Indians to protect Sabathia, Carmona

Indians to protect Sabathia, Carmona

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Even the best parties come with the threat of a hangover.

The Indians knew this when they headed into the bright lights of the postseason last October. They knew the two big guns in their rotation -- C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona -- had already eclipsed 200 innings of work and were putting themselves in danger of having a tired arm in '08.

But what could the Indians do then? Shut their dual aces down? Hardly.

And what can they realistically do now, as a new season dawns? Not all that much, really.

The October effect that fell upon the White Sox of '06 and the Tigers of '07 is definitely a nagging concern with no concrete solutions, other than the attention to detail -- namely, pitch counts -- that the Indians have already been practicing for years.

"It's something we're not going to take lightly," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "We're going to get input from those guys on how they feel. We'll try to get them through Spring Training without overdoing it but also still get them prepared."

Sabathia and Carmona are preparing for a season they hope will be a rerun, of sorts, from their '07 efforts. The pair combined for a 38-15 record and a 3.14 ERA in 66 starts. Sabathia won the American League Cy Young Award, while Carmona finished fourth in the voting.

But in amassing their noteworthy numbers, Sabathia and Carmona worked overtime.

Sabathia led the Majors with 241 innings pitched and ranked third in the AL with 3,582 pitches thrown. Toss in his three postseason starts, and his innings total was 256 1/3. In six previous seasons, Sabathia had surpassed 200 innings of work just once -- in 2002, when he worked 210.

But Sabathia said he never felt tired in '07. Not even when he struggled in the postseason.

"I don't think anybody, at that point [in October], was feeling anything," he said. "I can honestly say I wasn't tired. And I didn't feel any more sore this offseason than I normally do, so hopefully I'll be fine."

Still, the Indians will do what they can, within reason, to protect Sabathia.

In the early days of Grapefruit League play, as Sabathia's mates in the rotation will pitch every fourth day while building their arms up to tolerate first one, then two and finally three innings of work, Sabathia will be on a five-day rotation. That will save him from pitching one or two extra bullpen sessions on the side.

"That's definitely good, from a throwing standpoint," Sabathia said. "It's definitely going to be cool. It's something I've never done before, but I'm excited about it."

Because of his size, Sabathia, who is listed at 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, will always be pointed to as an injury red flag. But his pristine mechanics, to this point, have helped him avoid any major arm trouble.

Sabathia's only time spent on the disabled list came when he suffered oblique strains in 2005 and '06. He has since kicked his offseason conditioning into high gear. The Indians send one of their trainers to California to work with Sabathia in the winter.

And for all the work Sabathia put in on the mound last season, the Indians were quite careful with him. Not once did he eclipse the 119-pitch plateau.

At times, in the heat of the season, Sabathia would show frustration when taken out of games he felt he could finish. But looking back, he has no complaints.

"You look at the big picture of trying to stay healthy," he said. "The Indians have done a great job monitoring me my whole career. They've done a good job trying to keep me out of harm's way."

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That's been a strength of this club in recent years. Thanks to a training staff that is regarded as one of the best in the business, Indians players have spent the fewest amount of days (597) on the DL over the last two seasons.

Before Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook suffered abdominal strains last season, the pitching rotation had gone largely unaffected by injury. In 2005, the Tribe's five starters made 158 of 162 starts. In '06, the top four starters made 124 of 162 starts. It was the ineffectiveness of Jason Johnson, not injury, that led to two men filling the fifth spot.

The benefit of the Lee and Westbrook injuries was the emergence of Carmona. The side effect of that emergence, however, is that Carmona ventured into brave new territory with his workload in '07.

In four Minor League seasons from 2002-05, the most innings Carmona logged in a single year were the 173 2/3 he put up in '05. In 2006, while splitting time between Triple-A Buffalo and the bigs, he worked 102 1/3 innings, with another 31 innings in winter ball.

Last year, Carmona ranked 10th in the AL with 215 innings pitched. He worked another 15 innings in three postseason starts.

But Carmona was also the 11th-most efficient starter in the AL last season. He needed an average of just 14.7 pitches per inning pitched. He threw a total of 3,139 pitches on the year.

"He was so efficient with his pitches," general manager Mark Shapiro said, "that to look at his innings total is deceptive."

Still, innings are innings, right?

"It is taxing, the sitting down and getting back up, and particularly when you get later in the game," Willis said. "But I feel a lot better about that situation the way it is than I would if he was a guy who relied on a lot of strikeouts and ran into higher pitch counts. That definitely helps us feel better about it."

Willis also feels pretty good about another area of his club that could help Sabathia and Carmona -- the bullpen.

"Particularly early in the season," Willis said, "if the bullpen is pitching like we think it's capable of, then it can really shorten the game for the starters and allow us to not have to try to push them through that seventh inning every fifth day."

Then again, the bullpen has the potential for its own issues. Closer Joe Borowski (65 2/3 innings) and setup man Rafael Betancourt (79 1/3) were both leaned on quite a bit last year, which is part of the reason the Tribe imported Masa Kobayashi as another option in the back end of the 'pen.

Willis said he won't be shy about giving Sabathia and Carmona extra rest, if he senses it's needed over the course of the year. The Indians have the luxury of starting depth -- Lee, Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers are all competing for the rotation's fifth spot, with top prospect Adam Miller also looming in Buffalo -- to help them, if that's the case.

"We need to prepare [Sabathia and Carmona] for the long haul, not just any one point of the season," Willis said. "If something is out of whack or they seem like they're not fresh, skipping them is a possibility."

Because if the time comes to party again in October, the Indians don't want their aces to miss out.

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