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Position Battles: Indians Rotation

Over the next week, I am going to run a series of “Position Battles” articles, examining some of the more intriguing fights for everyday jobs that will be taking place during spring training. So far, here’s the list:

-Cleveland’s rotation
-Washington’s OF/1B glut
-Yankees’ CF job
-Minnesota’s OF
-Cubs’ 5th starter
-Mets’ fifth starter
-White Sox’ 2B

If there are any other position battles that you would like me to take a look at, please feel free to suggest them in the comments section.

Today, we’re going to kick things off with the back of the Cleveland Indians’ rotation. Despite the immaculate campaign turned in by lefty Cliff Lee (2.83 FIP, 5/1 K/BB ratio), the Tribe’s starting corps was a middle-of-the-pack outlet in 2008. Cleveland’s starters ranked 8th in the American League in team FIP (4.30), as ’07 ace Fausto Carmona dealt with injuries and a subsequent loss of command, and dependable mid-rotation cog Jake Westbrook fell victim to Tommy John surgery.

The Indians posted 84 third-order wins in ’08 in an AL Central Division where the highest total was Chicago’s 88. With no team in the Central appearing to have a clear upper hand, Cleveland might just be the favorites to snag a division title at this point: Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects an 83-79 season for the club, without another AL Central team reaching the .500 mark. If the Tribe are going to get back to October baseball, they will need to conjure up a suitable back of the rotation from a list that offers quantity, but varying quality.

As things currently stand, Lee and Carmona are the only starters who can be marked down in permanent ink. The third man, according to Cleveland’s official depth chart, is none other the Carl Pavano (assuming he hasn’t been injured since the end of this sentence). The much-maligned former Yankee inked a one-year, $1.5 million deal this winter, with over $5M in possible incentives. The last time Pavano threw 100 innings (heck, the last time he threw more than 34 innings) was 2005. The 33 year-old made 7 starts for the Bombers last year, posting a 5.37 FIP. Pavano has never been a high-strikeout hurler (career 5.75 K/9), but he fanned less than four batters per nine innings in 2008. His fastball velocity, about 90 MPH in prior years, was down to 88 MPH. Even if Pavano is physically sound (no sure bet, obviously), you’ll probably want to look elsewhere for rotation help.

Former Cardinals golden boy Anthony Reyes is currently penciled into the fourth slot. The former USC product, acquired last summer for reliever Luis Perdomo, has a sustained track record of success in the minors but has thus far failed to stay out of the trainer’s room. Reyes punched out 9.46 batters per nine innings in the minors, walking a solid 2.15 per nine as well. The problems for Reyes seem to be two-fold: one, he seemingly prefers to work up in the zone with his 90 MPH heater, which can lead to some souvenirs being deposited in the bleachers (1.38 HR/9 in his major league career). There’s no way to know for sure, but some have suggested that Reyes’ falling out with St. Louis’ pitching coach Dave Duncan stemmed from Duncan’s preference for a two-seamer while Reyes preferred to continue using the four-seamer.

The flat-billed, high-socked 27 year-old also has a delivery that some believe is detrimental to his long-term health. Via Driveline Mechanics, here’s Kyle Boddy’s take on Reyes’ mechanics:

“As you can plainly see (I slowed it down to make sure), Reyes still gets his elbow way up there in hyperabduction and takes his elbow well behind the acromial line in forced horizontal shoulder abduction. What I didn’t notice before is a bad grab (tension in the wrist) and an absolutely terrible followthrough – look how he slams the brakes on his arm after he releases it!”

Reyes’ delivery puts an undue amount of stress on his shoulder and elbow. Boddy then goes on to list the litany of injuries that Reyes has endured:

“2004: Missed two months to shoulder tendinitis.
2005: Missed two weeks to a sprained acromioclavicular (AC) joint.
Mid-2008: Missed two weeks with an elbow injury.
Late 2008: Missed the rest of the regular season with an elbow injury. “

Reyes is someone to keep an eye on, but his homer-happy tendencies and lengthy injury history may preclude him from ever making good on the promise he showed as a Cardinals farm hand.

