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03/18/10 1:33 AM ET
Carmona's career at a crossroads
Right-hander showing signs of reclaiming 2007 form
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Devoid of tangible evidence, the best you can do is look for signs. The Indians would be crazy to provide unambiguous assurances that Fausto Carmona will return to some semblance of his 2007 form this season. After all, when one examines the body of work turned in by the 26-year-old Carmona in three-plus seasons at the Major League level, his fourth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting that year looks more like the exception than the rule. So you look for signs. The first was Carmona getting through three starts in the Dominican Winter League without walking anybody. The second was Carmona reporting to spring camp and not looking like he had frequented every Taco Bell from here to Santo Domingo. And a few more emerged Wednesday night, when Carmona worked four innings against the Reds in a Cactus League game at Goodyear Ballpark and, after allowing an early run in the first, settled in with his sinker to get ground-ball double plays in the second and fourth innings. "I was keeping the ball down," Carmona said of this latest effort. "I'm looking to throw strikes, get the ball down and make a ground ball. I'm not trying to do too much, just stay calm." One never knows how much value to place on spring performance, and that's especially true in Carmona's case. He might have had a spare tire around his belly when he arrived at the Player Development Complex last year, but his 4-1 record and 2.67 ERA in Cactus League play were hardly tell-tale precursors to all the ugliness that wound up defining his '09 season. All that can be said with certainty is that Carmona looks to be in better shape, after working with a personal trainer over the winter, and he's also in a good frame of mind, showing no ill-effects from an embarrassing demotion to the lowest level of the Minor Leagues last season. "His demeanor has been good," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Physically, he's better than when he got in here last year. But that's not going to be enough." Not with all the Indians have riding on Carmona, both this year and beyond.Signed through 2011, with club options for '12 and '13, Carmona is the only obvious "ace" candidate -- in terms of raw stuff and past performance -- on the current staff, and that's making the admittedly bold assumption that he can reclaim the dominance that made him a 19-game winner three years ago. Carmona was once the guy hand-picked to be CC Sabathia's successor in the ace throne, before Lee's incredible Cy Young season in '08 came as a pleasant surprise to the Tribe. And as the '08 and '09 seasons played out in disappointing fashion for Carmona, the talk of him serving as some sort of ace-in-waiting quickly dissipated. Today, that talk exists not so much as a compliment to Carmona, but as a commentary on the state of the Tribe's starting staff. "I try not to think about that," Carmona said. "I'm thinking about pitching, not Lee and CC." The goal is to get Carmona to not think too much. Because when he lets a situation get the best of him mentally, his mechanics quickly get out of whack. "He's just so big and strong and he cares so much that he gets a little fast," pitching coach Tim Belcher said. "He just needs to be more consistent with his effort level. He's a big, strong guy with great stuff. It's the same thing you tell every pitcher. You just have to harness that energy and make sure you assign the appropriate amount of energy to each pitch so that you can repeat your delivery and throw strikes." The Indians' player development staff actually had to teach a young Carmona how to work opposing hitters and throw pitches out of the strike zone. The obvious punchline is that they taught him very well, because walks have plagued Carmona the past two years. When Carmona put together his stellar '07 season, he befuddled batters with a 97 mph sinking fastball and he walked just 2.6 batters per nine innings. In '08, when he went 8-7 with a 5.44 ERA in 22 starts, he walked 5.2 batters per nine innings. Last year, when he went 5-12 with a 6.34 ERA in 24 starts, he walked five batters per nine innings. In June of last year, the Indians, alarmed by the walk totals and the messy mechanics, demoted Carmona to rookie ball in Arizona. The move was as symbolic as it was strategic. Carmona would essentially have to reinvent himself as a pitcher and do so by climbing his way up the Minor League ladder. "It was a wake-up call," Carmona said. "I did not want to come back to the Minor Leagues. ... I had to [learn to] be steady on the mound and not try to throw 100 mph." By the time Carmona came back to the bigs, two months later, he was no longer relying solely on that sinker, but trying to mix in his slider and changeup more consistently and more effectively. The results after his return were still spotty, as Carmona went 3-6 with a 5.29 ERA and 29 walks in 64 2/3 innings. So the questions about what he can bring to the rotation persist. They'll persist into 2010, as nothing that transpires here in spring camp can completely calm concerns. So you look for signs. And thus far this spring, the good news is that Carmona has shown no serious signs of trouble.
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Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.