CLEVELAND (AP) -Fans can point fingers, second-guess managerial decisions and debate incessantly over reasons why Cleveland collapsed in the AL championship series against the Boston Red Sox.
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has his own theory.
``We won three in a row. They won three in a row,'' Shapiro said. ``The best two teams played in the ALCS, it went seven games and the best team won.''
Simple as that.
The Red Sox were just better.
On Wednesday, Shapiro gave his annual state-of-the-Indians address, tying up loose ends from a spectacular season during which Cleveland won 96 regular-season games, an AL Central title and finished a Game 7 victory shy of the World Series.
Shapiro felt a sense of ``disappointment'' and ``bitterness'' at the Indians' close call, but he also spoke positively about the club's future and the possibility of signing ace C.C. Sabathia to a long-term contract.
But while Shapiro would prefer to think ahead, many Cleveland fans are dwelling on a squandered chance that might not come back.
``I don't think that way,'' Shapiro said. ``I can't afford to be that negative. I know how hard it is to get back there. I know the magnitude of the accomplishment. But I prefer to look at what this team did this year, who these guys are, and how young they are and the fact that the bulk of this team is going to continue to be together.''
The good thing is the Indians don't have to be rebuilt. Their roster consists mainly of players tied up in long contracts. Shapiro will try to improve the team through free agency and trades but wouldn't mind beginning 2008 with a similar look.
``My basic desire is to not make any changes,'' he said.
Knee-jerk reactions are for sports talk-radio types. For GMs - the good ones anyway - the objective is to stay the course. Shapiro admitted that when his team was struggling this season there were times he wanted to take a sledge hammer to his roster.
``On my drive home I dismantled the team about 25 times,'' he said.
Shapiro resisted and never stopped believing in manager Eric Wedge and the Indians, who returned to the postseason for the first time since 2001. Then, after knocking off the New York Yankees in the playoffs, Cleveland held a 3-1 lead in the ALCS before being outscored 30-5 in the final three games.
Shapiro downplayed the Indians' postseason inexperience as the reason for the flop.
``Inexperience probably did play a factor, but talent was the ultimate factor,'' he said. ``I don't want to take anything away from the Red Sox, I think they were the better team. We played seven games, they won a seven-game series and ultimately what that meant to me was that they were a better team - experience or no experience.''
Shapiro understands October is never a given. Last year, the Detroit Tigers made it to the World Series and were penciled in for a return that never happened. But Cleveland's young core gives Shapiro reason to feel another deep postseason run is on the horizon.
``I'll just keep playing the odds that this team is a good team,'' he said. ``That the talent is real. That they play the game the right way. That they'll benefit from their experience and that we ultimately go farther.''
Next week, Shapiro, assistant GM Chris Antonetti and Wedge will finalize plans for the offseason. Among the biggest decisions will be club options on closer Joe Borowski ($4 million), starter Paul Byrd ($7 million) and reliever Aaron Fultz ($1.5 million). The Indians will have 10 days after the World Series to pick up or decline the options.
Byrd's acknowledgment of using human-growth hormone created a distraction for the Indians before Game 7. Shapiro said he has not spoken with baseball officials, who plan to meet with Byrd.
Shapiro was asked if Byrd's situation could have any bearing on his option.
``Not right now,'' he said. ``We'll wait and hear if there is any action. But right now we're prepared to make a decision based just on baseball.''
As for Sabathia, who has one more year left on his contract before he's eligible for free agency, the Indians would like to have something worked out before pitchers and catchers report to training camp.
Sabathia has stated that he would like to stay in Cleveland, but the Indians have heard that from prized free agents before. Shapiro knows the risks if the club can't get the left-hander signed before next season expires.
``He has been extremely consistent, extremely strong in wanting to remain a part of this team and a part of this organization,'' he said. ``The only question's ever been, understanding the magnitude of his success and what that means in a free agent environment, is if there's a business deal that makes sense for both him and our ownership to be struck.
``That's the question we'll look to address. Not today. Not tomorrow. But over this offseason.''

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