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Indians face little uncertainty for '08

Indians face little uncertainty for '08

BOSTON -- They were built to get here. And they were built to be here again.

The Indians don't anticipate that their Game 7 loss to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series will linger as a momentary tease. Their expectation, rather, is to be right back here in a year, with the learning experiences of this 2007 defeat in tow.

"I hope guys realize how special this was," third baseman Casey Blake said. "The experience was so valuable."

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So, too, is the rare roster stability the Indians are expected to enjoy this offseason.

This Tribe club is built around its young, core players -- and that core will remain intact in '08. A glance down Game 7's starting lineup reveals as much.

Designated hitter Travis Hafner and second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera are under contractual control through 2013; center fielder Grady Sizemore, first baseman Ryan Garko and right fielder Franklin Gutierrez through '12; shortstop Jhonny Peralta through '11; catcher Victor Martinez through '10; and Blake through next season.

The only potential free agents from the crop of regular starting position players are aging corner outfielders Kenny Lofton and Trot Nixon.

Game 7 starter Jake Westbrook was signed to a three-year extension through '10 earlier this year. Dual aces C.C. Sabathia (signed through '08) and Fausto Carmona (under control through '13) are also on board for next season.

In the bullpen, setup men Rafael Betancourt (under control through '09), Rafael Perez (under control through '12) and Jensen Lewis (under control through '13) are all coming back.

"It's exciting to know that I'm going to be a part of that and part of a lot of guys who have signed long-term deals and the core group of guys who are going to learn from this and do better," Westbrook said. "We'll continue to build off what we've learned the last few years and get better."

What remains to be seen is how the Indians will handle the club options they hold on fourth starter Paul Byrd, closer Joe Borowski and left-handed reliever Aaron Fultz.

Fultz could be deemed disposable, now that Perez has emerged. Borowski, who would make $4 million next season if his option is exercised, is almost certain to come back, having notched an AL-leading 45 saves this season and two in the postseason.

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Byrd is the most intriguing case. He seemed like a lock for '08 and the $8 million he'd make after a 15-win '07. But Sunday's revelation about his use of human growth hormone has the potential to affect his standing with the organization.

"I haven't had time to process how this affects anything," general manager Mark Shapiro said when addressing Byrd's situation before Game 7. "I don't feel like we have the full landscape of what's going on."

What the Indians do have is a better feel for their '08 composition than most clubs at this time of year.

"We'll probably have less turnover than any [playoff] team," Shapiro said earlier this month. "I know it will be less than anyone in our division."

That information wasn't going to take the sting away from the Game 7 defeat. But when the clouds clear on their collapse in the ALCS, the Indians might wake to find they have a team built to last.

"We were running a bunch of kids out there at times this year, and we accomplished a lot," Garko said. "This team has a bright future. Our core guys are real young, and we had a lot of first-time contributors -- myself included."

The Indians will have to make some tough decisions on a number of players.

Does Cabrera's emergence bump 24-year-old second baseman Josh Barfield down to Triple-A Buffalo? Can Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers reclaim the spots they once held in the rotation, or will one of them be dangled as trade bait? Has Aaron Laffey earned the right to maintain his starting spot?

And what of Andy Marte, the key acquisition in the 2006 Coco Crisp trade? He was expected to be the everyday third baseman by now. Instead, he's out of Minor League options and must either be exposed to waivers or kept on board by the end of Spring Training next year.

These are all questions that Shapiro and his front-office staff must begin to ponder, now that the playoff run is complete.

But with reddened eyes in the wake of a devastating loss, Shapiro didn't want to think ahead.

"We'll think about the future," he said, "when we wake up tomorrow."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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