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New manager says Bisons could be loaded with talent

The Buffalo Bisons start their exhibition schedule Friday in Winter Haven, Fla., but many of the players who will be in Dunn Tire Park this summer are still in big-league camp with the Cleveland Indians. A good number of them, however, could be in the minor-league complex next week, and that will allow new manager Torey Lovullo his first true look at what he'll have to work with.

While Cleveland fans and media have been fretting about how the Tribe's offseason moves seem to be a step back with an eye toward 2007, Bisons officials have been glowing about the level of players who could be pushed to Triple-A this year.

"It's really absurd to think about some of the players that are going to be coming back here," Lovullo said while in town recently to do promotional and charitable work for the Bisons. "I watched the winter meetings more closely this year, no doubt about it. It was exciting to see a trade for a guy like [mega third-base prospect] Andy Marte. I was excited because their signings pushed a couple of very capable major-league pitchers down to our level.

"It's the trickledown effect, but I've learned over the years not to make assumptions in this game. When April 6 [Buffalo's season opener at Richmond] comes around and we have our final meeting, that's when I can get truly excited about our pitching staff and our lineup because anything can happen between now and then."

To refresh you on Cleveland's main offseason work, the Tribe traded popular outfielder Coco Crisp to Boston for a package of Marte -- ticketed to be Aaron Boone's replacement at third base next year -- and reliever Guillermo Mota. The Tribe also signed free agent pitchers Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson, and added outfielders Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Michaels.

What it means is that Buffalo will have two of the minors' top hitting prospects at the corners of its infield in Marte and first baseman Ryan Garko, still working on the conversion from catcher. And young outfielders such as Franklin Gutierrez, Jason Cooper and Ben Francisco will all start in Triple-A rather than be prematurely pushed to Cleveland.

Marte, who was going to be Chipper Jones' heir apparent at third in Atlanta before being dealt to Boston during the winter, was to start this year in Buffalo and perhaps go to Cleveland if Boone struggles. Or maybe go as a September callup. Early in big-league camp, however, Marte has opened many eyes by batting nearly .500 and playing a strong third base. He's still almost certain to come here, but his stay may not be as long as originally thought.

"My job is to push him out there in a good environment and get him ready to play major league baseball," Lovullo said. "I've seen him for a couple of years, and from the moment I saw him, the way he played just jumped all over me. The idea is to let him go out there, be creative and figure out what kind of player he's going to be."

Same for starting pitchers such as Fausto Carmona and former No. 1 draft choice Jeremy Sowers, who can take their time developing here. The addition of Mota and the re-signing of closer Bob Wickman could mean names like Andrew Brown, Jason Davis and Kaz Tadano could come back here as well; early in spring training, Brown is making a big push for the Indians' roster.

"Those guys would be big-league pitchers on a second-division team," Lovullo said. "Luckily for us in Buffalo, we'll get a quality group because of what's going on in Cleveland and because the Indians want them to be ready to pitch on a championship-caliber team. Last year, the five starters in Cleveland all made at least 30 starts. How often does that happen?

"It was a little bit of a stretch. I'll take advantage of it as a manager of this team, but you can't count on it happening again. Too many things can happen and the big club will have needs, so we'll have to provide that."

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Herd through grapevine

Brandon Phillips is out of options and won't be coming back to Buffalo. It looks like the Indians might deal him before the end of spring training because holdover Ramon Vazquez and Lou Merloni are also in camp battling for the utility infield slot. Vazquez has been the most impressive of the three.

Phillips, by the way, has taken another oath of silence with the media.

"I'm not ready to talk," he told Cleveland reporters this week. "I don't want to say the wrong thing. I'm concentrating on making this team."

Phillips' sister, Porsha, is one of the top high school girls basketball players in the country. She plays at Redan High in Stone Mountain, Ga., and is being recruited by big names such as LSU and North Carolina.

The Padres have hired St. Joe's graduate Jim Malone as their strength and conditioning coach. Malone, a former University of Rochester football player, has spent parts of five seasons with the Bisons while supervising prospects throughout the Cleveland chain and also has time as a big-league strength coach with the Mets.
Old friend Razor Shines, a Bison in 1990 and a reviled visitor as the Indianapolis Indians were winning four straight American Association titles from 1986 to '89, will come back to town this season as the manager of the Charlotte Knights. The White Sox promoted Shines after he was named Southern League Manager of the Year in 2005 at Birmingham, where he went 82-57 and led the Barons to their second straight playoff trip.

The Bisons will put individual game tickets on sale Wednesday. From noon to 6 p.m. on the Swan Street plaza, prizes and hot dogs will be given away. The team expects a big run on Opening Day tickets (April 14 versus Columbus) and the annual July 3 game against Rochester featuring the postgame Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert and fireworks show.

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Diamond dust

Mariners brass has been very impressed by Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract during the offseason. So have his new teammates, who have given him the Americanized nickname "Joe Mama."

"I don't know. Why 'Joe Mama?' " Johjima said in English after a recent workout as nearby teammates howled.

To enhance their marketing, the Devil Rays are changing their name in 2007 to just "Rays" or perhaps an entirely different one because they found fans didn't like the negative connotation of "Devil." Said team President Matt Silverman: "When they liked something we did, they would refer to us as the 'Rays.' If they were discussing a complaint or gripe, we were the 'Devil Rays.' "

The Brewers will be staging "Retro Sundays" all year at Miller Park, turning the clock back to 1982 and the year "Harvey's Wallbangers" made the World Series. The team will return to its powder blue uniforms and classic ball-and-glove obscure "M" logo. Just what was everybody thinking two decades ago with all those hideous powder blues?

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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