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Around the Horn: Rotation's evolution key to success

Tribe believes it has pieces to cover departures of Jimenez and Kazmir

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Baseball is almost here for the Indians. Pitchers and catchers report for Cleveland on Tuesday, meaning the competition for the open spots on the pitching staff will be underway soon. Over the past month, Indians.com has examined the Tribe's roster. Today we'll end the five-part Around the Horn series by tackling the rotation.

CLEVELAND -- Things changed dramatically for the Indians' rotation both in terms of perception and performance last season. A staff riddled with question marks defied the projections and led Cleveland to the October stage.

Things have changed dramatically for the rotation again this offseason. Two of the key pieces to last season's staff -- Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir -- hit the open market, and the Tribe opted to find the lost innings through internal avenues.

Another year, another set of questions.

"I'm very confident, if they pitch the way they can," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "And that's the key. I think everybody pitched the way they could last year, and that's always the key going into any season. But if you asked me, going into last year or going into this year, 'What looks better?' I think going into this year looks better, for sure."

Cleveland's rotation will again be led by Justin Masterson, but this time he has "All-Star" next to his name. Behind the big sinkerballer will be young right-handers Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister, who each played a part in last summer's run to the American League Wild Card Game. Barring any last-minute moves, that group appears locked into the starting staff.

The most uncertain spot heading into the spring is the fifth job, which currently has Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin (returning from Tommy John surgery), veteran Shaun Marcum (non-roster invitee) and prospect Trevor Bauer as the primary competitors. Among that cast, Carrasco is viewed as the favorite, considering he is out of Minor League options and manager Terry Francona has talked him up all winter.

"We certainly want to see Carrasco pitch," Francona said. "I think that's a given, with his stuff and things like that. He made some alterations in his delivery. He's got his arm a little higher to create some deception. I think we'd kind of like to see him take off with that.

"But I don't know that we need to anoint our rotation [before Spring Training]."

Francona's point is made simply by looking at the evolution of Cleveland's rotation last year.

Kazmir was out of affiliated baseball in 2012, came to camp as a non-roster invitee and won the final rotation job. Brett Myers opened the year as the third starter, but was released in August after a long stint on the disabled list. Kluber did not make a start until April 28, and then became a key cog for the staff. Salazar was barely on the radar before soaring up the farm system, reaching the Majors in July and pitching well enough down the stretch to earn the nod for the Wild Card Game.

"You don't know how the whole season is going to play out," Francona said. "Going into the year, I'll take my chances with Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber, and those guys, if they're pitching all year."

There is no denying that losing Jimenez and Kazmir is tough to swallow for the Indians. That duo combined for 23 wins to go along with a 3.65 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 2.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 340 2/3 innings. Cleveland believes it has the pieces to make up the difference, though.

Consider that Masterson, Jimenez and Kazmir combined to go 37-28 with a 3.58 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 2.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 533 2/3 innings last season. The returning trio of Masterson, Kluber and McAllister combined to go 34-24 with a 3.66 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 2.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 474 2/3 innings in '13.

That difference of 59 innings is nearly accounted for in the 52 innings logged by Salazar last season. In his 10 starts, the hard-throwing right-hander posted a 3.12 ERA with 65 strikeouts against 15 walks for the Indians. His rate of 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest single-season average in team history among pitchers with at least three starts. Hall of Famer Bob Feller ranks second for his work in 1936.

Overall, Cleveland's rotation ranked sixth in the American League in ERA (3.92) last season after having the 13th-ranked ERA (5.25) in 2012. After that woeful showing, no one predicted that the Indians would have one of the top-rated rotations in '13, when Cleveland's 3.21 ERA in the second half ranked second to only the Tigers.

The Indians are hoping the staff in place can continue where last season's group left off.

"I'm excited about the potential of the rotation," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "I think the term we used last year is, 'There may not be as much certainty as other rotations, but we feel there's a lot of potential.' I think last year we started to see some of that potential translate to performance with a number of those guys."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.

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