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01/19/11 1:07 PM EST

Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Less than a month remains until the start of Spring Training. The sound of baseballs popping in gloves. The smell of freshly-trimmed outfield grass. It's all right around the corner. That makes this a good time to go Around the Horn, taking a look at the Indians' roster. Today we'll start this six-part series by examining the starting rotation.

CLEVELAND -- From the front office to the manager's chair, the leaders of the Indians are unwavering in their belief that the ballclub will be better this year than it was the last. In order for that to happen, there will need to be strength within the starting rotation.

Indeed, Cleveland feels its starting staff has the ability to develop into a solid group from top to bottom. The club saw signs a season ago that the pitchers were starting to realize their potential, and the Tribe does not see any reason why such strides won't carry into the upcoming campaign.

"I'm pumped," Indians manager Manny Acta said early in the offseason. "We're heading in the right direction. We hammer so much the fact that we wanted our pitching staff to get better. Well, they got better."

The Indians entered 2010 with a pile of unanswered questions and ended the year with the youngest pitching staff in baseball. Uncertainty remains headed into the coming season, but the club at least feels it has its front four identified. That brings a touch of comfort as the team enters Spring Training.

Fausto Carmona leads the pack after a strong bounceback season at the top of the rotation. Justin Masterson and Mitch Talbot took steps forward in 2010 and are next in line. And, as things currently stand, Carlos Carrasco controls his own destiny for the fourth role following a solid showing in the season's final month.

"The confidence that they gained," Indians pitching coach Tim Belcher said recently, "they're not going to be kids next year. They're going to be a little older, a little wiser and a little better."

That is certainly the hope, especially after Cleveland suffered through a 90-loss season for the second year in a row. The team is young and in the midst of a rebuilding process, but it believes the rotation -- with a handful of highly-touted prospects on deck -- is in good shape for the future.

Acta and Belcher are quick to point to the way the Indians' pitchers finished the 2010 season. Aided by a strong bullpen, the staff as a whole posted a 3.89 ERA in the second half (fourth-best in the American League). After Sept. 1, the Tribe's staff fashioned a 3.35 ERA (second in the league) and the rotation went 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA over the final month.

The Indians allowed 113 fewer runs in 2010 than they did in the previous season, trimming the team ERA down to 4.30 from 5.06 in the span of one year. Youth played a big role, too. Cleveland ended last season with 22 wins from Rookie arms -- a total that led all American League teams.

Carmona went 2-1 with a 1.99 ERA in six September starts; Masterson posted a 2.86 ERA after Aug. 4; Talbot went 2-2 with a 2.89 ERA in four outings in September; and Carrasco posted a 2-2 record and 3.83 ERA in seven starts after joining the club as a September callup.

"There's no way to really quantify how much that does for those guys," said Belcher, when asked about the strong finish by his pitchers.

Jeanmar Gomez and Josh Tomlin played a big role in rounding out the staff a year ago and both will be in the mix for the fifth spot this spring. Cleveland will also consider David Huff and Anthony Reyes, and the team has not ruled out exploring the open market to find a pitcher who could provide some reliability.

With such a young staff, that trait is of the utmost importance.

"Ideally, we'd find a guy who can provide us with some reliability and stability in the rotation," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said, "and at the same time help the development of some of our younger pitchers. Now, whether or not that guy is out there, and we're able to find a mutually acceptable value, remains to be seen."

It certainly is possible that the Indians will head into camp with the current crop of arms.

Carmona, 27, went 13-14 with a 3.77 ERA and logged 210 1/3 innings for the Tribe in 2010 after a humbling demotion to rookie ball a year earlier to work out mechanical issues. The 25-year-old Masterson, who was moved to the bullpen in September to control his innings, posted a 4.70 ERA in his first real test as a full-time starter in the big leagues.

Talbot, 27, ended last season 10-13 with a 4.41 ERA over 28 outings as a rookie, piling up 159 1/3 innings. Carrasco, 23, who was a key component within the July 2009 trade that originally sent Cliff Lee to the Phillies, went 10-6 with a 3.65 ERA for Triple-A Columbus and followed that by going 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA for the Indians.

Behind those four pitchers, and the arms in the mix for the fifth spot, prospects Alex White, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber appear to be close behind on the depth chart. Down the road, Cleveland has highly-regarded prospects in Drew Pomeranz, Jason Knapp, Joe Gardner and Nick Hagadone, among others, providing a future filled with hope.

Are there question marks? Sure.

That said, the Indians feel better heading into this year than they did prior to 2010.

"Now we're sitting here knowing that we have at least three guys plus Carrasco," Acta said. "Also, having Tomlin and having Gomez and having David Huff, and knowing that Alex White is coming and Pomeranz is coming, we're in a much better position and that's why I continue to be excited."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.