Left-hander Aaron Laffey currently fills the fifth spot for the Tribe. 24 in April, Laffey blows no one away with his stuff: the 2003 16th-rounder threw his fastball at an average velocity of 86.6 MPH in 2008, supplementing the modest sinker with a high-70’s slider and low-80’s changeup. In 25 careers starts between the ’07 and ’08 seasons, Laffey has posted a 4.48 FIP, relying on good control (2.71 BB/9) and groundball tendencies (54.9 GB%) to counteract few missed bats (4.28 K/9).

Earlier this offseason, Peter Bendix put Laffey under the microscope and concluded that the 6-0, 185 pounder could be an adequate solution in the back of a fantasy rotation. A guy who puts the ball in play as often as Laffey is no sure thing, but his control/groundball combo makes the low K rate a little easier to swallow. Keep an eye on Cleveland’s infield situation: a worm-killer like Laffey would benefit most if new Indian Mark DeRosa were installed at second, shifting plus defender Asdrubal Cabrera to shortstop and Jhonny Peralta to third.

A southpaw plucked out of UCLA in 1st round of the 2006 draft, David Huff might possess the most long-term potential of Cleveland’s plethora of back-rotation candidates. Huff is fresh off a 2008 season in which he tore through AA and AAA, and he’s knocking on the door step of the big leagues. With Akron (AA), the 6-2 lefty punched out 62 batters in 65.2 innings (8.5 K/9), also showcasing sharp control with 1.92 BB/9. Bumped up to Buffalo, Huff owned the International League, striking out 9.04 hitters per nine innings with 1.67 BB/9. The former Bruin doesn’t quite have the knock-out scouting reports to go with those superb numbers, but his stuff is quite solid: per Baseball America, Huff supplements an 87-92 MPH fastball with a plus changeup, an improved slider and the occasional curveball.

Jeremy Sowers might be the most familiar name on this list, though his chances of cracking the starting rotation appear quite grim. The finesse lefty has posted a FIP in excess of five in the big leagues in ’07 and ’08, and even his 2006 showing that got people talking (3.57 ERA) produced just a 4.57 FIP. Sowers is basically Aaron Laffey without the groundballs. At best, he’s an adequate fifth starter in the majors.

Like Sowers (Vanderbilt), Scott Lewis is a southpaw out of a major college program (Ohio State). Despite rather modest stuff (mid-80’s fastball, mid-70’s slider, low-70’s curve, high-70’s change), Lewis has posted some wacky minor league stats. The former Buckeye struck out about 7.5 batters per nine innings between AA and AAA last season, walking scarcely a batter per nine to boot. Before you get too excited, do keep in mind the aforementioned scouting reports, his health history (Tommy John surgery, biceps tendinitis) and Lewis’ flyball tendencies. I took a gander at Lewis earlier this offseason:

“So, what can we expect of Lewis in 2009 and beyond? His minor league track record is quite good, but we are also talking about a guy who throws 87 MPH on a good day, with flyball tendencies to boot. Will hitters continue to flail at Lewis’ changeup, or will they learn to lay off of it and make him use his mild heater? Will the home run bug bite him at the highest level of competition? Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system offered an eclectic mix of possible outcomes for Lewis’ career before last season. Among Lewis’ most comparable players were Ted Lilly and Randy Wolf on the positive side, and Casey Fossum on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s probably best to take a wait-and-see approach with Lewis in 2009. Finesse, flyball lefties generally don’t fare well in the DH league.”

Zach Jackson, yet another lefty, is an ostensible candidate for a starting job. However, you probably want to avoid this one: an extra chip tossed in to the CC Sabathia deal, Jackson has posted a FIP around 4.50 over the past few years in AAA, with few K’s and just average control.

Some of you are probably wondering, “where’s Adam Miller?” For pragmatic reasons, I decided to not include him. Everyone knows the drill with Miller by now: blistering, mid-90’s heat, a devastating slider and a maddening propensity to get hurt: elbow and finger maladies limited Miller to 65.1 innings in 2007 and just 28.2 frames in 2008. Cleveland seems intent on keeping the 24 year-old in the bullpen as a means of self-preservation. If healthy, Miller could become dominant in a late-inning role.

Overall, the Indians have a bunch of contenders for those last three spots, though just how many quality options the club possesses remains to be seen. While a few of these guys might end up in the bullpen or AAA for the time being, it’s possible that most will see significant action, given the injury concerns with Pavano and Reyes. If Cleveland is to return to the postseason in a wide-open division, they’ll need a few of these guys to step up and provide value behind Lee and Carmona.