GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- If you picture baseball as a board game, the Indians are on square one. The manager is new and so is his coaching staff, and they have to retool the lineup. But the upgrade starts where everything in baseball starts, with the pitching staff. Cleveland must alter both nodes of its battery. On the throwing end, the Indians have a rotation headlined by a guy (Jake Westbrook) who hasn't pitched in 23 months and another (Fausto Carmona) who pitched to a 6.32 ERA last season, and a bullpen which had the fewest saves and tied for the most homers allowed in the American League.
On the receiving end, there is Lou Marson, a 23-year-old with 65 big league at-bats to his credit. The revolving door has been spinning, but nothing in Cleveland -- at least based on experience -- is barer than the catching cupboard, with Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach having taken their collective 27 homers and 107 RBIs to Boston and Tampa Bay, respectively. This appears to be a good match. If you want to present your pitchers with a clean slate, who better to put in charge of them than a young catcher with a fresh perspective? "It's going good so far," Marson said with a smile after catching the Smitty's American Racers' 4-3 loss to Sarby's Sour Balls in the Indians' first camp intrasquad game on Tuesday. "We're really stressing as a staff to pound the strike zone. Getting ahead in the count is so important. "We have a lot of sinkerball guys, so they definitely need to set up the middle half of the plate and just pound it." Sinkerball guys and Marson is another good pairing. "His forte is blocking balls in the dirt," Sandy Alomar Jr., the club's new catching tutor and first-base coach, said of Marson. "A kid that strong, the most important thing is defense. That's what I focus on. He seems pretty comfortable back there, with quick feet. "He's got the tools to be a complete catcher." Marson is ready for that assignment in his fourth big league camp, the first three having been with the Philadelphia Phillies, who included him in their trade package for Cliff Lee last July. Marson does not, however, have the assignment gift-wrapped. Wyatt Toregas and Carlos Santana are the other two-thirds of what figures to be a spring-long showdown for the catching job, with veteran Mike Redmond conceded as the likely backup to any of them. It's expected to be hot-prospect Santana's job somewhere down the line. "It can go to anybody," Marson said. "It will come down to staying healthy and performing. I feel like I'm ready this year. I came in ready. "That's a big market in Philadelphia. They want to win now and went out to get the guys [Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco] they needed to get to the World Series -- and they did. I wish nothing but the best for that organization, but I like it a lot here and feel great about it. It all depends how I do this spring, bug I've got the opportunity here to be the guy." To get to where he wanted to be, Marson virtually didn't have to go anywhere at all. The Indians' Spring Training complex is a short commute for the native and resident of Scottsdale, Ariz. So he gets to live at home, and gets to work at home plate. Life is good. Will we be saying the same about Indians pitchers? "I got a little chance to catch some of them last September," said Marson, who was added to the expanded roster and caught 14 games, "and have had a look at some others here in camp. "Tell you what, Carmona finished the year really strong and I hope he can build off that. I don't see any reason why he can't. I caught Westbrook's bullpen the other day, and he looks strong. Justin Masterson (acquired from the Red Sox in the Martinez deal) is going to be real good; he's dirty. "I'll tell you who I like a lot: [Yohan] Pino," Marson added, referring to a non-roster 26-year-old right-hander acquired from the Twins last August in the Carl Pavano deal. "Good athlete, throws strikes with a bunch of different pitches. I think he's going to be a sleeper." Marson will begin Cactus League play on Friday atop the depth chart, but it's a horse race for which the rides are just approaching the gate. Not only is Spring Training extremely young, but new manager Manny Acta is still in the process of familiarizing himself with his players, even veteran American Leaguers. "Like I tell all the players," Acta said, "show us what you can do, and we're the ones who will make the decisions after Spring Training." "Those two guys," said Alomar, meaning Marson and Toregas, with Santana considered a bit green, "will compete for that job until it's time to go. I hope they go out and battle their butts off." Were this a tournament, however, Marson would clearly have the higher seeding. His locker is at the end of a short row of four. The two to his immediate right belong to Westbrook and Kerry Wood. "I'm next to guys with a lot of years," Marson grinned. "I just sit there and try to pick their brains." If he goes on and picks their low pitches out of the dirt, they'll call it even.