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CLEVELAND -- Pitchers of the future, where the Indians are concerned, have, too often and too quickly, become problems of the past.
The last time the Tribe got it right with a pitcher in the first round of the Draft was when they took C.C. Sabathia (this was back when CC still punctuated his initials... his decision to stop using the periods has saved the New York newspapers untold fortunes in ink costs) out of Vallejo (Calif.) High School with the 20th overall selection in 1998.
In 2001, the Tribe tried to repeat that prep success by taking a couple of right-handers -- Dan Denham and Alan Horne -- in the first round. The Indians weren't able to sign Horne, and they probably wish they hadn't signed Denham, who went on to a mediocre Minor League career that ended in '09.
Jeremy Guthrie was given a four-year Major League deal after he was taken 22nd overall in 2002. Had a normal contractual progression taken place, Guthrie might have reached his potential with the Indians. Instead, the team ran out of options on him. He made a total of 16 Major League appearances with the Tribe, 15 of which, confusingly, came out of the bullpen. He's since established himself as a regular -- albeit a fairly unpredictable one -- in the Orioles' rotation.
Even as things were struggling to come together for one brainy guy named Jeremy, the Indians went for another in 2004, when they took Jeremy Sowers at No. 6(!) overall. Even when Sowers enjoyed what turned out to be fleeting success in the big leagues, he looked like he'd rather be in some dark corner of the clubhouse reading an Alan Greenspan biography. Come to think of it, that's exactly where he was.
The story hasn't evolved all that well for supplemental first-rounders, either. Adam Miller, taken in 2003, was a rising talent who became a fickle-fingered scientific guinea pig. He's currently trying to work his way back from a fourth surgery on his right middle finger, but there is no historical precedent for such a procedure -- at least among ballplayers -- so there's no telling if Miller will ever fully recover. Keep your fingers crossed, unless you're not into puns.
David Huff, Class of 2006? His story is also incomplete. Getting knocked in the noggin by an Alex Rodriguez liner last year was the least of his problems. We'll see how he recovers in 2011, but he's left-handed and has a pulse, so there's always hope.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Tribe fans have every right to be skeptical when the Indians tout their top picks, especially
when those picks pitch for a living.
But maybe -- just maybe -- the Tribe, in taking Alex White in 2009 and Drew Pomeranz last summer, finally got it right.
The future of the rotation and, ergo, the success of the current rebuilding effort very well might depend on it.
White, who was in town this week for the Tribe's winter development program, came to the organization via the 15th overall pick in the Draft and immediately arrived with question marks about his role. Upon making the pick, scouting director Brad Grant, whose efforts to turn around Cleveland's Draft performance began with the 2008 selection of stud third-base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, immediately announced that White would likely be headed to the bullpen.
This was news to White, who had designs on remaining in the kind of starting role he thrived in at UNC. The Indians asked White to prove himself in 2010, his first professional season, and he did just that, going a combined 10-10 with a 2.45 ERA in 26 appearances between Class A Kinston and Double-A Akron. He struck out 117 and walked 46 in an organization-leading 150 2/3 innings.
"He gave us very little doubt that he's going to be able to [be a starter]," farm director Ross Atkins said. "He convinced us that's an option. Moving forward, it's going to be what's best for him and the organization. By all means, he's going to be developed as a starter, and we have supreme confidence he will be one in the middle of the rotation."
The key word there, of course, is "middle," because White simply doesn't have the raw secondary stuff to be an ace-type arm. That's why the Indians considered him a bullpen guy to begin with.
But every team in baseball could stand to benefit from the Jake Westbrooks of the world -- guys who can eat up innings and reliably keep their team in games. If Tribe fans buy into White from that perspective, rather than looking at his dominant Minor League numbers and hoping he's the Next Big Thing, their patience might begin to be rewarded by year's end.
What the Indians love about White is not just the courage he shows on the field, but the intellectual approach he takes off it. He's an avid learner and listener who has not shied away from asking pertinent questions about his career and where it's headed.
"It just comes from realizing I don't know everything," White said. "I can improve myself as a baseball player and as a person in a lot of aspects of my life. There are people here who have gone through a lot of the things I'm going through. Any chance you get to get advice from people who actually have the experience, you have to take it."
White figures to begin 2011 at Triple-A. The Indians believe that if he can use his four-seam fastball to offset his sinker and get some swings and misses in Columbus, he could make the leap to the bigs by year's end.
That is, of course, merely one of many "ifs" with this Tribe rotation, which hinges heavily on the continued development of Carlos Carrasco and Justin Masterson. Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez were fringe prospects who inspired optimism with surprisingly strong big league break-ins. But White's stuff portends to, perhaps, even more sustainable success at this level.
You put all the pieces together, and you start to see the seeds of a respectable starting five. But where the Indians are obviously lacking, in the wake of some particularly high-profile trades, is in that No. 1 spot of the rotation. That's where and why they have a lot riding on Pomeranz, the Ole Miss product taken at No. 5 overall.
"His progression [this year]," Atkins said of Pomeranz, "should be similar to Alex White [in 2010], and he could potentially have more 'now' weapons."
In other words, the big-bodied Pomeranz, in addition to the fastball that can reach the mid-90s mph, has a power breaking ball and a changeup.
Oh, and the fact that he's left-handed doesn't hurt, either.
Look for Pomeranz in Akron by year's end and, if all goes to plan (and maybe this time it actually will), the big leagues by the end of 2012.
The Indians have a lot riding on this latest crop of pitchers of the future. The crop might even expand in June, when the Tribe has the eighth overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. And if learning from the failures of the past provides fuel for the future, well, the Indians should be pretty well-equipped, in that regard.