The Cleveland Indians have made plenty of moves to retool for another run to the World Series. Through two months of offseason upheaval, however, the Tribe hasn't forgotten the Buffalo Bisons.
Cleveland already expects its Triple-A affiliate to have far more returning players in 1998 than started the '97 season with the Herd. And the Tribe is hard at work trying to fill Buffalo's first International League roster since 1970 with around 10 free agents.
"We've done a lot of work already and we're close to getting some other guys as well," Tribe minor-league operations director Mark Shapiro said Tuesday from Cleveland. "We recognized there would be some needs with the Buffalo club next year that we had to address, especially depth in some infield spots and pitching."
Cleveland has already signed three veterans who were key members of Buffalo's 1997 American Association championship team in pitchers Marcus Moore and Ben Blomdahl and infielder Torey Lovullo. The Tribe also signed long-time major-league pitcher Rheal Cormier, who's recovering from tendon transplant surgery, and acquired pitcher Steve Karsay, a former No. 1 draft choice of Toronto, in a trade with Oakland.
Signing minor-league contracts with major-league spring training invitations were catcher Pat Borders and infielder Jeff Manto. Borders is expected to make Cleveland's roster and back up Sandy Alomar for the second straight year. It's uncertain whether Manto, who hit 20 home runs in 54 games for Buffalo last year, would accept another minor-league assignment if he doesn't stick with Cleveland.
Getting Lovullo was key for the Bisons, who strongly urged Shapiro to convince the American Association's playoff MVP to re-sign with the organization.
"From day one of the offseason, we expressed interest in having Torey come back," Shapiro said. "He provides depth for us at the big-league level and everyone in Buffalo knows what he means (as a field and clubhouse leader). He's such a high-character guy that makes everyone better and I'm proud we have him back."
One player the Tribe lost was veteran outfielder Les Norman. Another clubhouse leader of the '97 Herd, Norman opted to sign with Texas because the Rangers offered him an invitation to major-league spring training. The Indians did not meet that request.
David Weathers, the winning pitcher in the clinching game of both of Buffalo's playoff series last September, signed Monday with Cincinnati. Weathers was designated for assignment off Cleveland's 40-man roster and didn't figure in the Tribe's plans.
Last month, the Reds also signed former Cleveland No. 1 pick Daron Kirkreit and are expected to start him in Indianapolis. Kirkreit, whose career was troubled by shoulder injuries, was just 8-9, 5.20 at Double-A Akron, but pitched a seven-inning, complete-game shutout in his only '97 appearance in Buffalo. He was a lock for the Herd's '98 rotation if he had stayed with Cleveland.
Sources close to the Indians say the Tribe's No. 1 free-agent target for Buffalo's starting rotation is left-hander Jimmy Williams, who went 12-3 for the '96 Herd and spent the 1997 season in Japan. The remaining priorities are relief pitching and middle infield.
Moore, Karsay and Cormier are candidates for the rotation. So are right-handers Travis Driskill (8-7 with a team-high 102 strikeouts last year) and Jason Rakers, who pitched a complete-game shutout in his only Buffalo outing and had a no-hitter as part of his 8-5 season at Class-A Kinston.
The Indians are spending the offseason trying to figure out what to do with Bartolo Colon, whose 7-1 record in Buffalo included the franchise's first no-hitter in 45 years. Colon was just 4-7, 5.65 in Cleveland and appears locked out of a starting rotation that currently includes Jaret Wright, Charles Nagy, Chad Ogea, Dwight Gooden and Ben McDonald.
"Some people in our organization think he could be a 'back-end' bullpen guy," Shapiro said. "We'll have to see what role he pitches in but if everybody with the big club is healthy, we're going to have big-league pitchers in Triple-A similar to last year when we had Brian Anderson there."
Barring more trades at the big-league level, '97 Bisons currently expected to return to Buffalo include outfielders Bruce Aven (.287-17-77) and Alex Ramirez (.286-11-44), catcher Einar Diaz (.256-3-31) and Richie Sexson, who set a franchise record with 31 home runs and had 88 RBIs.
Sexson is expected to play mostly left field after moving from first base in Cleveland's October instructional league.
"He's working on things like making a break on the ball and doing it consistently every time," Shapiro said. "Repetition is all he needs because he's athletic enough. This will give him greater flexibility to make our big club."