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World Series 2001
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10/09/2001 01:41 PM ET
Hart knew he had to reload after missing playoffs
Rob Robinson
CLEVELAND -- General Manager John Hart knew he had to tinker with the Indians roster. He couldn't stand pat, go into the 2001 season and expect to win the AL Central title.

Hart knew that fact from what had happened last season, when his Indians missed the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

To get the club back into the post-season, Hart turned to a formula that has worked well for him since he took over as general manager on Sept. 18, 1991: He brought in a few good men.

In some ways, Hart had no choice. For when he was unable to re-sign slugger Manny Ramirez, Hart was left with a king-sized hole in his batting order. He didn't have the players in the minors to fill it.

So he and Mark Shapiro, the assistant GM, went shopping for a big bat, and they found two, Ellis Burks and Juan Gonzalez, to buttress core players like Jim Thome, Travis Fryman, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton.

Hart signed Burks through the 2003 season. What the Indians liked most about the veteran outfielder was his professionalism and his leadership in the locker room. Burks has provided that -- and more.

"Ellis Burks was the No. 1 guy we went after last winter," Shapiro said. "Above Juan Gonzalez, above anyone. When our season ended, he was an absolute priority, not just because of the talent or ability, but because of the person he is and what he brings to the locker room.

"That was the key for us."

In Gonzalez, the Indians signed a two-time AL MVP who was coming off an injury-plagued season in Detroit. He gambled on a one-year contract, and his gamble paid off. Gonzalez has a big payday coming his way after the 2001 season.

"We needed a guy to take Manny's spot, and Juan (Gonzalez) has done a better than expected job, both offensively and defensively," Shapiro said.

With Ramirez's hole filled with Burks and Gonzalez, the Indians headed into Spring Training looking to fill out their roster from some unlikely sources. In addition, they were taking a long look at pitching.

One of the first pitchers they focused on was rookie C.C. Sabathia. As camp started, the 21-year-old left-hander wasn't even supposed to make the Indians roster, not this season.

Team officials had thought Sabathia, their first-round pick in the 1998 amateur draft, was a couple of years away from big-league employment. They thought wrong.

Sabathia had an excellent Spring Training, which earned him a roster spot. He turned out to be the most consistent starter for the Indians this season. He exceeded everybody's high expectations, winning 16 games. Sabathia would be the odds-on favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year award if not for Seattle Mariners rookie Ichiro.

"We wouldn't be in a position to play in post-season without C.C.," Shapiro said. "Without a doubt."

Neither would the Tribe be here without a rookie pitcher who wasn't on its Opening Day roster. Right-hander Danys Baez, 24, stepped in around midseason and assumed an important role in a bullpen that had been weakened by trade and injuries.

The Cuban-born reliever took over in the late innings with a dominance rarely seen here. Baez worked the seventh and eighth innings before turning the game over to closer Bob Wickman.

"With the (John) Rocker inconsistencies and (Shuey) going down, we were naked," Shapiro said. "And with Danys Baez contributing the way he did, there is no question our bullpen would have come undone."

Like Sabathia, Baez proved a pleasant surprise, although probably not nearly as big a surprise as Marty Cordova.

The Indians invited Cordova, a free agent, to Spring Training, and he made the team. Cordova has had a solid season, not only offensively but in left field.

In the off-season, one of the most difficult decisions Hart had to make was with Sandy Alomar Jr., one of the linchpins in the team's run of AL Central championships. Hart felt the price for Alomar's services were too high, particularly when he looked at the catcher's history of knee injuries that had limited his ability to play.

So Hart passed on re-signing Alomar, which was an unpopular move. The Indians general manager then went out and picked up veteran catcher Eddie Taubensee in a minor trade with the Cincinnati Reds (pitchers Jim Brower and Robert Pugmire), and Hart signed catcher Einar Diaz to a long-term contract.

Taubensee, at best, has been a workmanlike performer, but Diaz has been solid behind the plate. He has also been a productive player offensively. Hart's decision to pass on Alomar, in hindsight, looks astute, as Alomar played just 70 games for the Chicago White Sox; Diaz played in 132 and led all catchers in doubles.

But not all of Hart's decisions since last season have worked out as well as these have. Exhibit A: the John Rocker deal.

Trying to bolster his bullpen, Hart went after the controversial closer. On June 22, Hart and the Atlanta Braves agreed on a deal that brought the hard-throwing Rocker to Cleveland and sent relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed to the Braves.

The trade worked twofold for the Indians: In getting Rocker, they got a left-hander closer who was under contract; they also rid themselves of two players up for free agency -- Karsay and Reed.

Unfortunately for Hart and the Indians, the enigmatic Rocker has not duplicated the success he's had in Atlanta. He's had control problems and, in recent outings, his confidence seems shaken. Still, no one has questions about Rocker's talent, and his success in the post-season has been the equal of any closer in baseball history.

Rob Robinson is Site Reporter for senior writer Justice B. Hill contributed to this report.