CLEVELAND -- Once again this season, the Indians have the enviable luxury of placing an American League Cy Young winner atop their rotation. What's not so enviable are all those question marks in the other four spots. "I guess I felt better [about the rotation] a year ago than I do now," said general manager Mark Shapiro, "because of Jake [Westbrook] and [Fausto] Carmona and what they were coming off of. That shows you how much I know. It shows how I'm feeling matters very little."
Indeed, the injuries suffered by Westbrook and Carmona were an early bummer for the Tribe last year, and the bright spot of the rotation, surprisingly, was Cliff Lee. It's probably accurate to speculate that Lee will have a tough time repeating the 22-3 record and 2.54 ERA that earned him the game's top pitching prize last season. Still, he has the mental makeup of a No. 1 starter, and the Indians will certainly feel comfortable giving him the ball every fifth day. Lee was successful in 2008 in part because of the lessons he learned in '07, when a strained abdominal muscle delayed his start to the season and he never got back on track. Those are lessons the Indians hope Carmona, slated to be the No. 2 pitcher in the rotation, learned last year. Carmona struggled with his control early in '08, then missed two months with a left hip strain. Like Lee in '07, Carmona's season never found any flow. The pinpoint control of his sinking fastball that helped make him a 19-game winner in 2007 was replaced by erratic tendencies that led to 70 walks allowed and only 58 strikeouts recorded in 120 2/3 innings. The Indians feel confident Carmona can right himself, particularly after a six-start stint in the Dominican Winter League in which he went 2-2 with a 4.41 ERA, striking out 28 and walking 10 in 32 2/3 innings. "He's as important as any one player can be," Shapiro said of Carmona. "This winter, he made some good strides. But he still needs to get more consistent in his delivery. We know the reasons why and there are things he needs to maintain in his delivery." Beyond Carmona, the question marks only get more complicated. The Indians will give rotation spots to right-handers Anthony Reyes and the newly signed Carl Pavano, if they're healthy. And the Tribe will let young left-handers Aaron Laffey, Dave Huff, Jeremy Sowers, Zach Jackson and Scott Lewis duke it out for the fifth and final spot in the rotation. Both Reyes and Pavano will report to spring camp in Goodyear, Ariz., in shape this week, but their status will be an ongoing concern. Reyes has a chronic elbow issue that forced him out of action prematurely in 2008. The Indians put the 27-year-old Reyes, who posted a 2.01 ERA in five starts last August, through a rest-and-rehab program this winter, and he threw at 70 percent. Though the Indians aren't expecting any medical setbacks, they know they are possible. As for Pavano, the injury woes he went through over the course of earning $39.95 million in four years with the Yankees are well documented. Everything from a bruised buttocks to bone chips in his elbow to a rib fracture suffered in a car accident to the elbow injury that required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery limited Pavano to just 26 starts with the Yanks over those four years. In signing the 33-year-old Pavano to a $1.5 million contract loaded with performance-based incentives -- incentives that don't even begin to kick in until he makes 18 starts -- the Indians are taking an affordable risk, hoping he can return to the form that made him an 18-game winner with the Marlins in 2004. The Indians are encouraged that Pavano returned from Tommy John to make seven starts for the Yankees down the stretch last season. "This is not a guy you're guessing is going to come back," Shapiro said. "He made seven starts [in August and September] last year, with no problems." The injury problems that befell the Indians' rotation in 2008 opened the door for Laffey to get an extended look. He joined the rotation when Westbrook strained his abdominal and stayed when Carmona hurt his hip and Westbrook underwent a Tommy John procedure of his own. Laffey took advantage of the opportunity initially, as he went 4-3 with a 2.83 ERA over his first nine starts. But he began to slide in mid-June and was demoted back to Triple-A Buffalo by the end of July. Shapiro has made it clear he still views Laffey, who rested and rehabbed a minor elbow strain at season's end, as a legitimate big league candidate. Of course, Laffey has plenty of competition for that fifth spot. Sowers has been in Laffey's boat before, in that he's had initial big league success in '06 tempered by the struggles that followed in '07. Last season, he had the opportunity to prove he's recovered from those struggles, but he went 4-9 with a 5.58 ERA in 22 starts over the season's last four months. "I think Jeremy's key is commanding his fastball," Shapiro said. "His whole game works off his command of his fastball. If he can do that, he can be a contributing Major League starting pitcher, no doubt." Jackson, who was acquired in the trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers, and Lewis, who made four starts in place of the injured Reyes in September, both got a chance to contribute last year. With a 2-3 record and 5.60 ERA in nine starts, Jackson didn't make an overwhelming case for why he should be in the big league starting rotation, but he did show some flashes. But the real flash came from Lewis, who earned Rookie of the Month honors after going 4-0 with a 2.63 ERA, including eight shutout innings in his debut against the Orioles on Sept. 10. Was it a flash in the pan, or is Lewis primed for sustained success? The answer could come in camp, or Lewis could head to Triple-A Columbus for more grooming time. The Indians are more than a little intrigued by the promise displayed by Huff last year. Between 11 appearances at Double-A Akron and 16 starts at Buffalo, he put together an 11-5 record with a 2.52 ERA. Some members of the organization believe he is ready to be in the big leagues right now, while others think he could benefit from a little more Triple-A seasoning. Clearly, the Indians are not without options in their rotation, and they also plan to have a recovered Westbrook back in the mix by the season's second half.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.