With still three weeks to go until the start of the 2009 MLB season, the Cleveland Indians seem to have one glaring weakness heading into the games that count for real: starting pitching.
Many fans and pundits alike seem to over analyze players each preseason to justify their prognostications. Will Player X bounce back from a rough year? Can Player Y maintain the dominance he showed on the mound?
The main questions surrounding the Tribe concern each member of the starting five (or si, or seven, or eight, or nine, or even 10!) is consistency. This group has a lot to prove come April, and many fans' hearts and minds to ease as well.
Going into 2008, most Tribe fans would agree that they felt pretty confident with CC Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, and Paul Byrd toeing the rubber four out of every five games.
The only question mark surrounded the fifth starter's spot, which turned into a three left-armed down between Jeremy Sowers, Cliff Lee, and Aaron Laffey in spring training.
Injuries to two main offensive weapons (Martinez, Hafner), young players starting off slow (Gutierrez, Cabrera, and Garko) and a bullpen from Hell (insert any 2008 relief pitcher here) and the importance of the guy starting the game with the ball can be quickly negated.
Add to that injuries to Carmona and Westbrook and you get a 47-60 record on July 31 and a look forward towards 2009.
While 2008 was a season to forget, General Manager Mark Shapiro was able to make some trades to save payroll (traded Byrd to the Red Sox), add minor-league depth (traded CC for prospects, and bring in some guys (Reyes) to compete for spots this season.
The 2009 version of the rotation will bring many more question marks, but the off season additions to surrounding cast (DeRosa, Wood, Smith) may be able to minimize any struggles the starters may face in the early months of the season. Here are the guys you will see in 2009...
Biggest Concern: Can Cliff repeat his dominant Cy Young season of 2008?
While no one expects Lee to win 22 games and post a 2.54 ERA again, he needs to establish early to opposing A.L. teams that he is one of the leagues' best and not a fluke.
The key to Cliff's success last season was his ability to minimize walks (only 34 in 223+ innings), get ahead of hitters, and locate his fastball. He was able to do all of this to alarming success and much of it can be attributed to his now-personal catcher Kelly Shoppach.
The chemistry between the two resulted in a full-time Lee/Shoppach battery for 2009, a point Manager Eric Wedge has stated numerous times during spring training. While Lee is stilling trying to get some early kinks out of his system, he has never put too much unneeded pressure upon himself in preseason (see 2008).
Last season was extraordinary, but don't think that it is the only success Lee has had in the majors as he has amassed a 76-39 career record with a 4.15 ERA. That includes a horrendous 2007 (5-8 6.29 ERA in 20 games) where he was left off of the postseason roster.
In entering his sixth full season, look for Lee to come down to earth a bit (15-17 wins, ERA in the mid threes), but be one of the most consistent guys on the mound.
Biggest Concern: Can Fausto regain his 2007 dominance?
Injuries and walks plagued the 2008 season for the young Dominican. Still only 25, the future of the starting staff rests on one Fausto Carmona to be the guy Indians fans unnerved by a swarm of bugs clinging to his face during the 2007 ALDS.
After starting the season pretty well (3.10 ERA in 10 starts), Carmona injured his left hip and was never the same. In 22 games, Carmona average walking 5.2 batters per nine innings, a rate that will get even the best of pitcher into trouble.
The main issues he faced was commanding his slider, a pitch that needs to stay down in the zone to be effective. Also, pitching coach Carl Willis found some things in Carmona's delivery that was causing some of the issues.
Manager Eric Wedge also has stated that Victor Martinez will be catching the majority of his starts, as Martinez has had much success calling his pitches. Fausto seemed to iron out many of these problems in Winter ball and has pitched quite well in the Spring (2.45 ERA in 11 innings).
Look for big number 55 to have some stretches of inconsistency, but overall be more like the pitcher he was during 2007.
Biggest Concern: Will the Indians get anything out of this Yankee washout?
General Manager Mark Shapiro and company truly believe that Pavano as healed from all of his ailments and is poised for a bounce back 2009 campaign. I am not so optimistic.
He has looked less that average in Spring Training and reports have said that he is topping out at 88-90 MPH on his fastball which does not bode well at all. His four season in New York were a complete and utter disaster, and beyond that only had one good year (2004).
Pavano's injuries include right rotator cuff tendinitis and pain in humerus, right shoulder tendinitis, right forearm tendinitis, Tommy John surgery, car accident, and dating Alyssa Milano.
His whole right arm has seemed to be completely reconstructed. It seems that the Indians are paying this guy actually TOO MUCH in giving him $1.5 million plus incentives for 2009 as he has really proven nothing for four seasons: a non-roster invitee if I have ever seen one.
Hopefully he can eat some innings and not be a total disaster on the mound, at least until the All-Start break when Jake Westbrook is expected to return, but I wouldn't bet on it.
The Tribe is probably hoping for mostly five or six innings from Pavano, allowing three or four runs while staying competitive in the game until they can hand it over to the pen. Look for Pavano to show glimpses of good, but an overall record of bad.
