Acta: Ubaldo, rotation will be key in 2012

Acta: Ubaldo, rotation will be key in 2012

Acta: Ubaldo, rotation will be key in 2012
DALLAS -- There are plenty of players whose production will prove critical to the Indians' fortunes next season. It could certainly be argued that starter Ubaldo Jimenez tops the list.

On Wednesday at the Winter Meetings, Indians manager Manny Acta held court with the media, expressing confidence in both Jimenez and the rotation as a whole. Right now, the starting five is locked in, giving Cleveland a staff that is at least eight arms deep heading into Spring Training.

"That's depth," Acta said with a smile. "And that's something that we didn't have here a couple of years ago."

The top of the rotation will likely feature sinkerballer Justin Masterson and Jimenez. The other three spots will be filled by Fausto Carmona, Josh Tomlin and Derek Lowe. Barring injury, that cast allows the Indians to open the year with pitchers David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister in the Minors.

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That is a change from each of the past two springs, when Cleveland had competition for two spots and a pile of uncertainties surrounding the staff.

The newfound depth was created in part by a pair of trades within the last six months.

The Tribe reeled in Jimenez in a July 31 Trade Deadline swap with the Rockies, sending top pitching prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz to Colorado as part of the package. Earlier this winter, the Indians landed Lowe in a trade with the Braves, giving the Tribe three sinkerballers on the staff.

It is Jimenez, though, that was acquired to potentially serve as the Indians' ace.

Instead, Jimenez finished an enigmatic season in a Tribe uniform, creating more questions than answers. This offseason, the 27-year-old right-hander's search for some solutions has included training sessions in the Dominican Republic with Nelson Perez, the Indians' assistant strength and conditioning coach.

On Dec. 20, Jimenez plans on starting a stint with Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Winter League. Acta will not be able to attend the pitcher's debut, but he hopes to be on hand for some simulated innings at the Indians' academy in the D.R. Jimenez will likely make between four to seven starts in winter ball as preparation for Spring Training.

"It's very important," Acta said of having Jimenez pitch some this winter. "He feels that it's going to get him in the best shape possible for Spring Training, and he has experience with that. His best season with the Rockies, he pitched winter ball up until the end of the playoffs over there."

Acta also noted that Jimenez will use winter ball as a trial run for some mechanical adjustments he has been working on this offseason. During his 11-start tour with the Tribe down the stretch last year, the Indians identified a handful of flaws that may have contributed to Jimenez's inconsistency.

Overall, Jimenez -- a 19-game winner and National League Cy Young contender in 2010 -- finished 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA in 32 starts between Colorado and Cleveland last year. He suffered a decrease in pitch velocity and also struggled with groin and right thumb cuticle injuries during the spring.

It was a mix of issues that Jimenez never seemed to completely put behind him.

"I think he felt that his arm never caught up because of Spring Training -- not being 100 percent," Acta said. "And then, who's to say that he didn't change some things, just trying to compensate for the injury, too."

This winter, the Indians wanted Jimenez to concentrate on getting in great shape before the arrival of Spring Training. The team also wanted the pitcher to work on having a more consistent stride and a slightly adjusted starting point with his hands. Acta feels more consistency in those areas will naturally lend to improved fastball command and less fluctuation in pitch speed.

"We didn't want to make any drastic changes when he came over," Acta said. "We let him pitch and tried to let him find out a few things. ... But we feel that if he's able to control his lower half, and able to be consistent with the length of his stride, then the strike-throwing department will improve."

That would be a great development for a rotation that will be an integral part to any success the Indians experience in 2012. Acta loves the young core group he has in the field -- catcher Carlos Santana, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and second baseman Jason Kipnis, among others -- but a winning season often begins and ends with pitching.

In Masterson, Carmona and Lowe, the Tribe has a trio of durable sinkerballers capable of logging 200 innings. Right-hander Tomlin provides a consistent strike thrower and Jimenez gives Cleveland a potential star. There are risks with each member of the staff, but there is also plenty of promise.

Acta is banking on the latter in order to make a run at the American League Central crown.

"There's a comfort level with the five guys that we have," Acta said. "I would say there's a comfort level now that we feel that we will have eight guys -- at least -- in camp, and we all know you need minimum seven to eight just to go through the season."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for 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.