Lewis came into camp as a dark horse of sorts, forced to state his case against the experience of Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers and the momentum of a then-healthy David Huff. My prediction at the beginning of camp was for Laffey to tighten his grip on a fifth rotation slot that was essentially his to lose with Huff settling in as the emergency starter in Columbus. I was excited about the prospect of either pitcher making it into the Tribe's rotation this season. Each southpaw features a different set of strengths, with Laffey relying heavily on groundball outs and Huff utilizing precise location and a diverse arsenal of pitches to fool batters.
I thought Laffey held an edge this time because his 143 innings in the Majors alone outpaced that of Huff's entire pro career (214 minor league innings). In a rotation with a rebounding Carmona, a rehabbing Pavano, and the occasionally fragile Reyes, Laffey's unique combination of experience and talent made him a stand-out amongst the youthful rotation candidates. With so much uncertainty in the rotation, Cleveland felt fairly confident in what to expect from Laffey at the highest level of competition. While Laffey has already made his debut, all signs point to Huff being Major League-ready as well.
The only real set-back Huff has experienced since college was an elbow injury that cost him part of the 2007 season. After showing no residual effects from the injury in 2008, Huff continued to tear through opposing batters as he made a smooth transition from Akron to Buffalo in his age 23 season. Huff finished 2008 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 4.93 K/BB over a healthy 145.4 IP, punching his VIP ticket to Goodyear in the process. Clearly, Huff was ready for a new challenge in 2009. Unfortunately, Huff made it through just four innings in exhibition games before being shut down due to tendinitis in his left bicep. With flashbacks to the 2007 elbow issue resurfacing, Cleveland took the cautious route and shut-down the prized lefty for much of camp.
Huff may have missed out on an opportunity to impact the race for the fifth rotation spot, but Terry Pluto reports that Huff was back in action at minor league camp after a quick rebound from the bicep injury. According to Pluto, Huff has been totally locked in at camp, preventing any base runners from to advancing past first base over 12 IP until a Beau Mills tater left the park on Monday.
With Huff making an early exit, the competition came down to Laffey and Scott Lewis. Management was on-board with Laffey from the beginning and made it clear that the job was his to lose. Laffey reflected this sentiment, stating "I have that confidence that it's going to be my spot" entering the second week of March. Laffey had plenty of motivation heading into camp after being demoted to AAA in late July and struggling to regain his footing for the remainder of the 2008 season. He was outstanding in May, tossing 34 innings over five starts with a 0.79 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, but fell apart in June and July with a 6.24 ERA and 1.78 WHIP over 53.3 IP in 10 starts. Elbow tightness supposedly affected Laffey's control, leading to the inconsistent season.
The team tends to focus on many factors when evaluating a pitcher during the pre-season. Given how uneven the whole Spring Training experience is, from the lack of innings to the uneven quality of opposing lineups to the lingering effects of a long off-season, the usual performance stats are given minimal consideration in camp (Wedge claims he doesn't even look at stats during Spring Training). This amplifies the importance of a pitcher's current physical condition, preparation prior to each start, adjustments made on the fly, and composure under pressure along with pitch velocity and movement, control, and a consistent delivery. Even if a pitcher has a poor outing in the box score, the bottom line is the impression made on the coaching staff and general manager.
The lack of substantial innings makes a consistent execution of these things crucial to a pitcher trying to win a spot out of camp. A bad week by one player can provide enough of an opening for the competition to pull ahead. I think a lack of consistency was what cost Laffey the job that he had been favored to win. Even though the overall numbers between Laffey and Lewis are similar, Laffey was more erratic on the mound over those 13 innings. Here's how they compared through March 20:
In the team's opinion, Lewis looked more prepared for the start of the season than Laffey. Maybe Laffey was a little too relaxed in his approach and let a few of his exhibition starts get away from him or maybe a few of his bad habits from last season carried over into camp. Whatever the reason, Lewis out-pitched Laffey in what appears to be a minor upset as far as Spring Training competitions go.
Having Lewis start the season in Cleveland feels more like an extended tryout to me though. It's not so much that Lewis looks better right now, rather the team wants to gain some clarity on how big a role Lewis may play in the future. I haven't seen much to indicate the team is very confident in what to expect out of Lewis over an extended period. This could be their way of filling in some of the gaps on the depth chart by getting a better read on what they have in their rookie pitcher.
