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Questions surround Tribe's rotation

Questions surround Tribe's rotation

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Even among the most optimistic souls, the discussion about the Indians' starting rotation this season is not met with absolutes.

"I just don't know what to expect, to be completely frank with you," Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said. "I just don't."

What Wedge and the rest of the Indians' higher-ups do feel comfortable saying is that they should have depth and options, should things go awry with the initial starting five.

Still, this is a starting rotation loaded with question marks, both major and minor. And while the Indians are far from the only team in their division with such a predicament, it's nonetheless the key to the season for a club firmly expecting to contend in the American League Central. It's also a rare area of potential weakness for an organization that had grown accustomed to calling its starters a strength.

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The days of banking on CC Sabathia to anchor the rotation are long gone.

"When you lose a guy like CC," pitching coach Carl Willis said, "that's a guy that you're stamping 220 innings and a guy that, when his turn in the rotation comes and the bullpen's thin, he's such a stabilizer."

Now that job falls on Cliff Lee, who followed in Sabathia's American League Cy Young Award-winning footsteps. But no one would argue Lee has the stuff or the commanding presence of Sabathia. And even after a 2008 season in which he became the Tribe's first 20-game winner in 34 years, Lee will have something to prove.

For one, there's the question as to what kind of endurance Lee will have after logging a career-high 223 1/3 innings last season. His previous career high was 202 in 2005, when he went 18-5.

And while Lee is a proven winner -- save for his hiccup of a season in '07 -- it will be interesting to see how he handles the role of staff ace from the outset of a season.

As is the case with most topics, Lee, who has a 12.34 ERA in four spring starts but pitched well against the Rockies on Sunday, downplays the significance of his role.

"I don't care if I'm the No. 1 or the No. 5 starter," he said. "As soon as the season starts, they're all equally important. I'm going to give the team a chance to win. It's nice that the organization views you as that, but those things can change pretty quickly. I was competing for the fifth spot last year, and now I'm the No. 1."

Fausto Carmona has the stuff of a No. 1, but he enters the season with questions about his ability to rein in his emotions to maintain control of his pitches. Last year, Carmona endured not just a hip strain, but also an erratic side that led him to walk more batters (70) than he struck out (58) in 120 2/3 innings. That was the main reason he went a disappointing 8-7 after his 19-win campaign in '07.

The good news on Carmona is that his control has been better in spring camp.

"His stuff continues to improve," Willis said. "He's staying in his delivery and pounding the strike zone. I think he's surprised himself and learned he doesn't have to put so much effort into throwing the ball hard to get it up to 96 [mph]."

Right-hander Carl Pavano has the opportunity to be a pleasant surprise, if he stays healthy and returns to the form that made him an 18-game winner for the Marlins in 2004. But Pavano is as big a question mark as you'll find in the No. 3 spot.

By now, Pavano's injury history, which most notably contains Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in '07, is well-documented enough to serve as the reputation that precedes him. He hopes to forge a new identity in Cleveland.

This spring, Pavano has made some progress in that goal, mainly in the fact that he's maintained his health. His stuff appears to be a work in progress, as evidenced by the six runs he allowed in four innings against the A's on Friday. He said he's working to use his lower half more in an effort to sharpen the bite on his sinking fastball and his slider.

"The next couple starts are going to be big for me," Pavano said. "But I'm pretty confident. I've left camp with worse stuff than this."

Joining Pavano in the "injury risk" segment of the rotation is right-hander Anthony Reyes. Acquired in a low-profile trade with the Cardinals at midseason last year, Reyes impressed by going 2-1 with a 1.83 ERA in six starts before right elbow soreness cut his season short in September. Because the elbow problem is a chronic one for Reyes, he will have to be monitored closely throughout the season.

But Reyes has had a very strong camp, stringing together a 0.75 ERA in four appearances. He said he made some strides in working with former big league and current USC pitching coach Tom House this offseason to refine his mechanics.

"I got away from the bad habits I've picked up the last few years," Reyes said.

Reyes has been named the Tribe's No. 5 starter, while left-hander Scott Lewis beat out Aaron Laffey, Zach Jackson and Jeremy Sowers for the fourth spot in the rotation. Lewis, who went 4-0 in four September starts in place of an injured Reyes last year, earned the job by being the most consistent of the bunch.

The Indians seem to be chalking it up as a given that they'll have to rely on their depth at Triple-A Columbus at some point this season. They are also holding out hope that Jake Westbrook's return from Tommy John surgery -- perhaps as early as June -- will be a successful one. The Indians also might be players in the summer trade market, if quality starters are available.

The returns of a healthy Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner to the lineup, the depth at the upper levels of the farm system and an improved bullpen anchored by closer Kerry Wood give the Indians plenty of good vibes going into the season. But if the rotation is shoddy, it could compromise those positives.

"I'm a little concerned about our rotation," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "I look at it as something we might have to piece together as the year goes along, which is not unheard of."

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

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