The 1981 American League pennant chances of the Cleveland Indians are apt to be like a marriage where the partners take each other for better or for worse, but not for long.
Despite the winter addition of pitcher Bert Blyleven (a former 20-game winner who was 8-13 last year with the Pittsburgh Pirates), Cleveland still looks like a .500 baseball team, give or take a few games one way or the other.
On paper, there is no way the Indians figure to keep pace in their division with New York, Baltimore, Milwaukee, or even Boston. The depth and balance just aren't there.
Manager Dave Garcia, of course, is optimistic, especially about his pitching. Although Cleveland had the worst mound statistics of any AL team last year, Garcia says he is looking for strong comebacks from John Denny, Wayne Garland, and Sid Monge, who had a combined wonlost record of 17-20 in 1980. Two pitchers Dave can count on, though, are right-hander Len Barker and left-hander Rick Waits. Barker, who led the AL in strikeouts last season with 187, throws a fastball that has been clocked at slightly under 100 m.p.h.
Waits, who won 13 in 1980 and whose best pitch is a hook-finger curveball, writes poetry, is into new-sound Christian gospel music, and has sung the national anthem before audiences in both Cleveland and Toronto. Right now, however, Rick is too old for the Mousketeers and too young for Lawrence Welk.
Garcia will also be training his opera glasses on Tom Brennan, a 6 ft. 1 in., 190-pound right-hander who had the lowest earned run average (2.49) in the Pacific Coast League last season.
The Indians' bullpen, barring walk-ons and rookies, is expected to consist of Dan Spillner, Ross Grimsley, Mike Stanton, Sandy Wihtol, and Monge, who saved 14 games a year ago.
Defensively the Indians will probably split first base between Mike Hargrove and Andre Thornton, with Thornton also sharing time with Joe Charboneau as the team's designated hitter. All Duane Kuiper needs to reclaim second base is to show that his knee is OK after surgery. Tom Veryzer, an excellent glove man, is solid at shortstop. If Toby Harrah hadn't fallen off a ladder while painting his house during the off-season, he would have started at third base. Instead, that job probably will go temporarily to infielder-outfielder Von Hayes, a power hitter up from the minors.
Alan Bannister gets first shot at second base if Kuiper isn't ready, and reserve infielders Jerry Dybzinski and Dave Rosello are also expected to make the club.
What the Indians have in center field right now is baseball's version of "As the World Turns," a soap opera with cleats. The position should belong to 26 -year-old Rick Manning, who has all the range and physical equipment to be an all-star, but whose 110 hits last year were his fewest ever as a regular.
Manning is also in president Gabe Paul's doghouse for his failure to show up at a banquet at which Rick was to receive a Good Guy award. Manning, who was fined $500 by Paul for his nonappearance and reportedly makes $295,000 a year, has since filed a grievance with the Major League Players' Association in an attempt to get his money back. If Manning isn't in center field for the Indians on Opening Day, look for that position to be filled by Miguel Dilone, the AL's third leading hitter last year with a .341 average.Dilone also topped the Indians in stolen bases with 61 -- and with those statistics he obviously figures to be in the lineup somewhere in any event.
Jorge Orta returns to play right field, while Hayes (once Harrah returns) and Larry Littleton are among others battling for some outfield playing time -- probably in left field. Littleton was voted the best defensive centerfielder in the Pacific Coast League last season.
Ron Hassey (.318 average; 65 RBIs) will be Cleveland's No. 1 catcher, with help from Bo Diaz and Chris Bando.
This report has saved the best -- Charboneau -- until last. The American League's 1980 Rookie of the Year is expected to produce another season fof fun, frolic, and power hitting.
Although listed as an outfielder by the Indians, Charboneau is more at home as the club's designated hitter. This is one kid Ring Lardner missed -- a guy who can uncap most bottles with his teeth, who has taken up rug hooking, and who once owned a pet alligator.
Throwing Charboneau a fastball with runners on base is like pouring gasoline on a fire.