Notes: Utility infield has stiff competition

Notes: Utility infield has stiff competition

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The Indians are, as manager Eric Wedge put it, "neck-deep" into the battle for the utility infield job.

But the club is not deep enough into Grapefruit League games to make any firm decisions.

Hector Luna, Joe Inglett, Mike Rouse and Luis Rivas are the candidates for the position, in which being a dependable glove to back up Jhonny Peralta at shortstop is considered a priority.

"I'm still trying to reserve judgment," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Both Rivas and Rouse have made good impressions, but it's very early."

Rouse, who was claimed off waivers from the A's last September, had a nice day in Friday's split-squad game against the Reds in Sarasota, going 2-for-4 with a homer, a double and three RBIs while playing a solid second base.

"I like the way he carries himself," Wedge said before the club's nighttime split-squad at home against the Pirates. "He has a tremendous amount of ability."

Rivas, the former everyday second baseman for the Twins who endured an injury-plagued '06 at Triple-A Durham in the Devil Rays' system, has also opened up eyes with his hustle and plate production. He's batting .294 (5-for-17) with three doubles and three RBIs.

While Rouse and Rivas have jumped to the forefront in the early going, they can hardly be labeled the "favorites" in the race at this point.

"It's too early to be disappointed or positively blown away by anybody," Shapiro said. "It would be premature either way."

Inglett has been hampered by a left hamstring strain that has limited him to just four games of action. Luna, meanwhile, has drawn criticism from Wedge for his struggles with range, as he made a team-high four errors in his first six games.

Ideally, the Indians would carry just one utilityman who could play second, short and third and be an effective bat off the bench. That would leave open a roster spot that would probably be filled by first baseman Ryan Garko.

Shapiro said the Indians will wait until the third week of March to make a decision on whether the utility position will be filled with one of the above internal candidates or if a trade will have to be made to get help.

Until then, while particularly interested in shortstop skills, the Tribe is evaluating each candidate from a whole-package perspective.

"Everything counts," Wedge said.

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First in line: Determining their No. 1 starter at Triple-A Buffalo is a big decision for the Indians, because that guy could very well be their No. 5 starter at the start of the season.

Cliff Lee's right abdominal strain, if prolonged another two days, could bump him from readiness to break camp with the Tribe. If that's the case, the Indians would be forced to immediately dip into their depth.

Right-hander Fausto Carmona, who has given up three runs over three innings in two Grapefruit League starts, came into camp as the Tribe's sixth starter.

"He would obviously be the favorite," Shapiro said, "but no job is given to him."

Right-hander Adam Miller, considered by many to be the Indians' top prospect, is not being ruled out from contention for the job, even though he's only made one start at the Triple-A level.

The 22-year-old Miller has been dominant in his first two exhibition outings, as he has yet to allow a run. On Friday against the Reds, he pitched three innings, giving up just two hits.

"He threw very well," Wedge said. "He was strong for three innings, and he used all his pitches. We've been excited about him for a long time. I like the way he carries himself. He has a tremendous amount of ability."

The puck spins here: To see Paul Byrd tossing a hockey puck into a mitt, one might think the veteran right-hander has lost his baseball -- or maybe his mind.

Actually, Byrd is trying to get a better spin on the puck in hopes that it will eventually help him on the mound, not in the rink. Using a trick he learned from teammate Tom Mastny, Byrd has been working on his breaking stuff by throwing the puck as he would a curveball.

"I know it probably makes me look like a weirdo," Byrd said. "But if it helps even a little bit, I'm fine with it. I think Tom Mastny has the best curveball on the team, so I asked him to show me how he works on it."

The thinking is that getting a 12-to-6 spin on the puck, which has a larger circumference than a baseball, can only make it easier to do the same with a ball.

"I hung a lot of sliders last year, and my curveball was very inconsistent," said Byrd, who gave up a pair of runs on four hits in three innings against the Pirates on Friday night. "This is a little drill that has helped."

Byrd gave up a pair of runs on four hits in three innings against the Pirates on Friday night. He said he threw about 50 pitches, including roughly 10-15 curves. He threw five split-fingered fastballs -- the pitch he is working on adding to his repertoire this spring.

"I threw five splits, and two of them were good," Byrd said.

He's out: Catcher Victor Martinez was sent home early on Friday with a non-baseball medical condition.

Teams are prohibited by the Collective Bargaining Agreement from releasing specific information on non-baseball conditions, though Martinez's ailment is not considered serious.

Wedge said it's doubtful Martinez, who had been scheduled to start against the Pirates, will play on Saturday.

It's officially official: On Thursday, the city of Goodyear, Ariz., approved the final agreement that will bring the Indians to the Cactus League in 2009.

The city council signed a memorandum of understanding with Rose Properties Southwest and JMI Sports LLC to design and construct a 10,000-seat ballpark and training complex. The city has invested $62 million into the project, according to a release.

On deck: Right-hander Jake Westbrook will get the starting nod when the Indians play host to the Reds at 1:05 p.m. ET on Saturday at Chain of Lakes Park. The game will mark the first Grapefruit League action of the season for outfielder Trot Nixon, who had been rehabbing after offseason back surgery, and right-hander Brian Slocum, who had been held up by a sore left hamstring. The game will be broadcast live on MLB.TV.

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