Inspired Indians poised to contend in 2012

Associated Press  |  Last updated February 21, 2012
On a cinder-block wall adjacent to the front entrance of the Indians' training complex, a large script ''I'' has been replaced this year by a block ''C,'' which, of course, stands for Cleveland. The Indians would like to believe it also symbolizes that they're contenders. However, just being in the hunt or near the top won't be enough for closer Chris Perez, sporting a full beard and longer hair this spring. He's done with rebuilding, second-place and any talk about waiting until next year. Perez wants more for the Indians in 2012. ''We were contending last year,'' he said Tuesday. ''Winning is the word this year. I don't want to compete. I want to win.'' Leave it to Perez to bring the early heat during the first week of training camp under the getting-warmer-by-the-day Arizona sun. The right-hander had 36 saves last season, but he couldn't do anything to stop the Indians' late-season slide in the standings. Cleveland's surprising 30-15 start was followed by an equally abrupt collapse as an avalanche of injuries overwhelmed the Indians in September. A summer of fun at Progressive Field became a bummer. The Indians finished 15 games behind AL Central-champion Detroit Tigers, the odds-on favorites to win the division again this year after adding slugger Prince Fielder to an already potent lineup. Looking back on 2011, Perez doesn't remember the start as much as the finish. ''It was fun last year while it lasted, but at the end of the year I had a bitter taste in my month,'' Perez said before going outside to play catch. ''After the deadline, the Tigers kind of took off and played at another level and we went the other way, but they weren't a better team than us in the first half. This year, we don't have any excuses.'' The Indians will hold their first official workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday, with the full squad set to take the field for the first time Saturday. On Tuesday, players, coaches and manager underwent physicals. ''Lots of blood,'' manager Manny Acta said with a smile after having some drained for tests. ''Maybe as the manager you have to lead by example giving away that much. I thought it was a lot.'' The Indians certainly needed a lot of medical attention last season. It seemed hardly a day went by without one of Cleveland's players being hurt. The Indians lost their entire starting outfield to injuries, had two starting pitchers go down, used the disabled list 22 times (second most in the AL) and had their four most established hitters - Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera - in the same lineup just 17 times all season. ''You try to do as much as you can to prevent them,'' Perez said, ''but we had so many that were just freak injuries. There's nothing you can do.'' The Indians are hoping both Sizemore, who re-signed with the club as a free agent, and Choo can bounce back and have productive years. Choo seemed to have rebounded from a slow start in 2011 when he was hit on the thumb with a pitch, needed surgery and missed six weeks. The club's best player in 2010, Choo played in just 85 games. With so many key players sidelined, the Indians were forced to dip into their minor leagues and bring up players who weren't ready for pennant-race pressure. The club's lack of quality depth was exposed. So, to guard against the problem recurring, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti brought in 22 non-roster invitees into camp, including 13 on minor league contracts. With 62 players on the spring roster, the team ran out of lockers in the clubhouse, forcing a few players to double up. While there may be an abundance of players, there are only a few open jobs. Four spots in the rotation are taken by Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe and Josh Tomlin, with the fifth open because of legal problems involving the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona, arrested in the Dominican Republic on false identity charges. Carmona, whose real name is Roberto Hernandez, is on baseball's restricted list. The Indians don't know when - or if - he will be with them this season. Acta has to fill two bullpen openings, pick between Jack Hannahan and Lonnie Chisenhall as his starting third baseman and decide on some bench roles. It's a strong sign of progress, and a credit to Cleveland's front office, that the Indians don't have a long list of issues to address this spring - Acta's third. Acta believes the Indians have championship pieces. It's now up to him to see that they're put together properly. ''We have some talent here,'' he said. ''Our focus is to win. When you are in a rebuilding process, you can see it from year to year. We're talented. It's not a fluke when you spend as long as we did in first place.'' Perez is counting on the Indians getting back to the top this year. And this time, he thinks they can stay there. After all, the Tigers haven't won anything yet. ''Last year, we were right in it until the end, until September,'' he said. ''Who knows? If we keep our horses out there all season, and our offense together all season, and our bullpen is going to be as strong like it was last year, and Derek Lowe has a bounce-back year, and Justin Masterson takes another step and Ubaldo has a full year with us? We're looking all right. ''And if it doesn't, we weren't supposed to win anyway, right?'' Notes: INF Cristian Guzman took a physical and said he may sign a minor league deal with the Indians on Wednesday. The 33-year-old sat out last season with a sore right shoulder. He played in Washington for Acta, who invited the two-time All-Star to camp. ''We have a good relationship,'' said Guzman, who played for Minnesota from 1999-2004. ''He called me. I told him I wanted to keep playing and he said to come here and try to help the team. So I said, `OK, I'll go.''' ... The Indians traded LHP Kelvin De La Cruz to Texas for cash. De La Cruz was designated on Feb. 13 to make room for 1B Casey Kotchman. De La Cruz went 5-6 with a 4.19 ERA for Double-A Akron in 2011.
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