STRONGSVILLE, Ohio – Manny Acta was warmly greeted in the hallway by Slider, the Indians’ pink mascot, who wrapped his furry arms around Cleveland’s affable manager.
After the week he’s had, Acta needed a hug.
First, Acta learned that pitcher Fausto Carmona, his countryman from the Dominican Republic and one of his starters, was arrested on charges he falsified his identity to play in the U.S. Then, the Indians, who have spent the winter trying to add a powerful bat to their lineup, got news that Prince Fielder, the biggest free-agent bat of them all, had signed with Detroit.
Suddenly, catching the Tigers in the AL got a whole lot tougher.
“I would have preferred him to sign somewhere else, but we can’t worry about that,” Acta said, smiling. “We have to worry about our ballclub getting better and taking the next step. So we’ll just deal with it.”
Acta and several of his players kicked off “Tribe on Tour” Thursday, a four-day event where the Indians will stop at shopping malls around Northeast Ohio and interact with their fans, some of whom are still reeling from Fielder’s decision to sign a nine-year contract that will pay him at least US$23 million per season until 2020.
The Indians don’t have that kind of money to throw around — not now, and probably not ever. However, just because Fielder landed with the division champions, Acta’s focus hasn’t changed for 2012. Cleveland challenged for nearly five months last season before injuries caused them to fade.
Acta is confident his team will contend again.
“We know what we have and we know what we have to work with,” Acta said. “Before the off-season started we weren’t targeting the guy who signed with L.A. (Albert Pujols) and the guy who just signed with Detroit. We’re just going to have to do it with our internal options. They played pretty well last year for 4 1/2 months so we have to keep them on the field and we have to take the next step and go from there.
“We can’t sell dreams to people.”
Acta said there’s still a chance the Indians, who reportedly pursued first baseman Carlos Pena before he re-signed with Tampa Bay, could sign a hitter before the off-season ends. Acta has been a “witness” to general manager Chris Antonetti’s efforts to improve a team that went 80-82 last season.
The Indians have protected themselves this winter by inviting 20 non-roster players to camp with the goal of adding depth in case of injuries.
They don’t know when — or if — Carmona will be able to be with them in Arizona this season as he works through his legal entanglement. On Thursday, Carmona, whose real name is believed to be Roberto Hernandez Heredia, was placed on Major League Baseball’s restricted list.
The move allows the Indians to open a spot on their 40-man roster. Also, the club does not have to pay Carmona until he reports to the team and there’s no guarantee that will happen. He’s scheduled to make $7 million this season after the club exercised its option on him in October.
Authorities say Carmona, who was arrested last week in Santo Domingo, is 31 and not 28 as he had claimed and the Indians believed.
Acta has been in daily contact with Carmona. However, he said he could not comment on any specifics regarding the pitcher’s case, the latest involving a player from the Dominican Republic lying about his age and birthdate to play in the U.S.
Sadly, the deception has been a common practice in a country where baseball is the only avenue to a better life for many.
Acta feels baseball has made strides in fixing the problem.
“I believe Major League Baseball is doing a tremendous job right now to help better the system, but it’s been a flawed system for a long time,” he said. “You can be 21 and be a first-round pick out of college here, but when was the last time that anyone that signed out there that you knew he was 21?
“It’s a system in the past that has forced those kids to do some of that stuff. It’s getting better. They’re doing a good job of trying to fix the problem.”
Carmona’s loss leaves a hole in Cleveland’s starting rotation Acta knows won’t be easy to repair.
“You don’t find 200 innings in every corner of America, and just two years ago he pitched 210 quality innings,” he said. “But life goes on.”