Lee to start season on disabled list

Tribe's Lee to start season on DL

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Indians are going to be counting on their rotation depth a little earlier than they anticipated.

Left-hander Cliff Lee will begin the '07 season on the disabled list, the club announced on Sunday. The strained right abdominal muscle that has kept Lee off the mound the past week and a half has not eased up enough for him to resume throwing, so he'll be shut down for a period of seven to 10 days.

Thanks to that delay, the 28-year-old Lee, even in the best of scenarios, wouldn't be able to complete his preseason throwing program in time to be ready for Opening Day. Head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff said the total rehab program should take four to six weeks.

"It's frustrating watching everybody get ready and I'm left behind a little," Lee said. "But it's something that happened and the only thing I can do is deal with it."

The Indians will deal with it by paying a closer eye to some young arms.

Right-handers Fausto Carmona, Adam Miller and Brian Slocum will be evaluated as potential fifth starters for the remainder of camp, though Carmona has the upper hand, having made seven starts for the Tribe last season.

Lee made all his starts in 2006, just as he had in '04 and '05. His durability was a major factor in the Indians signing him to a three-year, $14 million contract extension last summer.

But Lee felt the abdominal strain early in camp. When he was scratched from his scheduled start on March 2 against the Phillies, the Indians said the injury was not as severe as the lower abdominal strain and sports hernia that cost him the first two months of the '03 season.

For all the frustration it's caused, the injury appears to be more of the nagging variety than anything else.

"If I knew the pain level would stay exactly where it's at, I could probably pitch this way," Lee said. "But with an injury like that, it's probably going to get worse and worse. I need to make sure I get it knocked out of here so that when I pitch it's not an issue."

The hope was that Lee would be able to recover enough to throw a bullpen session on Sunday morning in Winter Haven, Fla., but it was not to be.

"I'll get loose, and it seems like it's fine," Lee said. "But it seems like the more and more I do, it slowly comes on."

For an Indians team looking to rebound from a fourth-place, 78-84 season, this isn't exactly a welcome development. Part of the reason for the Indians' freefall last year was the absence of C.C. Sabathia from the rotation in April because of a strained right oblique muscle.

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Indians manager Eric Wedge acknowledged the news on Lee is a setback, but the Indians saw it coming over the last few days, as the injury lingered.

"Obviously, it's something that's been progressing and we've been keeping an eye on," Wedge said. "It's not a shock because it's been a process. That's why it's so important to have depth."

As for that depth, it begins with Carmona, who started Sunday's Grapefruit League game against the Yankees.

Carmona had eventful '06, starting in place of the injured Sabathia, excelling as a setup man, getting knocked around as a closer and, finally, finishing the year in the rotation. All told, Carmona went 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA in 38 appearances before heading to winter ball to get more innings as a starter.

"Fausto is the front-runner," Wedge said of the open rotation spot, "but he's not locked in. He needs to go and take it."

The 22-year-old Miller, considered by many to be the top prospect in the organization, could take it from him, based on his early performance in camp. Miller has worked five dominant, scoreless innings over three appearances.

But the Indians will be careful not to rush Miller, who has only made one start at Triple-A Buffalo.

"We need to focus on his development," Wedge said of Miller. "We need to weigh everything out, but his development is a priority."

Slocum, 25, made a nice impression on the organization in two starts at the tail end of the '06 season, when he went 0-0 with a 1.80 ERA against the Rangers and Devil Rays. This spring, however, he was held up by a sore left hamstring. He made his first appearance in an exhibition game on Saturday, pitching a scoreless inning against the Reds.

"We still have to make sure he stays on track physically," Wedge said of Slocum.

Now that he knows the abdominal injury will be costing him the start of the season, Lee is going to make sure he makes changes to what he thought was a reliable offseason conditioning program.

"I did pretty much the same thing I have done the last three years," Lee said. "I thought I had a good offseason program figured out, but with this coming up again, there is something I need to do different to prevent this from happening again. I need to make this a learning experience to modify for next offseason."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.