A Terry Pluto column...

General manager Mark Shapiro said he planned to wait about 40 games before making any major judgments and changes with the Indians.

The Indians are 35 games into the season, and there are enough indications of what needs to be changed. The Tribe's record is 17-18 after Wednesday's loss against the Kansas City Royals, but that's deceiving.

Once upon a time, the Indians were 6-1 and seemed serious about contending in the Central Division. Since then, they often have been sloppy and shaky, staggering around as if they were satisfied with the 93 victories and serious contention of 2005.

Let's not hear about the Tribe's 9-14 start last season, and how there are 127 games left. The Indians are in the same division as the World Champion Chicago White Sox, who had baseball's best record at 23-9 heading into Wednesday night's games.

Other than the first week of the season and a few isolated games since, the Indians have played with little urgency and too much comfort. The obvious problem is the pitching, which has sustained some injuries and has been inconsistent.

Let's look at Tuesday's loser, Jason Johnson.

He has allowed 13 runs in his last two starts, covering seven innings. I hear how most of the hits are ground balls, implying he has been a bit unlucky. I have a feeling we're seeing why Johnson has a 44-76 record since 2000. He throws just good enough to make you think he's better than the numbers indicate.

Yes, the Indians signed him to be a fifth starter, but he's 2-2 with a 5.06 ERA and struggling. They have Jeremy Sowers at Class AAA Buffalo, coming off a game in which he allowed one run in 8 innings. On the season, he's 4-1 with a 1.40 ERA for the Bisons. He was 14-4 at three minor-league levels last season.

Sowers' day is coming. If Johnson continues to pitch as he has lately, I would have no problem with the Indians putting Sowers in the rotation and moving Johnson to long relief.

Options available

Also at Buffalo, Steve Karsay (1.69) and Andrew Brown (2.41) have had some nice moments in the bullpen. Perhaps one of them is ready.

The combination of Jason Davis, Jeremy Guthrie and Danny Graves is not doing the job in middle relief. The Indians have options; they should use them.

In 14 innings, Graves has been shelled for 18 hits, including three homers. He's fooling no one; he has only three strikeouts. His ERA is 5.79 and opponents are hitting .305 against him with a .525 slugging percentage. Last season, he had a 6.52 ERA and was cut by the Reds.

The Indians don't have time to wait for Graves. Begin using Fernando Cabrera in the sixth inning. Continue to work with Guthrie, who has the power arm to be an effective middle reliever. At least those pitchers are young and have a chance to get better.

In Graves and Johnson, the Indians appear to have exactly

what the statistics show - and that's not nearly good enough.

Woes on defense

There are other problems.

Guess who has the lowest fielding average among American League third basemen?

It's Aaron Boone, with five errors. Boone moves well coming in for slowly hit balls, but has struggled on grounders to his left. He's hitting .241 - only .226 in May - and .217 in the last 10 games heading into Wednesday.

Do the Indians continue to wait for Boone?

I'd prefer to bring up Andy Marte. Yes, I know Marte has been in a funk lately at Buffalo, but not with his attitude, which remains solid, according to people in the Indians' front office. But he's hitting only .255 with no homers and five RBI. He made three errors in the first week and has six for the season.

Marte had an impressive spring. He also was one of the best players in this same International League last season, when he batted .275 (.372 on-base percentage) with 26 doubles, 20 homers, 74 RBI and 51 runs scored in 109 games at Richmond.

In his mind, he wonders why he's back at Buffalo. If he were off to a hot start, he might force the Indians to promote him. But I'd take a chance and bring him up anyway.

What about Boone?

He can be the utility infielder, even though he has only 21 major-league games at second base and 30 at shortstop. How much does Ramon Vazquez play? ; ;They can send Vazquez back to Buffalo, where he's a phone call away.

I saw Marte in spring training and liked him. Scouts whom I respect from other teams believe he can be an impact player. Come on, does anyone really expect Boone to suddenly make a great leap forward?

Boone batted .243 last year. He's hitting .241 this year. He has two homers. Maybe he would perform better playing less and matching up against certain pitchers, the same approach manager Eric Wedge has taken with Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez.

As for Vazquez, he's 4-of-25 (.160) with a .185 on-base percentage. He can catch the ball in the infield, but has shown few signs that he can hit it.

Maybe this isn't something that must be done now, but it should be considered seriously in the near future.

Overall defense

There are other trouble spots.

Like defense.

Jason Michaels has played a strange left field. He hustles, but has had too many balls get past him, too many times when he dives and comes up empty. Instead of trying for the great play, he needs to play some of those line drives on a bounce and give up a single.

Overall, the Indians have been fuzzy in the field.

They don't throw out baserunners. And why not let Kelly Shoppach catch every week to 10 days? ; ;He can throw. Victor Martinez needs some days off.

Or how about this? ; ;Yes, the Perez/Broussard platoon is working at first base, but the Indians want Travis Hafner to play at first once interleague competition begins later this month. So every 10th day, the Perez/Broussard combo gets a day off, Martinez becomes the DH, Shoppach the catcher and Hafner plays first.

Do you realize Hafner has yet to play an inning at first base this season? ; ;June is not far away.

I'm not suggesting the Indians make all these changes, certainly not right now. But they must consider doing something of significance.

Somehow, the front office and Wedge have to get the attention of the team that the Central Division is not waiting for them. I didn't expected the Indians to play like the White Sox this season, but it's the Detroit Tigers who have a major-league best 3.41 ERA and a sense of confidence about themselves.

Maybe it won't last for the Tigers, but they've made some changes and they are charging. Give them credit. And give the Indians a boot in their baseball behinds, because they can't afford to waste any more of this season.

Pluto is a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal. He can be reached via email at terrypluto2003@yahoo.com.

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