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Published: Monday, 2/18/2008

Indians rotation sound, but it depends on Byrd


WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - The depth of the Cleveland Indians rotation played a big role in the team's success last season.

That depth could come in handy again in 2008.

The Indians hope to start the season with C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd in the first four spots. Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey will battle in camp for the fifth spot.

However, that plan could change before camp ends. The Indians are still uncertain if Byrd, who last year during the playoffs admitted to past use of human growth hormone, will be suspended by Major League Baseball.

"We're fortunate to be in the situation we have seven guys who are qualified to start in a major league rotation," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "We're going to prepare with those guys, one through seven, and if anything happens for any reason if one person can't perform in our rotation, we'll have the next guy to go to."

If Byrd is suspended to begin the season, two pitchers from the group of Lee, Sowers and Laffey will make the team.

"We have confidence in each one of them to get the job done when we need them," manager Eric Wedge said.

Indians starters posted a league-best 4.19 ERA last season as Cleveland won the American League Central.

"I think we'll be strong again," said Sabathia, who was 19-7 and won the Cy Young Award. "I'm really excited that we have everybody back."

Carmona, who only stuck with the team early in the season because of injuries to Lee and Westbrook, finished 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA, second-best in the league. Byrd was 15-8, his most wins since 2002. Westbrook had a 6-9 record, but pitched well in the second half.

There's no clear favorite for the fifth spot. A year ago Lee was considered to be one of the Indians' core players, but a rocky season has changed that thinking. The left-hander, who pulled a rib cage muscle early in spring training, was 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA. He was sent to Triple-A Buffalo on July 27. Lee made four relief appearances for the Indians in September and wasn't on the postseason roster.

Lee had his differences with Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis, mostly over how the pitcher used his fastball.

"If he gets people out, I'll be happy," Wedge said.

Lee, who signed a contract extension two years ago that runs through 2009, would be an expensive minor leaguer. He will make $3.75 million this season, but that doesn't matter to Wedge.

"We've got to take who helps us the best," he said.

Sowers, who won seven games in a half-season as a rookie in 2006, took a step back last season, finishing 1-6 with a 6.42 ERA. He was sent to Buffalo in June and wasn't recalled until September.

"He looks stronger," Wedge said. "That's good to see."

Laffey made a quick rise to the majors last season, winning a combined 17 games at Double-A Akron, Buffalo and Cleveland. He was 4-2 with a 4.56 ERA in nine starts with the Indians.

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