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01/07/10 4:15 PM EST

Around the Horn: Rotation

Pitching likely to be Tribe's biggest development area

While you might not know it from that foot of snow you just brushed off your windshield, Spring Training is right around the corner. With that in mind, we're gearing up for the 2010 season by taking a position-by-position look at the Tribe's roster. Each week between now and when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 21, we'll examine one area of the ballclub, beginning this week with the starting rotation.

CLEVELAND -- It begins with a guy who hasn't pitched in the big leagues in nearly two years.

It continues with a guy whose mechanical and command issues earned him a demotion to Rookie ball last year.

And if you think those first two spots are question marks, you should see the rest of the Indians' 2010 rotation.

Yes, there's a reason the bulk of prognosticators won't be picking the Tribe to make a run for the American League Central crown. Even in a division in which 87 victories were enough to punch the Twins a ticket to the postseason last year, the Indians' selection of starters seems sketchy.

"It's obviously the biggest question mark on our team," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "We feel, at this point, it's going to determine the outcome of our ability to contend."

When he pulled the trigger on the trade that sent then-reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to the Phillies last summer, Shapiro admitted it would be difficult to imagine the Indians mounting much of an effort toward contention this season.

A rotation, after all, can only sustain so many blows. You simply don't replace guys like CC Sabathia and Lee easily, if at all.

So what we have here is a domain of development -- a situation in which multiple young arms will be offered an opportunity to prove themselves on baseball's biggest stage. New pitching coach Tim Belcher is the one entrusted with overseeing the process

The results will sometimes be ugly and sometimes be encouraging.

When all is said and done this season, the Tribe's most optimistic hope is that five arms will emerge and pitch with the effectiveness of, say, a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Having five No. 3 guys might not be the sexiest of scenarios, but it might be enough to sustain viability in the AL Central.

"We're trying to be realistic in our expectations," Shapiro said. "We hope two guys come back and can pitch well within their career averages, and we hope certain guys take a step forward."

The two guys Shapiro refers to are right-handers Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona. Westbrook figures to be back from his long recovery from the Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery which was performed in June 2008, while Carmona hopes to have learned from his humbling '09 season in which he was demoted to Rookie ball in June and worked his way back up the Minor League ladder.

Both Westbrook and Carmona pitched in winter ball this offseason, albeit for different reasons. Westbrook, 32, needed his Puerto Rican stint to ensure his elbow is ready to tolerate the workload of Spring Training, and Carmona, 26, requested the opportunity to pitch in the Dominican so that he could ensure his mind and mechanics are in tune for the grind ahead.

The reports on both guys were optimistic.

"Among our most encouraging offseason developments," Shapiro said, "has been Jake going down to Puerto Rico both feeling strong and getting a feel for all his pitches, and Fausto completed his winter ball stint without walking a batter. Both those things are positives."

Westbrook is slated to get the Tribe's Opening Day starting nod against the White Sox -- the very team he faced in his last Major League outing, way back on May 28, 2008. Carmona, out of Minor League options and in the midst of a contract extension that has yet to reap the Tribe any rewards, will probably follow him.

The only other spot in the rotation that seems certain belongs to right-hander Justin Masterson, who was acquired in the trade that sent Victor Martinez to the Red Sox last year.

Masterson moved from the Boston bullpen to the Cleveland rotation, and the transition was not seamless. He went 1-7 with a 4.80 ERA in 10 starts for the Tribe, walking 34 and striking out 48 in 54 1/3 innings. While he had three solid outings, his struggles against left-handed hitters stood out and must be addressed if he's going to stick as a starter. Lefties hit Masterson at a .323 clip.

While not guaranteed a rotation slot, newcomer Mitch Talbot, acquired in the December trade that sent Kelly Shoppach to the Rays, does seem assured a roster spot provided he gets through camp healthy. The 26-year-old Talbot, who missed much of 2009 at Triple-A Durham because of a right elbow sprain, is out of Minor League options, and the Indians like his stuff. If he doesn't win a rotation spot, he could land in a bullpen role.

Another out-of-options option to consider is left-hander Jeremy Sowers, who has had a wayward career path since his strong second half in 2006. Sowers developed a reputation for losing effectiveness as games wore on (batters hit .205 the first time through the lineup, .303 the second and .370 the third). In camp, he'll have a chance to win a job and prove he can put that issue behind him.

"We challenged him on that, and he did get better as year went on," Shapiro said. "He's a smart guy who has shown the ability to make adjustments."

Sowers is part of a mix of three Tribe left-handers with underwhelming stuff who rely primarily on command and their defense. The others are Aaron Laffey and David Huff, and nothing is guaranteed to them either. They will all be competitors in the battle for one of the last two spots in the rotation.

Laffey had an odd '09. In Spring Training, he didn't land a rotation job he felt he deserved, but he filled in admirably when Scott Lewis injured himself in the home opener. Laffey also came to the rescue of a beleaguered bullpen in May before suffering an oblique strain. After he came back from the disabled list, he put together an outstanding August (3-0, 2.20 ERA) before struggling in September (0-6, 7.39 ERA).

"Aaron's strengths have always been his competitiveness and the natural sink and movement on his pitches," Shapiro said. "Just staying strong and healthy and consistent is going to allow him to be a contributing Major League pitcher. Pitch development will determine how successful he is."

Huff was successful enough to lead the Tribe in wins (11) in his rookie year despite not joining the rotation until mid-May. But Huff was not without his share of rookie moments, as evidenced by his 5.61 ERA.

"He continued to compete and got better," Shapiro said. "You hope a guy gets better for his experiences a second time out."

If you had to handicap the race for the final two rotation spots, Talbot and Sowers might get preference because of their expired options clock. What seems certain is that the jobs probably won't go to young right-handers Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon, both of whom figure to begin the year at Triple-A Columbus.

But pay attention to Carrasco and Rondon, as each has the potential to impact the rotation soon.

Carrasco, a key acquisition in the Lee trade, looked overmatched at the big league level in September (0-4, 8.87 ERA in five starts), but he had a strong showing in Columbus post-trade (5-1, 3.19 ERA in six starts). He'll be 23 on Opening Day, has power stuff and has a calm demeanor that helps when he gets in trouble. The question is whether he can learn to trust his fastball.

Rondon, meanwhile, has to work on his secondary pitches. He went a combined 11-10 with a 3.38 ERA between Double-A Akron and Columbus last year, and the Indians believe he could use a little more seasoning at the Triple-A level. He's a strike-thrower who trusts his fastball, but his secondary pitches lack consistency.

If all goes to plan, Carrasco and Rondon are a big part of the future of the Tribe rotation.

As far as the present is concerned, the outlook is a dicey one when it comes to wins and losses. But the Indians aren't likely to add any veterans to the mix, because they view this season as an important one for the development of their starting staff.

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