No joke: Laffey’s got a big chance

No joke: Laffey’s got a big chance

The 22-year-old is fighting for the No. 5 spot in Cleveland’s rotation.


WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — Aaron Laffey would like to pretend this spring is just like any other.

But, it isn’t.

Laffey knows this. He’s trying not to let it affect him. The fact remains, however, he is a 22-year-old pitcher who, for the first time, has a chance to win a spot in Cleveland’s starting rotation during spring training.

“It feels a little different — well, a lot different compared to last year when I knew I was going to start out at Akron,” Laffey said. “This has a chance to be a whole different scenario. But it’s different in a good way, to have the opportunity to compete for a big-league job.”

When spring training began, three left-handers were thrown into the competition for the Indians’ No. 5 starter’s role — Laffey, Jeremy Sowers and Cliff Lee. None has thrown with distinction so far this spring. In fact, the three have combined for a 16.76 ERA so far (92‚Ñ3 innings, 18 earned runs).

“All three were impressive at the beginning, and the second time out they all struggled a bit,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “We’re still right where we were at the beginning of spring training. I can’t handicap it. A week from now, somebody’s going to have to take a hold of this thing.”

Laffey hasn’t exactly taken hold so far. He has walked nine in four innings and opposing hitters have a .357 average against him.

“He needs to remember what made him good — working ahead and staying ahead,” Manager Eric Wedge said. “If he gets away from his strengths a little bit and tries to be too fine, he leaves the ball over the plate.”

Laffey’s strength is a sinking fastball, accompanied by a slider and changeup. Those pitches served him well last season, when he began the year at Double-A Akron and ended it in the big-league rotation. He walked only 12 batters in 49 major-league innings, then worked 42‚Ñ3 shutout innings against Boston in the American League Championship Series.

“You have to stick with what you’ve been successful in, and I pitch to contact,” Laffey said. “If I try for 300 strikeouts, it’s going to hurt me. I have to stick with my sinker and slider and the approach I’ve always used.”

The 2003 16th-round draft pick was 4-2 with a 4.56 ERA in nine starts for Cleveland after being called up Aug. 4 when Lee and Sowers struggled. He worked five or more innings in eight of those starts.

Laffey knew it wouldn’t be easy this time around. Teams have compiled scouting reports on him, and opposing hitters have made mental notes.

“I was pleased with how I ended the season,” Laffey said. “I started to get confidence. But, [hitters] make adjustments quickly, and you have to readjust just as quick.

“I can’t be bullheaded. I’m going to have to change some things. But I still need to be myself, because that’s what got me to the big leagues in the first place.”

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