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'Reloading' Tribe looking to build in 2010

'Reloading' Tribe looking to build in 2010

The Indians, indisputably, have their fair share of question marks as the New Year dawns.

What follows is a quick look at some of the more important questions -- 10 for 2010 -- pertaining to a Tribe team that underwent dramatic changes last year.

1. What kind of manager is Manny Acta?

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We know he's personable, and we know he's enthusiastic about guiding this young ballclub. But Acta, the former Nationals skipper who is taking over for Eric Wedge and has a three-year guarantee in his contract, has managed a rebuilding ballclub before and had very little success at this level. Acta believes he learned from his experiences in Washington, and he believes he can help mold the Tribe's youngsters into a contending ballclub.

2. Can Fausto Carmona get back on track?

The Indians took the drastic step of demoting Carmona, a former 19-game winner, all the way to the Arizona Rookie League in June 2009. The experiment didn't exactly produce immediate results. Carmona worked his way up the Minor League ladder and returned to the Tribe in the second half, but his command problems continued. The Indians were encouraged by the two strong starts Carmona turned in at season's end, and they hope he eked some positives out of his stint in the Dominican Winter League. Helping Carmona return to form as a reliable arm near the top of the rotation will be among new pitching coach Tim Belcher's top priorities.

3. Will Michael Brantley supplant Grady Sizemore in the leadoff spot?

With Sizemore's season cut short by surgery, Brantley burst onto the big league scene in a big way in September. He hit safely in his first eight Major League games and took over Sizemore's leadoff duties. Brantley reached safely in 25 of his 28 games played. Acta has already declared a healthy Sizemore his likely leadoff hitter at the outset of the season. But considering Sizemore's power and run-production potential and Brantley's September success, it's possible Sizemore will slide down and Brantley (the likely regular in left field) will be bumped back up by the second half of the season. It all depends on how well Brantley adjusts to Major League pitchers who will now have a book on him.

4. Will Jake Westbrook be ready to lead the rotation?

Westbrook, who had Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery performed in June 2008, had two setbacks in his recovery that prevented him from pitching in the big leagues in 2009. Yet, because of the Tribe's youth movement, Westbrook projects as the club's Opening Day starter and No. 1 arm in 2010. Westbrook is 32 years old, and there's no guarantee he'll find the form that once made him a dependable arm. But he pitched in the Puerto Rican Winter League in December to get his mechanics in order. If Westbrook pitches well and the Indians are out of contention come July, the veteran right-hander could become trade bait in this final year of his contract.

5. Which young arms will step up in the rotation?

If the Indians are going to be successful in their "reloading" plan, they're going to need to see their young rotation options develop into reliable Major Leaguers. Aaron Laffey has had flashes of brilliance at this level, but the Indians would like to see more consistency. Justin Masterson has good stuff, but his transition from the Red Sox bullpen to the Tribe rotation last summer left quite a bit to be desired. David Huff led the Tribe in wins as a rookie in '09, but he also had his share of rocky outings. Jeremy Sowers, out of Minor League options, has to use Spring Training to shake the label that he's better off in long relief. Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon will likely begin the season at Triple-A Columbus but could impact the rotation in the near future.

6. Following two offseason surgeries, what's in store for Matt LaPorta?

LaPorta is recovering from surgeries on his left hip and left big toe. He might be behind in Spring Training and possibly at the start of the regular season. If that's the case, then the door could open for Andy Marte or Jordan Brown, or the Tribe could seek help from outside the organization. Once LaPorta is back up to speed, the Indians hope the key acquisition in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade will become an intimidating presence in the middle of the order. LaPorta, in just his second full professional season, got his first taste of the big leagues in 2009 and showed some encouraging signs at the plate. In the field, he's expected to make more of a full-time transition from left field to first base.

7. Will the Tribe keep Kerry Wood?

The Indians signed Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million contract a year ago because they expected to be a contender. Now that the club is geared more toward development than contention for 2010, the remaining $10.5 million guarantee on Wood's deal sticks out like a sore thumb. Because his contract is currently hard to move, the Indians are expected to keep Wood for the first half, then shop him at or before the July Trade Deadline. They must also keep a close eye on his usage, as he receives an $11 million guarantee for 2011 if he finishes 55 games this season.

8. When will Travis Hafner prove his worth?

Thus far, the contract extension the Indians agreed to with the man known as Pronk in 2007 has been a burden on the Tribe's books. Hafner has spent more time nursing a sore shoulder than driving in runs. Now that he's more than a year removed from arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder, Hafner is hopeful that everyday play will allow him to get closer to his 2006 production. The Indians sure hope so, too, because they still owe Hafner another $40.25 million between now and 2013.

9. When will Carlos Santana reach Cleveland?

With both Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach dealt elsewhere in '09, the Indians have a young prospect ready to assume the catching duties in Lou Marson. But it's Santana who projects as the Tribe's catcher of the future, and his progress at Triple-A Columbus will be monitored closely. The run-producing, switch-hitting Santana suffered a broken hamate bone in his right hand during winter ball, so he might be a bit behind in camp and he could see some power loss this season. The Indians, though, expect Santana to be in the big league mix before September.

10. In a weak division, do the Indians have the pieces to contend?

When general manager Mark Shapiro pulled the trigger on the Cliff Lee trade last year, he admitted that contention in 2010 was unlikely. It's difficult to dispute that notion, particularly given the Tribe's rotation situation. Still, hope springs eternal in baseball, and hope is not hard to come by in the AL Central Division. After all, the Twins claimed the division crown last year with just 87 wins. The Indians should have a lineup that produces runs. If they find a rotation formula that works (admittedly, it's a big "if"), they might be able to stay in the thick of things.

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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