GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- With nine days left on the spring schedule, the Indians are, by default, close to naming their Nos. 4 and 5 starters. Just not close enough to actually do so. "Those last two spots," pitching coach Tim Belcher said, "are still heated competition."
Or, as manager Manny Acta likes to put it, "It's a tie for first." But the competition is a little more complicated than even the Indians expected. Trade acquisition Mitch Talbot (0.79 ERA in four appearances) seems to have pitched his way into a rotation job. Left-handers David Huff and Aaron Laffey had left quite a bit to be desired entering their appearance against the Mariners on Thursday, and that allowed young right-hander Carlos Carrasco an opportunity to work his way into the Indians' thinking. Huff and Laffey might have redeemed themselves on Thursday. Both of them, Laffey especially, pitched effectively against Seattle. But two dominant outings from the 23-year-old Carrasco against the Rockies on March 17 and the Brewers on Tuesday have placed him in the hunt. "He's pitched his way right into the conversation," Belcher said of Carrasco. "Not that he wasn't before, but he was on the younger end of all those guys, with less experience at Triple-A and less experience at the big league level. Early on, you just figure the best thing for him would be going to [Triple-A] Columbus. But with the way he's pitched, and with Huff and Laffey struggling a little bit, he's going to stay right in the mix until the middle of next week."
That's when the Indians plan to make their decision. Carrasco is pitching on Sunday against the Angels, and Huff and Laffey will throw either Tuesday or Wednesday. "I don't think we really have any problem with waiting," Belcher said. "If it takes till Wednesday, it takes till Wednesday. We just want to get it right." Carrasco has done a lot right his last two times out. Shelled in his first exposure to the Majors last September, to the tune of a .400 average against and 8.87 ERA in five starts, the hurler acquired in the Cliff Lee trade looked as though he needed some more Minor League seasoning. But something clicked for Carrasco in Tucson last week, and he hopes to take it right into the regular season. "I want to prove they can trust me," Carrasco said, "[and] that I can make the team and keep the ball down." Though Huff and Laffey have both had success at the Major League level, neither had proven completely trustworthy heading into Thursday. Laffey had walked four batters and hit another in 10 1/3 innings this spring, while Huff, the Tribe's leader with 11 wins as a rookie last season, had given up a pair of homers in 12 1/3 innings. "They just need to throw more strikes," Belcher said. "They've got to pitch to contact. They don't miss the bat a lot, so they've got to stay in counts and have shorter at-bats and use the guys behind them. They can't walk anybody. And in David's case, he's thrown the ball over the fence a couple of times, and that's hurt him." Huff and Laffey made a stronger case for themselves against the Mariners. Huff fell into some hitters' counts and had his share of baserunners, but he limited the damage to one run (a Jack Wilson solo shot) on five hits with three walks and two strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings. "David obviously wanted to throw more strikes," Acta said, "but he made pitches when he had to and got ground balls." Laffey was even better, holding the Mariners scoreless on two hits with a walk and a strikeout over the last four innings of the game. "He threw the ball well," Acta said. "He had a lot of first-pitch strikes and let our defense do the work for him." That's what the Indians have been preaching throughout camp and what they saw from Carrasco when he tossed four hitless innings against the Rockies and five shutout innings against the Brewers. Until the starting situation is settled, the Indians won't decide how the last three spots in the bullpen will look. It's still possible, for instance, that Laffey could end up in the bullpen if he doesn't land a rotation spot. "I think it's probably going to be the end of next week before that's nailed down," Belcher said.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.