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Cleveland Indians Press Tour: Tribe relying on Westbrook’s battered elbow

Photo courtesy of MCT

Like most of the Cleveland Indians’ roster, the pitching staff is comprised mostly of young players.

But that doesn’t stop Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro from putting pressure on the starting rotation.

“It all depends on how the starting pitching comes together and what they accomplish,” Shapiro said. “If things break right I feel good about this group.”

In order for things to break right the Indians are going to need a big year from the lone veteran in the rotation, Jake Westbrook. Westbrook, who has been plagued by injuries, missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery — elbow ligament replacement — in June 2008.

Due to surgery and other injuries, the right-hander hasn’t been able to complete a full season since 2006, but has proven he can be effective when healthy. Westbrook won 44 games for the Indians from 2004-2006. Finally healthy, the 32-year-old is looking to get back on the mound this season.

“Obviously, Jake has been chomping at the bit to get back,” Indians relief pitcher Jensen Lewis said. “Anytime you can get Westbrook 100 percent healthy, he’s going to be a force.”

The Indians are looking for Westbrook not only to be a force on the field, but also a leader in the clubhouse. First-year Manager Manny Acta believes Westbrook will be just that.

“Jake being healthy is going to be huge as a leader,” Acta said. “It’s easier to lead when you’re healthy and able to pitch and contribute.”

Outside of Westbrook, the Indians don’t have a starting pitcher older than 26. While the staff is very young, it possesses valuable big-league experience. Acta believes now could be the time the young hurlers put it all together.

“We have some guys who started last year and showed some flashes,” Acta said. “They’ve pitched effectively in the past. We’re just looking for more consistency out of them. I think they’re at the right age to take that step forward.”

To help the young starters take that step, the Indians promoted Tim Belcher from within the organization to be the Tribe’s pitching coach.

Lewis has tremendous respect for Belcher, having had previous experience with him.

“I’ve worked with Tim from the minute I got into the organization in 2005,” Lewis said. “He’s a hell of a competitor, very intense and pretty much as go-getter as you’re going to find. I think that he’s really going to help all of us in the staff, both in the rotation and bullpen.”

Acta echoed Lewis’ belief that Belcher will have success in developing the youthful staff.

“I think he can make a difference. Belcher is a guy who has been there and had success,” Acta said. “He’s very smart and already working hard in the offseason to have a plan in order for us to pound the strike zone.”

Acta, like anyone who knows the game, understands the importance of controlling the strike zone.

“We need to throw more strikes. It’s not a coincidence the guys who didn’t pitch as well [had] way too many guys on base,” Acta said.

Fausto Carmona is one of the Indians’ pitchers who struggled to throw strikes last year and tied a career-high with 70 walks. Consequently, Carmona set a career-high in losses with 12 and had a career-worst 6.32 ERA.

The Indians will look for Carmona to bounce back to his 2007 form, when he won 19 games for the Tribe and recorded 137 strikeouts.

“As long as Fausto does what he usually does he’ll be fine,” Lewis said.

Carmona will start the season as the Indians’ second starter behind Westbrook.
The third slot in the rotation looks to belong to Justin Masterson, who the Indians acquired in the Victor Martinez trade last season. In his first two seasons at the big league level Masterson juggled between starting and relieving. This year will be the first time the 24-year-old will have a full offseason to prepare as a starter.

“Justin is a guy who is a tremendous competitor with above average stuff,” Shapiro said. “He wants to start and it’s just a question of repeating his delivery to be able to command the strike zone a little better. I think starting gives him a chance to do that.”

Assuming Masterson adjusts to starting full time, the Indians will have two more spots to fill in the rotation. Those spots could be filled by any combination of David Huff, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot.

The Indians will use spring training to sort through their plethora of young starters. Acta said he expects a couple of the young guns to step up in Arizona, where the Tribe holds spring training. Acta believes if the Indians rotation is solidified, they have a chance to compete in a very balanced central division.

“It’s not a secret,” he said. “All we need is our starting rotation to get in order.”

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