A similar scenario has played out in the past with Sowers in 2006. Sowers made his Major League debut against Cincinnati after a late June call-up. While he didn't blow away opposing batters, the then 23-year old was steady over his first 14 starts, compiling a 3.57 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 1.75 K/BB in 88.3 IP. Back-to-back complete game shutouts on the road on July 22 and 28 solidified his role in the starting rotation for the remainder of the season. Sowers started the 2007 season with Cleveland, but fell short of his previous effort with a 6.42 ERA over 13 starts (67.3 IP). He has struggled to secure a permanent starting job with Cleveland ever since.
Like Sowers, Scott Lewis made a splash in his debut, tossing 14 consecutive scoreless innings and winning all four of his starts. Lewis had a bit of a rough go in his final two starts against hard-hitting Detroit and Chicago (10 IP, 14 H, 4 HR, 7 ER), but finished with a 2.62 ERA and 2.50 K/BB ratio. Lewis' September stint in Cleveland no doubt aided his audition in February and March.
There are two key differences between the duel southpaw's debuts (besides a disparate number of starts). First, this isn't 2006 where the Tribe finished in fourth place with a 78-84 record (Todd Hollandsworth started in Sowers' debut, if that tells you anything). This squad is a playoff contender and doesn't have the luxury of testing rookie pitchers in uncharted waters purely for evaluation purposes. If the rookie is the best option on the roster, fine, but most of the starting rotation will already be on a short leash and Lewis should be no exception. Second, this team is loaded with starting pitching depth. If Lewis shows signs of being overwhelmed, fatigued, or unable to make the necessary adjustments Cleveland should make that call to Columbus without hesitation.
I expect Laffey to snap out of whatever mysterious funk he's been in lately and judging by what I've heard thus far, Huff could turn out to be the impact rookie for Cleveland this season (LaPorta or Brantley would have earned this designation if it weren't for the fact that the offense is the least of this team's problems). I still consider Sowers more of a secondary option behind Laffey and Huff, but given his quasi-veteran status and modest improvements from last season he may be higher up on Shapiro's speed-dial than I realize. My point is, Lewis will need to carry that Spring Training mentality into the regular season, since he'll be fighting to keep his job from Day 1.
Decisions made regarding the starting rotation in March may ultimately prove meaningless come June or July. I have a feeling the state of the rotation will remain fluid during the first half of the season as the health and effectiveness of Pavano, Reyes, and Lewis are tested in meaningful games. This could prove to be a blessing or a curse, depending on how the organization's vaunted depth handles the opportunity (think Juan Gonzalez's hammy in 2005). I have no idea what we'll see out of Scott Lewis, but I also know we haven't seen the last of Laffey and Huff this season.
Weather or Worry?
Terry Pluto provided an interesting quote from veteran pitcher Kerry Wood in a recent article addressing the troublesome weather conditions at Goodyear:
Not long after Cliff Lee was spanked for seven runs in five innings Wednesday, Tribe closer Kerry Wood said there are real reasons why pitchers complain it's hard to grip and throw the baseball in Arizona's dry, desert air.
"It sometimes feels like baby powder [is on the ball]," said Wood.
Those words came just after Wood threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning, whiffing two.
Pluto points out that "not every Tribe pitcher has been hit hard this spring," citing the success of Fausto Carmona, Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes, and Jensen Lewis in the desert environment (although Fausto could probably pitch in a snowstorm and still manage to find the the strike zone). Personally, I'm not buying the lack of humidity as a real excuse. The same issue pops up at many West Coast locales and during frigid night games early and late in the season. If a pitcher doesn't know how to deal with the ambient air conditions by now, they're going to run into trouble at some point.
Cliff Lee brushed off the "dry ball" issue as just another excuse, but Scott Lewis...not so much. I'm probably being a bit harsh, but an athlete at that level really needs to be aware of how the environment can affect his performance on the field. High winds blowing the ball towards the fence are one thing; no way to control that. But blaming a wild start on the lack of humidity?
Lewis got jacked up in his last two tune-ups (6.2 IP, 21 H, 15 ER, 6 HR), so hopefully he was able to learn something from those beat-downs beyond "use more rosin." Otherwise, he's going to have a tough time pitching in the cold, dry months of the season.