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03/06/10 7:14 PM EST

Three hopefuls for last two rotation spots

Sowers' injury leaves Huff, Laffey, Talbot as front-runners

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Jeremy Sowers is progressing well in his recovery from left shoulder soreness, but not well enough to be considered a candidate for the Indians' two rotation vacancies.

Pitching coach Tim Belcher said the hope is for Sowers, who is throwing bullpen sessions every third day, to get into Cactus League games by March 18 or 19, which would be too late to get him stretched out and ready for the start of the regular season, from a starting standpoint.

Sowers, who is out of Minor League options, could open the season on the disabled list or potentially compete for a bullpen spot.

"I wouldn't anticipate that we'd feel comfortable throwing him out there [as a starter] the first week of the season," Belcher said.

The Indians have already promised rotation spots to Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson. So if you're scoring at home, and you're in a generous mood, the number of candidates for the final two spots is down to five -- right-handers Mitch Talbot, Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon and left-handers Aaron Laffey and David Huff.

If you're being realistic, you know that Carrasco and Rondon are likely ticketed for Triple-A Columbus at the outset of the season, leaving the Indians with three candidates for two spots.

The battle between Laffey, Huff and Talbot began in earnest this weekend, in a two-game set with the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. Each member of the trio turned in a pair of scoreless innings against the Reds.

"They're all tied for first," manager Manny Acta said. "They all pitched well."

On Saturday, it was Huff and Talbot toeing the rubber for the Tribe. Huff demonstrated the stuff that helped him win a team-high 11 games as a rookie last year, while Talbot, also out of Minor League options, showed the stuff that made the Indians target him in the trade that sent Kelly Shoppach to the Rays.

Huff, who allowed two hits while striking out three, said he didn't enter camp expecting to rest on the laurels of his 11-8 season. He showed improvement over the course of 23 starts last year, going 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA over his last five starts to lower his season ERA from 6.57 to 5.61. But he doesn't expect anything to be handed to him.

"My ultimate goal is to do what I can do and get better," he said.

The 25-year-old Huff sees room for improvement in his pitch selection to fellow left-handers.

"This offseason, I worked on my left-on-left changeup," he said. "Now I'm confident with it. I'm trying to throw it more to lefties, and it looks like it's working."

Talbot, 26, had his changeup and cutter working particularly well against the Reds in two innings in which he allowed a pair of hits and struck out one.

As long as Talbot gets through this camp healthy and competes, he is assured of an Opening Day roster spot, in some capacity. Because he is out of options, the Indians want to give him a shot. If he doesn't stick in the rotation, they feel he has the stuff to have success in relief.

Of course, Talbot has his preference, when it comes to his role. He wants to be a starter, and the opportunity he has with the Indians was nonexistent with the Rays.

"With [David] Price and [Wade] Davis, their golden boys, I knew it wasn't looking too good as far as being a starter, and that's what I want to be," Talbot said. "I was not really looking forward to being a long reliever and pitching once every two weeks or so. I'm really happy to be here where I can actually compete for a starting spot."

A partial tear of an elbow ligament and a shoulder strain limited Talbot to 15 starts in the Minors last season. But he's healthy now, and the Indians feel he has nothing left to prove at the Triple-A level. He won 13 games for Durham in both 2007 and '08.

"That's not easy to do in the Minor Leagues," said Belcher, "where you're making 27 or 28 starts."

Talbot made three appearances with Tampa Bay in '08, but the injury issues prevented him from a return appearance last year. The '09 season was Huff's first exposure to the bigs.

Laffey, meanwhile, is the most experienced Major Leaguer of the three combatants, having logged 50 appearances, including 44 starts, with the Tribe since '07, going 16-18 with a 4.39 ERA along the way. He was a tremendous help in both the rotation and bullpen last year (7-9, 4.44 ERA), but an oblique injury sidelined him midway through the year and he struggled in September.

Talbot's arrival to the organization obviously complicates matters for Huff and Laffey. One of them could leave camp unhappy because of the new guy in town.

Acta said it will be a while before it's all sorted out. When asked if he could handicap the race, he didn't bite.

"We can't just hand out jobs," he said. "It's going to be interesting. That question will be answered by itself in about three weeks."

But with Sowers bowed out, the rotation picture is already getting clearer.

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