, is beyond loaded with minor-league jewels.

So the onus falls on Antonetti, in his first full year as GM after Mark Shapiro ascended to team president, to figure out if he can somehow dump Travis Hafner's(notes) brutal contract (another two years at $28.75 million), and whether it makes sense to trade Carmona (with three reasonable club options), and how he can convince Choo to forgo free agency and sign an extension with the Indians.

The Carlos Gonzalez(notes) deal gives them hope, proving Scott Boras clients are not fundamentally opposed to avoiding extensions that buy out free-agent years. Still, the Choo situation, even though he doesn't hit free agency until after the 2013 season, weighs on Clevelanders' minds. They've seen Sabathia go. They've seen Lee go. They're programmed to expect others to follow, a culture Antonetti wants to change.

"I certainly appreciate that and understand their perspective," he said. "We want the immediacy of results. We expect to be a better team this year. We want to get in the position where we were in 2007, where you're bringing guys in the last year of deals."

Not this season, not with the Indians' commitment to the "what's next." It's going to be a long year in Cleveland. The future can't come soon enough.

Indians in haiku Chief Wahoo: racist
The Indians: not too good
Which thing is truer?

Next: Pittsburgh Pirates

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