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NEW HERD SKIPPER GETTING ROSTER TOGETHER EARLY

New Bisons manager Jeff Datz is about to enjoy a luxury Triple-A managers don't often get in spring training -- having his whole team in minor-league camp.

This spring is an unusual one for the Bisons. Because many minor leagues open their seasons a week later than the majors, Buffalo players will be together in Florida until heading north April 6. The parent Cleveland Indians and other big-league teams open Tuesday, just the second March first pitch in history.

Marquee teams such as the Indians often take most of their Triple-A players on the road for non-Florida exhibition games that customarily close the spring schedule. In recent years, some Bisons never worked out with the club until it returned to Buffalo two days before the opener.

This year, Datz will spend most of this week with the team that will actually take the North AmeriCare Park field April 9 against Rochester in Buffalo's first International League game since 1970.

"We should have guys much of the last week and they will help us get them locked in earlier before we head back (to Buffalo)," said Datz, who moves up to replace Brian Graham after spending the last two years at Double-A Akron. "It's a great opportunity for us."

Two key Bison returnees, Torey Lovullo and Richie Sexson, went with the Indians for their games Saturday at Atlanta and today in Las Vegas against Milwaukee. They are expected back in camp for Tuesday's game against the Richmond Braves at the Disney Complex in Lake Buena Vista.

Lovullo, the MVP of last year's American Association playoffs, is expected to be Buffalo's third baseman. Sexson, whose 31 home runs last year set a franchise Association record, is being converted from first base to left field.

The transaction news has been a mixed bag for Buffalo in recent days. As expected, slugging first baseman Sean Casey is returning to the Herd, but it looks as though second baseman Enrique Wilson won't be.

The Indians sent Casey back to the Bisons Thursday after a spring that saw the 23-year-old bat .318 with two homers and six RBIs in just 44 at-bats.

Casey, whose 10th-inning homer in Game Three at Iowa last September gave Buffalo its first Association title in the final game in league history, has become Cleveland's most coveted prospect. The Tribe wants him playing every day, rather than sitting on the bench in the big leagues.

With Jim Thome anchored at first and Geronimo Berroa and David Justice expected to share time at designated hitter, there would have been little duty left for Casey. That dilemma was obvious when camp started six weeks ago, but the Indians kept Casey so he could work with their staff and face big-league pitching.

"It was a reward for the effort he put in and the high esteem in which I hold him," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said before the team broke its Florida camp with Friday's exhibition victory against Pittsburgh. "No question, we were trying to send Sean a message."

Wilson, meanwhile, spent the winter earmarked as Cleveland's starting second baseman but quickly fell down in the pecking order when the Tribe signed Shawon Dunston.

Ex-Bison Carlos Garcia was also in camp after being signed from Toronto, but he was waived Wednesday and Hargrove said he's inclined to keep three utility infielders. That would mean Wilson, ex-Bison slugger Jeff Manto and Jeff Branson would all make the Cleveland roster.

It also means the Tribe will be dangling young catcher Einar Diaz on waivers when it makes its final cuts late tonight or Monday. Diaz is out of minor-league options after playing 109 games for Buffalo last year, but still needs Triple-A seasoning to improve his hitting. He must clear waivers to come back to the minors.

Datz appears set in the outfield with Sexson and '97 returnees Bruce Aven and Alex Ramirez. Lovullo and Casey will be on the infield corners, with the middle slots a battle between free-agent signees Bill Selby, Jolbert Cabrera and Brandon Wilson and Double-A graduate Mike Neal.

Datz's biggest challenge this week is to figure out a pitching rotation. He spent most of the offseason expecting Bartolo Colon (7-1, 2.22 including a no-hitter last year at the NAP) and former Toronto No. 1 pick Steve Karsay would be his top starters.

But injuries to Chad Ogea, John Smiley and the Indians' ill-fated acquisition of a damaged Ben McDonald means Colon and Karsay will both start the season in Cleveland. Buffalo's top two starters now look to be Marcus Moore, who had three outings with 10 or more strikeouts for the Herd last August, and Jason Jacome.

Jimmy Williams, who was 12-3 for Buffalo in '96, is back in camp after a year in Japan. Another lefty, Mike Matthews, struggled last season in his first stint in Triple-A (0-2, 7.71), and Cleveland hopes he can stick this year.

Matthews will start today's exhibition against the Omaha Royals at Baseball City. The Herd (2-5-1) had an in-camp scrimmage against Akron Saturday.

"We've all got jobs to do this week," Datz said. "We've got some tough decisions to make in some cases and we're looking for answers at other spots, but there are a lot of people here who could fill those spots. That's a good problem to have."

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