Biggest Concern: Can A-Rey stay healthy enough to maintain the promise of his 2008 performance with the Tribe?
Anthony Reyes jumped into the national spotlight in 2005 where he started Game One of the World Series in which he went eight innings, giving up two runs and earning a victory.
He has been unable to recapture his early glory, as he has amassed a career 4.91 ERA in 59 games. Reyes pitched extremely well in his brief stint with Cleveland, posting a 2-1 record and a 1.83 ERA over six starts. He was eventually shut down in early September with a sore right elbow.
The southern California native has pitched well this spring (one earned run in seven innings), attributing much of his success to USC pitching coach Tom House. All reports peg the righty as a competitor and fully healed from his prior ailments.
Look for Reyes to have a solid 2009 (12-14 wins, ERA low fours) allowing the Indians to compete in most every game he pitches.
Biggest Concern: Which Laffey will show up in 2009.
This soon-to-be 24 year old pitched pretty well at the end of 2007 (4-2, 4.56 ERA in nien starts), to gain some confidence heading into 2008. While losing out to Cliff Lee for the fifth-starter's spot last year, everyone knew Laffey would be the first guy called upon from Buffalo.
When Laffey arrived in Cleveland, he was lights out over his first six starts (1.59 ERA) and was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Month for May where he went 3-2 with a 0.79 ERA in five starts.
He seemed to have some left arm inflammation and subsequently flamed out the rest of the year posting a 8.37 ERA over his final five starts. The Tribe ended up shutting him down for good in September to refocus his attention to 2009.
Laffey is a pitcher who relies upon his control and the ability to force batters into hitting ground balls. His spring has been up and down (7.00 ERA in nine innings) but has looked better as of late and is still displaying confidence in his stuff.
Baring a complete meltdown, look for the Maryland native to break camp with the big league club. I look for Aaron Laffey to have a good season in 2009, earning 10-12 wins and solidifying his place in the rotation.
Biggest Concern: Will he ever pitch like he did in 2006?
This Vanderbilt alum actually was supposed to be a big part of the rotation in 2007, but struggle mightily (6.42 ERA in 13 starts). Sowers is a soft tossing lefty who has never been able to sustain the success he has had in the minors due to his inability to differentiate his fastball from his change-up.
Jeremy was a first round pick in 2004 but seems to not be much more than a fifth starter in this organization. Has pitched decently in the Spring (3.00 ERA in 12 innings) and will be a great depth option in Columbus.
Sowers is an extremely intelligent ballplayer who still has the potential to be a middle of the rotation guy, but I just don't see it in Cleveland as Willis and company have been unable to help him improve on his flaws.
This Ohio native will probably start 10 games for the club and help out the team at some point in 2009.
Biggest Concern: Was his 2008 a fluke?
Lewis burst onto the scene in Cleveland last September posting a 2.63 ERA and earning a win in each of his four starts. This former Buckeye has had a solid spring and looks to be a pitcher the Indians will count on in the future.
The left-hander is only 25 years old and will be a top of the rotation guy in Triple A Columbus. Look for Lewis to be called upon sometime in 2009 and be guy looked upon in 2010 as well.
Biggest Concern: Will his Minor League success translate into Major League dominance?
The answer to this question will take years to answer, but everything out of camp suggests that Huff is a player to watch in 2009.
While technically in contention for the fifth spot in the rotation, the left-hander is not currently on the 40-man roster and has only appeared in four Cactus league innings, so he will mostly likely start off as a Clipper.
Huff was the Minor League pitcher of the year for the Indians Organization in 2008, posting a combined 11-5 record with a 2.52 ERA. He is able to locate his fastball (clocked as high as 94 MPH) and walk few batters.
Look for this former UCLA Bruin to make an impact on the big league team after the All-Star break.
Biggest Concern: Is this guy a starter or a reliever?
Zach Attack is the longest shot to make the rotation out of spring, but the lefty's versatility will come in handy. Jackson started nine games in 2008 for the Tribe after being acquired as part of the CC Sabathia deal.
His solid spring (4.35 ERA in 10 innings) has earned him an outside chance at making the club as a left handed long reliever right out of spring, so I don't believe he will be starting too many games with the big league club.
He does have an option, so Jackson will be up with the big league club at some point in 2009. Look for Zach to be part of the rotation in Columbus and become a solid contributor to the ball club.
Biggest Concern: Will Jake add anything to the Indians in 2009.
Westbrook's 2008 season ended after five starts, having to undergo Tommy John surgery and hip surgery in 2008. Jake has been a solid member of the Indians organization for eight seasons now, posting a 63-62 record with a 4.25 ERA, resulting in a three-year, $30 million contract through 2010.
Westbrook recently pitched off of the mound down in Spring Training, leaving the Indians optimistic for his return sometime after the All-Star break.
It normally takes a pitcher a full year-and-a-half to recover from the reconstructive surgery, so look for Jake to add a few quality starts in August and September, aiding in a hopeful playoff run.
Seems to be quite a bit more questions than answers circling the Cleveland Indians rotation this season. With a division there for the taking, the Tribe's starting staff will be the biggest key for a potential return to October baseball