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01/08/09 1:10 PM EST

Pavano a reasonable risk for Tribe

Given contract, Indians can afford upside gamble

CLEVELAND -- It's a $1.5 million investment, which, in today's preposterous terms, amounts to loose change.

Still, it's an investment, nonetheless. It's a gamble the Indians are taking on right-hander Carl Pavano returning from an onslaught of injuries over four seasons with the Yankees and becoming an effective member of their starting rotation.

How likely is this gamble to pay off? Well, it has hurdles on a couple different fronts.

For one, there is the perilous injury past posed by Pavano, who turned 33 on Thursday. If you thought Kerry Wood came with baggage, consider Pavano has appeared in a grand total of 26 games over the last four years, with injuries ranging from a bruised buttocks to bone chips in his elbow to a rib fracture suffered in a car accident to the ubiquitous Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.

When it comes to the surgery, which Pavano had performed in 2007, the success rate of Major League pitchers returning to their same or better level of play after Tommy John is about 75.5 percent, according to a recent study by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine. Even players over 30, such as John Smoltz -- who had it performed in 2000 at the age of 32 -- have come back strong, which bodes well for Pavano and Jake Westbrook.

And Indians general manager Mark Shapiro is quick to point out that Pavano has already returned.

"This is not a guy you're guessing is going to come back," Shapiro said. "He made seven starts [in August and September] last year, with no problems."

But the bigger question is just what is Pavano, who is guaranteed a spot in the rotation, coming back to?

Injuries robbed Pavano of the opportunity to prove his worth after signing a four-year, $39.95 million contract with the Yankees in 2005. When he came back last season, only one of his seven outings met the "quality start" requirement.

Pavano's exorbitant contract was given to him on the strength of what were his only truly impactful seasons in the big leagues -- 2003 and 2004 with the Marlins.

Pavano had put together four and a half uneven seasons with the Expos before he was traded to the Marlins in 2002. He went 12-13 with a 4.30 ERA during the regular season in '03 before really making his mark in the postseason, going 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA in eight appearances (including two starts) for the World Series champs. Pavano followed that up with his best season in '04. He went 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA, racking up a career-high 222 1/3 innings.

The odds, then, of getting not only a healthy but also an impactful Pavano would seem to be stacked against the Tribe.

What this acquisition really boils down to, then, is the addition of a warm body to potentially eat up innings and avoid the risk of having one too many youngsters -- plucked out of a pool that includes Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Dave Huff, Scott Lewis and Zach Jackson -- in the starting rotation at the outset of the season.

Hot Stove

"In a perfect situation," Shapiro said, "you have five starters who can pitch effectively all year long. The other theory is you have two or three guys you feel strong about, and the rest of it you piece together quality starts, and, with a good offense and a good bullpen, you put yourself in a position to win a lot of games."

With Pavano entering the mix and Westbrook expected back in July, the Indians feel they have the pieces. Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona are definitely in the rotation's top two spots, Pavano and Anthony Reyes are definitely in if they're healthy and the five aforementioned young left-handers -- all of whom have Minor League options -- will duke it out for the fifth spot.

Should Pavano stay healthy and find his '04 form, then the Indians will have pulled off another magic act in the vein of Kevin Millwood's incredible '05 season.

And if not, well, it's $1.5 million the Indians would feel comfortable swallowing midseason.

Pavano's performance-based incentives don't even begin to kick in until he makes 18 starts. He gets $100,000 each for reaching 18, 20 and 22 starts, $200,000 each for reaching 24, 26 and 28 starts, $250,000 for 30 starts, $300,000 for 32 starts, $350,000 each for 33 and 34 starts and $400,000 for 35 starts.

Pavano also gets $100,000 each for reaching 130, 140 and 150 innings pitched, $150,000 each for 160 and 170 innings, $200,000 for 180, $250,000 for 190, $250,000 for 200, $300,000 for 215, $400,000 for 225 and $500,000 for 235.

Suffice to say the Yankees wish their contract with Pavano could have been built with such escalators.

The Indians plucked Pavano out of a discount bin of starters trying to revive their careers after major injuries. The Tribe also looked at Mark Mulder, Kris Benson, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon before ultimately deciding Pavano had the best combination of performance upside and the sheer physical ability to take the mound early and often this season.

"He's in great shape right now," Shapiro said of Pavano. "He's strong, fit and highly motivated."

And at $1.5 million, he's considered dirt cheap.

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