Acta looks to turn Indians into contender

Associatedpress and Associatedpress

CLEVELAND — When the Cleveland Indians last changed managers, they were coming off a 74-win season and third-place finish in the AL Central.

Eric Wedge was handed a mess in 2003.

Manny Acta’s inheritance isn’t much sweeter.

Fired in July after 2 1/2 trying seasons with the talent-starved Washington Nationals, Acta is taking over a team that won 65 games last season — the Indians’ fewest since 1991 — tied Kansas City in the division’s basement, is in the midst of yet another rebuilding project and a front-office transition.

The mid-market Indians, three years after nearly making the World Series, are being given little chance of swinging with baseball’s big boys anytime soon.

Acta, though, is optimistic. He believes the Indians can — and will — contend.


“Because it’s baseball and because it’s sports and because Kansas got beat in the NCAA tournament,” the perpetually positive Acta said before a recent spring training game in Arizona. “It’s baseball and every day you have the opportunity to have somebody rise up and be a big-time performer, and big-time performers can have a bad day.”

The Indians had too many bad days in 2009.

Doomed by another slow start, their season disintegrated quickly and led to ownership’s hotly debated decision to trade both Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and All-Star catcher Victor Martinez in July despite Cleveland owning club options on both players for 2010.

It was a white flag of surrender Cleveland fans couldn’t stomach, and the season culminated with a 15-game road losing streak and Wedge’s dismissal.

Acta represents change, and, the Indians hope, a new beginning.

However, there are some short-term headaches the club must overcome to return to contender status.

The rotation is shaky, at best. Jake Westbrook hasn’t pitched in the majors in nearly two years after Tommy John elbow surgery, yet Acta is handing him the ball on opening day in Chicago next week.

The Indians are crossing their fingers that Fausto Carmona, a 19-game winner in 2007, can fix his mental and mechanical issues.

The right-hander, whose move to the first-base side of the rubber this spring seems to have helped, could be the key to Cleveland’s return to prominence — if there’s to be one.

“The way I see our ballclub — and it’s not a secret — we have to get our starting rotation to do a better job,” Acta said. “That’s it.”

If it was only that simple.

The bullpen isn’t settled, either.

Closer Kerry Wood is expected to miss the first few weeks with a strained back muscle, an injury that promotes Chris Perez into the team’s most important relief role and will force Acta to mix and match relievers after the fifth inning.

With Wood due $11 million next season, the Indians could trade the 32-year-old by July if they’re out of playoff contention.

The cash-strapped club spent $2 million on first baseman Russell Branyan this winter, hoping to add pop to a lineup needing some middle-of-the-order punch.

But like Wood, Branyan will start the season on the disabled list with a bad back.

Even without him, Cleveland’s offense is balanced and should score.

Underrated right fielder Shin Soo-Choo, the only AL player to hit .300 with 20 homers and 20 steals last season, may finally get the attention he deserves and Grady Sizemore should bounce back after offseason surgeries.

There’s a bigger problem, one only winning will solve for the Indians: Their fans have fled.

Unhappy after the team’s payroll purge, Clevelanders seem unwillingly to fund a franchise and young team needing their support and ticket-buying power more than ever.

The Indians, who once sold out 455 consecutive home games, have dropped below the Browns and Cavaliers on the city’s sports totem pole.

While the Cavs and superstar LeBron James chase an NBA title, the Indians are trying to attract customers and finding scant interest.

As of this week, there were still tickets available for the April 12 home opener against Texas.

Acta believes Cleveland’s passionate fans will return — in time.

“I think our players will bring them back,” said Acta, who heard complaints and comments while interacting with fans during a winter press tour. “l’m going to do my best, but I think we are talented enough where people are going to get excited again.

“These people have done it twice already. I trust what has been done here because it worked in the mid ’90s and it worked in the 2000s already. And this time around, it’s not a complete rebuild. We already have a lot of pieces in place.”

The 41-year-old Acta, with a boyish enthusiasm for the game, wasted no time in making an impression during training camp. His first major move was to drop Sizemore, one of the majors’ premier leadoff hitters, into the No. 2 spot in Cleveland’s lineup behind Asdrubal Cabrera.

Pushing Sizemore down in the order was something Wedge and general manager Mark Shapiro, who will become team president after this season, had contemplated in the past but were hesitant to try. After studying analytical data showing the benefits of Sizemore getting more at-bats with runners in scoring position, Acta pulled the trigger but not before making sure Sizemore was OK with it.

“This kid has so much ability he’ll do whatever he feels is best for the club,” Acta said of Sizemore, hoping to bounce back from a sub-par year (.248 average, 18 homers and 64 RBIs) and undergoing operations on his elbow and abdomen. “I explained what I wanted to do with him and it wasn’t like, ‘This is what we’re going to do and that’s it.’

“You have to give someone enough reasons to buy it. He liked everything he heard. It’s a luxury to have a guy like him leading off. But we need this guy to drive in more runs and hit in more meaningful situations.”

Same for Travis Hafner. Cleveland’s designated hitter is finally swinging pain-free, 18 months after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Hafner’s driving the ball with authority and believes he can hit 30 or more homers.

The Indians know they’ll need some luck, and may have already gotten some. Division favorite Minnesota has lost closer Joe Nathan to a season-ending injury, a setback that would seem to slide the Twins closer to the Indians, White Sox, Tigers and Royals.

Since being named Cleveland’s 40th manager, Acta has pointed to the division’s balance as an asset.

It’s up for grabs and Acta feels the Indians are good enough to snatch it.

“If you asked every manager in the big leagues, they would like to be in a division where everyone feels like they have a chance to win and that’s why I love this division,” Acta said. “We just have to battle it out and see what happens.”