Tribe's success rests on rotation
Pitching staff remains concern for club entering 2010 season
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- You look around the diamond and see the areas where the Tribe could shine.There's Travis Hafner driving the ball to all fields instead of shouldering the burden of injury. There's Grady Sizemore burning up the bases, not limping off to surgery. There's Shin-Soo Choo ripping a homer to right and Asdrubal Cabrera making a diving stop to his left. There's the promising right-handed pop of Matt LaPorta and the awesome athleticism of Michael Brantley.
For a moment, and especially as you listen to the persevering positivity coming from the mouth of new manager Manny Acta, you wonder whether this might not be the downtrodden Tribe team so many are expecting to show up for work at Progressive Field in 2010.Then, of course, you remember that somebody is going to have to get the starting nod and get the opposition out. And that, of course, is where the biggest questions of the upcoming season arise. The aces of old are long gone. (Perhaps you saw them starting for the AL and NL entries in Game 1 of the World Series last fall.) These days, the Indians find themselves crossing their fingers and hoping two years' worth of rust won't lessen Jake Westbrook's impact and two years' worth of being a bust aren't a precursor of what's to come for Fausto Carmona. Oh, and it would also help if Justin Masterson can make a successful transition to life as a starter. "Those three guys," general manager Mark Shapiro said, "are the lynchpin to how this team does this year." Shapiro and the rest of the Indians' higher-ups arrived at the Indians' Player Development Complex in mid-February knowing full well the rotation will dictate whether this is a particularly painful rebuilding year, a surprising season of Central Division contention or something in-between. All winter, the rotation was rightly pointed to as the Tribe's biggest area of concern. And all spring, a concerted effort has been made to preach to the pitchers the value of pounding the strike zone and staying ahead of the hitter. The Indians will leave camp and head to Chicago for their April 5 opener against the White Sox with the same concerns about the rotation. But the solid spring performances of Westbrook and Carmona, in particular, have at least prevented a few sleepless nights. Westbrook, who missed all of last season and has made just five starts since the beginning of '08 because of Tommy John elbow surgery, has shown improved effectiveness with his sinker as camp has progressed. And Carmona, a mental and mechanical mess in '08 and '09, has had a calm demeanor and limited the walks (and runs) against him in Cactus play. "It gives us more peace of mind," Acta said. "Not to say they're going to be perfect from now on, but it gives us peace of mind. It would have been a different scenario if both guys would have come in here and struggled in Spring Training." Doubts, though, will continue to hound Masterson, who was successful in a relief role with the Red Sox but proved to be a work in progress, from a starting standpoint, with the Indians after being acquired in the Victor Martinez trade last July. Masterson arrived here assured of a rotation spot, but he's done little to discourage the concerns about his ability to retire left-handers with consistency, and he's had some shaky starts in exhibition play, both in terms of effectiveness and control. Track records, however, aren't built in Spring Training. They're built in the regular season. And Masterson, who should have no restrictions from an innings or pitch count standpoint, believes that the "doom and gloom" talk about this rotation will dissipate if youth steps up.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
"The 'doom and gloom' comes from the fact that you don't know what you're going to get," Masterson said. "There haven't been enough years underneath the guys who are young to say, 'Oh yeah, this is what they do.' ... When you have young guys who aren't glamorous prospects, you're going to get that type of talk. In my mind, you can't say 'yay' or 'nay' until you see what happens in the season."What could happen, if Masterson doesn't pan out, is a return to the bullpen for the big right-hander. And the hold on the Nos. 4 and 5 spots -- an area of competition in camp -- could also be tenuous for whoever happens to claim them. Right-hander Mitch Talbot, acquired in the trade that sent Kelly Shoppach to the Rays, appears to have won a job, but, as of this writing, the Indians were still deciding between left-handers Aaron Laffey and David Huff and right-hander Carlos Carrasco for the last open job. No matter the composition of the Opening Day rotation, the starting five could feature a revolving door over the course of the year. Because with youth comes uncertainty. "It's going to be a fluid situation," pitching coach Tim Belcher said. "And in a way, that's a good thing. If we didn't have depth in starting, you wouldn't see a revolving door. One guy would take it on the chin until he figured it out. So in one sense, that's a good thing. We've got some options." Beyond the options in competition for an Opening Day roster spot, the Indians are intrigued by the arms that will be available in the Triple-A Columbus rotation. Right-hander Hector Rondon was already a highly touted prospect, but the coaching staff was also pleased with what right-handers Jeanmar Gomez (the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year in '09) and Yohan Pino (acquired in the Carl Pavano trade with the Twins) showed here. "You can't look at any of those guys and say you've got a slam-dunk, No. 1 starter in a year," Belcher said. "But certainly all of them are going to have a chance to start in the big leagues, some way, somehow." In the meantime, taking a look at this Tribe team, it's easy to see where the upside exists. And it's just as easy to see where the questions persist.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.