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LABOR PAINS GIVE HERD BIG-LEAGUE HEADACHES

Buffalo Bisons manager Brian Graham is busy making the best of a bad situation 10 days before his team's season opener.

"It's the most confusing spring training we've had in a long time," Graham said from the Bisons' spring headquarters in Winter Haven, Fla. "Unfortunately, we don't have our top prospects . . . so we're missing quite a few real good players."

Baseball's labor impasse has had a big impact on the Triple A level.

In a normal spring, top Triple A players would have opened training camp on the 40-man big-league roster, rubbed shoulders with the major-league stars for a couple of weeks, then been sent down to the Triple A club by now.

Those prospects, however, are out on strike along with the big-leaguers. So some of the Cleveland Indians' hottest youngsters, such as infielders Herbert Perry and David Bell, outfielders Brian Giles and Tony Mitchell, and pitchers Albie Lopez and Julian Tavarez, are sitting on the sidelines. Most of them helped make the Indians' Triple A team in Charlotte a winner last year and are expected to make a power out of the Bisons -- whenever they get back in uniform.

The Indians, the Bisons' new parent club, have compensated by signing a batch of veteran free agents -- 13 so far -- with fairly impressive credentials. At least five of the Bisons' starting positional players and half the pitchers will be veteran free-agent signees.

"The combination of those players with our younger prospects (mostly from Double A) is what's going to make up our team in Buffalo," said Graham.

The veterans include: Bill Ripken, the brother of Cal Ripken and an eight-year big-leaguer who will start at shortstop for the Herd; Torey Lovullo, a former starting second baseman for the California Angels who will play third base for Buffalo; first baseman Luis Lopez, a lifetime .304 minor-league hitter; catcher Rick Wrona, a seven-year Triple A veteran; and outfielder Mike Humphreys, who had brief stints with the New York Yankees the past three seasons.

"We felt this was an opportunity for us to be aggressive and to have some guys signed who would agree to go to Triple A that in a normal year would not agree to go there," said Mark Shapiro, Cleveland's director of minor-league baseball operations.

"The downside for us is high minor-league salaries. But we feel it is a low-risk, big-reward thing for some guys we feel could have an impact for us if the strike is solved and we're able to continue in a pennant hunt."

Ripken, for instance, batted .309 in 32 games for the Texas Rangers last season before suffering a hip injury. He would have been in a big-league camp if it weren't for the strike.

"We're in fantastic shape sitting at Triple A with a Billy Ripken there and knowing he's not going to make the (big-league) club if the strike is settled," Shapiro said. "But if we get an injury to anyone -- (Alvaro) Espinoza, (Omar) Vizquel or (Carlos) Baerga -- how about having that guy there to bring up?

"The No. 2 reason for signing these guys," Shapiro said, "is we're committed to putting a competitive product on the field in Buffalo."

Infielder Ernest Riles and former relief ace Gregg Olson, who will start the season on the disabled list, are other accomplished big-leaguers signed by Shapiro.

The Bisons pitching staff is likely to include signees such as John Farrell, Jim Poole, Matt Turner and James Austin, all with big-league experience.

A bunch of players who played Double A last year and normally would have started there this year are vying for spots in the Herd outfield. Among them are Murph Proctor (.288 at Double A Canton-Akron last year), Ray Harvey (.293) and Marc Marini (.275).

Two of the Indians' highest-rated pitching prospects -- Daron Kirkreit and Casey Whitten -- look like they will start in Buffalo, as well. Whitten played in Class A last season.

"They would have started the year in Double A," Graham said.

Graham still has a lot of decisions to make about the Herd roster.

"We haven't had a consistent lineup on the field every day yet, but we're getting close to having an idea who's going to play every day," he said. "A lot still could happen. I think the strike's getting closer to getting settled. The problem is when it is settled, it's going to take two to three weeks to get the players back into shape."

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