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12/11/08 12:06 AM EST

Health vital to Wedge's '09 success

Manager hopes to build on second-half improvement

LAS VEGAS -- Right now, the Indians' front-office decision-makers have a goal of assembling the bodies that report to Spring Training in Goodyear, Ariz.

From that point, manager Eric Wedge has a simple goal that he believes will lead to the ultimate goals of contention and a crown.

"What I'd like to ideally see happen, we want to be healthy," Wedge told reporters at the Winter Meetings on Wednesday. "We want to stay healthy through the spring. I wasn't real pleased to have Victor [Martinez] get hurt the first game of the season last year. That wasn't great. But I'd like to see us stay healthy into the season."

That obviously didn't happen in '08, but Wedge found positives in what transpired. The Indians were 16 games back of .500 on July 9 but, sparked by some young players who received unexpected opportunities, rallied to an even 81-81 finish.

"We did it in a different way there the second half," Wedge said. "We didn't have those big guys [Martinez and Travis Hafner] in the middle [of the lineup], for the most part, and we were a little bit more active, because we were a little bit more athletic. You always work off your team, and that's what we tried to do."

Among the many things Wedge is currently trying to sort out is how he'll divvy up the playing time at catcher and first base next season. Kelly Shoppach proved himself as worthy of regular starts when Martinez went down with elbow surgery and a hamstring strain, and Martinez has the flexibility to play first base. But Wedge also liked the way first baseman Ryan Garko performed in the season's final two months.

"I think Shoppach is going to get more time," Wedge said. "It's just a matter of how we're going to make that work. I'm very comfortable and confident with Victor playing first base. I know Victor loves to catch, and I love him behind the plate. But I think with what Kelly did offensively last year, plus how he handled our pitching staff, that's something we've got to give great regard to."

Wedge said he hopes to have a more concrete idea of his plans closer to Spring Training. And it's difficult for him to plan anything right now, anyway, given that the Indians are still in the process of constructing their club. In fact, shortly after Wedge met with reporters, word broke of the Indians' involvement in a three-team trade with the Mets and Mariners.

The infield appears to be the area with the biggest question marks. Wedge stuck up for shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who might be asked to move from shortstop to third base next season.

"We've thought about that a lot," Wedge said. "Jhonny is a very underrated shortstop. If there's one ball that he doesn't get to, I mean, people domino that into two weeks. But they don't take into consideration the routine play that he makes time and time and time again. His hands are fantastic, his first step has gotten better, and his arm has never been an issue. He has a plus arm."

So, can Peralta make a seamless move to the hot corner?

"It's not just a given, I'll tell you that," Wedge said. "But I think that with some repetition he'd be fine, and that's one of the reasons we wanted him to play some third base in winter ball, just to get a head start, in case."

The way the '08 season fell apart in a hurry gave Wedge and the Indians' decision-makers a head start, of sorts, in their preparations for 2009. They got a long look at some previously untested players.

"It's going to help us in regard to depth this year, but it's also going to help us in Cleveland as we're working to try to win games," Wedge said. "We want to try to work hard to have the best of both worlds, getting a lot of those core guys back but also plugging in the guys that were a big part of our success the second half of last year."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.