As the Indians begin what general manager Mark Shapiro has deemed a "reloading" period, the makeup and effectiveness of the rotation will go a long way toward determining whether the reload is a quick fix or a painful long-term process. It all starts with the starting pitching, as the Indians like to say, and the inconsistency of the 2009 set proved that a shaky starting rotation can finish off a team in a hurry.
The Tribe took a gamble this season, figuring it could piece together a rotation with Lee and a bunch of question marks in Fausto Carmona, Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes and whichever young, soft-tossing left-hander happened to claim the fifth spot.
All that strategy demonstrated was that the Indians did not have the pieces to contend in even the flimsiest of divisions.
With Lee out of the picture, the Indians are a team in transition, with regard to the starting staff. All you need to know about the state of things is that the Tribe's projected Opening Day starter for 2010 is Jake Westbrook -- the same Westbrook who hasn't pitched since May of 2008 because of Tommy John elbow surgery.
"Obviously, Cliff Lee is not replaceable," Shapiro said. "But Cliff was going to be a free agent after next year, and I feel better about the rotation beyond next year."
Shapiro feels better because of the acquisitions he brought into the organization by trading Lee to the Phillies and Victor Martinez to the Red Sox. Those two trades brought the Tribe two young right-handers in Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco who figure to impact the 2010 rotation. Masterson joined the big-league bullpen over the weekend and will be stretched out to start in a matter of weeks, while Carrasco could be a September callup.
"Those two guys have a chance to at least give us the wins that Cliff brought us," Shapiro said.
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Masterson was 2-2 with a 4.58 ERA in six starts for the Red Sox early this season before he was moved back to the bullpen, where he flourished in the 2008 playoffs.
Because of Masterson's big frame, intelligence, mid-90s sinking fastball and slider, the Indians think he can be a candidate for the top of the rotation. The key, they feel, will be improving the effectiveness of his changeup.
"It's not like I can't be successful without it," Masterson said. "But to be better, you need to develop as a pitcher. So I think the changeup will be a great help for me in my career."
As for Carrasco, he's a 22-year-old with power stuff. He's been knocked by some scouts for not trusting that stuff enough and relying too heavily on his secondary pitches, but he's struck out 118 batters in 120 innings in Triple-A this season.
Of the nine pitchers added to the organization in the Tribe's pre-Trade Deadline dealing, Masterson and Carrasco are the only ones projected to affect the rotation picture this season and next. But while neither can fill the void left by Lee, both seem to possess strong potential.
"When you look at the scouting reports and the arm strength and the pitch development," pitching coach Carl Willis said, "it's going to create some healthy competition."
Here's one guess as to how the Indians' Opening Day rotation might look in 2010:
|1. ||RHP Jake Westbrook|
|2. ||RHP Justin Masterson|
|3. ||RHP Fausto Carmona|
|4.||LHP David Huff|
|5. ||RHP Carlos Carrasco|
Before the summer acquisitions, the Indians' long-term rotation picture was looking rather dicey, to say the least.
The 2010 options from down on the farm seemed to begin and end with right-hander Hector Rondon, though he's certainly nothing to scoff at. Rondon, 21, entered the week with a combined 10-6 record and 2.75 ERA in 19 appearances, including 17 starts, between the Double-A and Triple-A levels. He had struck out 97 batters while walking just 20 in 95 innings.
"He's obviously advanced," farm director Ross Atkins said. "Even when he struggles, he doesn't give up walks or runs. We want to get his slider as good as it can be before he's thrown to that [big league] fire. If that slider starts to come, the sky's the limit."
But beyond Rondon, the farm system's upper level starting picture, pre-Carrasco, looked poor. Left-hander Chuck Lofgren has pitched his way back onto the Indians' radar this season, but it's difficult to say whether he'd be in the mix for a job next year. And left-hander Kelvin De La Cruz might have been in the mix, had he not suffered a left elbow injury after two April starts. His lost year of development was a major blow to the Tribe's depth.
As far as the Major League pitching picture this season, Carmona was demoted to rookie ball in June to get his head and mechanics straight, and the jury is still out as to whether the project of turning him into more of a pitcher and less of a thrower will prove successful.
Westbrook, regardless of his strong track record of consistency before the injury, will turn 32 in September and is coming off Tommy John surgery. He comes with no guarantees, aside from the contract that will pay him $11 million next year.
Pavano was signed to a one-year deal loaded with incentives, and, unless the Indians are willing to commit millions more to him in the offseason, it appears doubtful he'll be back for a second.
Young left-handers Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey and David Huff have all gotten extended looks in the Majors. But getting consistency out of Sowers has been an uphill battle since 2007, Laffey has been sidetracked by injuries and Huff is still learning on the job.
At this point, don't even bother inquiring about left-hander Scott Lewis, who hasn't been heard from since straining his elbow during the Tribe's April 10 home opener. His fragility has removed him from the forefront of the Tribe's thinking. And Reyes is also currently out of the picture, as he had Tommy John surgery in June.
What the Indians have, then, is a 2010 rotation that figures to feature Westbrook, Carmona and Masterson, with Carrasco, Rondon, Huff, Sowers and Laffey potentially competing for the last two spots.
It could be another crowded camp, but one with significantly more upside than the competition the Indians held for their fifth spot in Goodyear, Ariz., this past spring.
"We've gone out and added some plus arms and some guys already developing Major League pitches," Willis said. "We like the people that are going to make the crowd."
The crowd might not be complete. Shapiro is not ruling out the possibility of venturing into the free-agent market, now that the 2010 options for Lee and Martinez, which were worth a combined $16 million, have been cleared from the books.
"I'm never going to be comfortable, pitching wise," Shapiro said. "But I am much more comfortable now than I was a month ago. I think we will continue to infuse more pitching talent and add more pitchers, maybe via free agency."
But no matter how many arms the Indians toss into their rotation next season, it will be quite a while before they own an ace.