GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Indians manager Terry Francona does not enjoy tough conversations, but he knows that tough decisions are a good thing for a ballclub. The way things have gone in Cleveland's rotation race, Francona will probably have at least one uncomfortable meeting at the end of camp.
There is one vacancy within the Tribe's starting staff, and the competition appears to be down to right-handers Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Aaron Harang. All three have performed well this spring while attempting to balance preparation with production.
The Indians wanted a tough decision. It looks like the team will get its wish.
"They're all three doing great and I'm glad," Francona said Tuesday. "Now it's going to make for difficult conversations and nobody looks forward to that. But whoever it is will have deserved to be talked to honestly and, being conscientious, we'll do that."
The Indians still have veteran Shaun Marcum and prospect Trevor Bauer in camp with the big league club, but they appear to be on the outside looking in. Marcum is well behind the rest of the pack in his comeback from July surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. Bauer looks like a pitcher in need of some more fine-tuning in the Minor Leagues before being summoned to the big leagues again.
That leaves a three-horse race that includes a unique contracual element for each candidate.
Carrasco is out of options and is expected to make the pitching staff in some capacity (rotation or bullpen). Tomlin has options, so he can be sent to Triple-A to maintain a layer of depth without the risk of being exposed to waivers. Harang is in camp as a non-roster invitee and Cleveland would need to offer him a $100,000 retention bonus (plus the ability to opt out of his contract June 1) if he is not in the Opening Day plans.
When the time comes to make a decision for Francona and general manager Chris Antonetti, such factors are considered as much as statistics.
"We were talking about that today," Francona said. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't come into play. That's part of baseball. It's part of our obligation to not only set the roster, but to take care of the organization. That's more Chris than us, but I'm certainly involved in those conversations. They're a part of decision making. There's no getting around that."
Over the offseason, Antonetti stated matter-of-factly that the 26-year-old Carrasco would be on the Opening Day roster due to his being out of options. On Tuesday afternoon, Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said nothing had changed in that regard, especially after Carrasco's stint as a reliever for Cleveland last summer.
Carrasco had a 6.75 ERA in 46 2/3 innings overall for the Indians last season, but he posted a 1.32 ERA out of the bullpen. The right-hander showed the kind of aggressiveness out of the 'pen that the team wants to see from him as a starter. Callaway and Carrasco have worked on some mechanical adjustments, as well as honing that mental approach, this spring.
"The way he threw out of the 'pen last year, you can't ignore that," Callaway said. "If he doesn't make the team as a starter, I think you've got to keep him in the 'pen. You've got a good arm that can do both. I think that's probably the plan right now."
First, Cleveland is giving Carrasco (1.29 ERA through three Cactus League outings) every opportunity to earn the final rotation spot.
"His stuff is off the charts," Francona said. "His stuff is top-of-the-rotation stuff across the board."
Tomlin, 29, is back at full strength after using most of 2013 to come back from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. This spring, he has sat around 90-93 mph with his fastball, helping him pile up 14 strikeouts against only two walks in his 14 innings. Tomlin said it was "refreshing" to see how hitters have reacted to the extra velocity and improved pitch sequencing.
"Absolutely, I feel stronger," said Tomlin, who threw around 88-91 mph prior to his surgery. "I don't know what the velocity readings are, but it just feels like it has that life in the zone. It has that explosion to the zone. My stuff is crisper in the zone. That, to me, is what makes me an effective pitcher. It's having a little bit of deception and life in the zone."
Tomlin, who is 23-19 with a 4.92 ERA in 60 career games for Cleveland, also knows that having a Minor League option might work against him.
"You definitely think about it," Tomlin said. "I think anybody in their right mind can see that and think that that could be an issue. My job is to go out there and try to compete and try to win games the best I can right now. At the end of the day, whatever happens, happens."
The 35-year-old Harang signed a Minor League deal with the Tribe on Feb. 15 and is hoping his track record over 12 Major League seasons works to his advantage. The right-hander posted a 5.40 ERA in 143 1/3 innings in tours with the Mariners and Mets last year, but he has proven to be durable by logging an average of 179 innings over the past decade.
"I think Aaron's a Major League pitcher," Francona said.
This spring, Harang has been extremely efficient -- he added 30 pitches in the bullpen after a four-inning outing Sunday -- and pleased with how his pitches have worked. He looks around the Cleveland clubhouse and sees plenty of talented arms, but he feels he can offer a veteran voice.
"Watching some of these younger guys throw, they have the stuff to be very successful," Harang said. "That's where, if everything works out and I make the club, a big part of me being here is to kind of help these guys move along and make sure they learn how to figure out a routine and what they need to do to stay strong the whole year."
That attribute adds another layer to an already difficult decision for the Indians.
"That's what we wanted," Callaway said. "They've all done well and I don't think, really, anybody has separated themselves at this point."