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03/14/09 8:30 PM ET

Huff taking small steps in Tribe camp

Shaggy left-handed starter could make big league rotation

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It's a good thing the Indians have their annual photo day early in Spring Training camp. Any other time of year, left-hander David Huff looks a little rough around the edges.

At the moment, the 24-year-old Huff is clean-shaven and well-cropped. But catch up with him midseason, and he's likely to have shaggy hair and a full mustache. It's an amusing look that runs Huff the risk of being accused of plagiarism by Dennis Eckersley.

"During the offseason, I'll get my haircuts and all that stuff," Huff said. "But as soon as the season starts, I don't have time to get a haircut or anything. I stay locked into baseball."

That routine must have worked for Huff last year. He had a breakout season at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo, and he's now primed to impact the Indians' rotation -- either at the outset of the season or as a callup.

Huff is in the mix for the Tribe's open rotation spot, but that job looks as though it will be Aaron Laffey's to lose. Besides, there are some in the organization who believe Huff, who is not yet on the 40-man roster, might be better served getting a few more innings in the Minors before he makes the move to prime time.

For now, the majority of Huff's innings in big league camp have been on the back fields, in simulated innings and bullpen sessions. The Indians have been careful with his workload to this point, because he notched a career-high 146 1/3 innings in 2008 after a left elbow strain limited him to just 59 2/3 innings in '07 at Class A Kinston.

"I guess I'd call it baby steps," Huff said. "They're taking their time with me. They're not too worried with how I perform out there [in Cactus League games]. They're worried about the start of the season. And we're all pushing for the same thing."

Still, there's something to be said for a young guy like Huff facing Major League competition in exhibition games. And on Saturday, for the first time in more than two weeks, Huff was back on the mound in Cactus League play, getting two innings of relief work against the Padres at the Peoria Sports Complex.

These were not, however, two innings of Huff at his best. He struggled to keep the ball down in the zone and was roughed up for a pair of runs on four hits with no walks and a strikeout.

"He didn't quite have the command he normally does," manager Eric Wedge said. "But he's got something to work off now. Let's see where he goes from here."

Huff is trying to build off last year's success, which he attributes, first and foremost, to health. After the elbow injury cost him the last three months of what was supposed to be his first full professional season, he began to discover how the strength of his legs and his core can have an impact -- positively or negatively -- on his delivery.

"You have to find your balance point, drive toward home plate, make your body work more and make your arm work less," Huff said. "When I got hurt, I had no drive. I wasn't using any of my legs. I was using all arm. I was really surprised, looking back on it, that I didn't end up having surgery. I was really fortunate."

Huff's fortune in 2008 played out on the mound. At Akron, he was dominant, posting a 5-1 record and 1.92 ERA in 11 appearances, including two starts. Over his last nine outings, he allowed just seven earned runs over 57 innings.

Huff's roll continued in his first taste of Triple-A, where he went 6-4 with a 3.01 ERA in 16 starts. The opposition batted just .224 against him, and he went 4-2 with a 2.32 ERA over his last nine starts.

"What made it better was I got stronger as the year went along," Huff said. "Some guys taper off a little bit and break down toward the end of the season, but I actually got stronger. It was a good feeling, mentally and physically. I'm glad it happened."

So are the Indians, who are expected to use all the rotation help they can get this season. With plenty of question marks in the rotation's back end, it's conceivable -- and maybe even likely -- that Huff will be in the mix before long.

When Huff joined the organization as the 39th overall pick out of UCLA in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, he was billed as a control pitcher in the mold of Jeremy Sowers. It was a fashionable comparison at the time, given that Sowers was in the midst of his finest professional season to date. But where Huff differs from Sowers is in his ability to put hitters away. Huff struck out 143 of them in those 146 1/3 innings last year.

"I'm not overpowering," Huff said. "I don't throw that 95-mph fastball. I'm more of just a control guy. I spot up, down, left, right. I try to throw all my offspeed for strikes, and then also throw it out of the zone so they can chase it. I try to get ahead and attack the hitters. If I can get a guy to ground out or pop out on one or two pitches, that's great."

That's a conversation Huff has had with reigning American League Cy Young Award-winner Cliff Lee this spring. Last year, Lee seemed to finally demonstrate the value of getting the opposition to roll over on first-pitch strikes, and that's something Huff wants to improve on.

"Keeping that competitive mentality and attacking hitters is another thing," Huff said. "Sometimes I fall into cruise control when everything's going well. And before I know it, a guy hits a home run, and it's like, 'Oh man, what just happened? Let's lock in and get after it.'"

Odds are, Huff will be getting after it in Columbus at the start of this season. But look for him -- and possibly his mustache -- to see the Major League limelight at some point in 2009.

"I'm hoping it happens," Huff said. "I'm working my tail off to make it happen."

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