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Swinging for the Fences: It's now or never for Carlos Carrasco

Indians still waiting for payoff for Cliff Lee trade

Swinging for the Fences: It's now or never for Carlos Carrasco
January 14, 2014
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Here we are heading into the fifth year since the dreaded Cliff Lee trade. But before we say happy anniversary, let's look at this trade and see how it has panned out.

The Indians got Lou Marson, who was serviceable, but nothing much more than a league-average backup catcher at best. He's now gone in the wake of the Yan Gomes evolution and returned to Philly on a minor league deal.

Jason Donald has versatility and is capable of hitting for a decent average, but likely won't pan out to more than a utility player and the Indians have chosen to go with the veteran Mike Aviles in that capacity. Donald has now signed a minor league deal with the Royals.

Jason Knapp was an intriguing prospect, but injury issues got the better of him and have kept him out of the game since 2010. He's reportedly trying to make a comeback, but given where he was in his development prior to injury, his MLB potential is still very dim.

That leaves the centerpiece of the deal, Carlos Carrasco, who has pitched well for the Tribe at the major league level, but since then has been suspended twice, undergone Tommy John surgery and has struggled to find the groove he once had on the mound again. Heading into spring training, the right-hander will be one several starting pitching options for the currently vacant fifth spot in the rotation, but he could also end up in the bullpen as a long-reliever.

The 26-year-old Venezuelan native was signed as an undrafted free agent in late 2003 by the Phillies. Carrasco pitched in 11 games, including eight starts, for the Phillies' rookie league affiliate and posted a 5-4 record with a 3.56 ERA in 2004.

Carrasco started at the rookie level again in 2005 and was promoted after posting a 1.80 ERA. Unfortunately, he had trouble adjusting to single-A ball posting a combined 1-10 mark with a 10.27 ERA between low-A Batavia and middle-A Lakewood.

Things began to pick up again in 2006 as Carrasco spent the whole year at Lakewood starting in 26 games and going 12-6 with a 2.26 ERA and pitching 159.1 innings, including two complete-game efforts. By the end of the 2006 season and heading into 2007, he was considered the top prospect in the Philles organization and the 41st best prospect in all of baseball.

The right-hander moved up to the next level in 2007 splitting time between high-A Clearwater and AA Reading. His ERA spiked to 3.86 between the two affilliates, but season highlights included a rain-shortened no-hitter in August. Entering the 2008 season, he was said to have the best fastball and changeup in the entire organization.

Carrasco continued his steady incline through the Phillies farm system by pitching at the AA and AAA levels in 2008. He went 9-9 with a 3.69 ERA in 26 games (25 starts) and 151.1 innings of work. He was also selected to his third straight All-Star Futures Game.

In 2009, the Phillies were fresh off a World Series championship in 2008 and weren't looking to slow down anytime soon. Two days prior to the trade deadline, the Phillies on their way to another pennant pulled off a trade for Cy Young winner Cliff Lee of the Tribe. Unfortunately, the cost was Carrasco as well as several lesser prospects.

Carrasco was scuffling at AAA Lehigh Valley in 2009 going 6-9 with a 5.19 ERA in 20 starts. After switching ballclubs, the right-hander improved at AAA Columbus posting a 5-1 record with a 3.19 ERA in six starts earning him a late-season callup. He made his major league debut in Detroit on September 1st giving up six runs on nine hits, including three home runs, in just three innings of work. He made four more starts and finished 0-4 with an ERA of 8.87. The one positive was him picking off three base runners in that span.

Things turned around in 2010 after an encouraging campaign in Columbus of 10-6 with a 3,65 ERA in 25 starts and finishing in the top five in the International League in strikeouts with 133 and becoming the first 10-game winner for the Clippers in five years.

Carrasco received another late-season call-up and this time, he was ready for it. In all seven starts, the team's #7 prospect pitched at least six innings in all seven of his starts and allowed no more than three runs in all but one of them. As the Indians were beginning to establish a new young core of players, they figured Carrasco would be part of it moving forward.

2011 brought about an upstart Indians squad that would surprise the baseball world with a 30-15 start to the season. Carrasco was a key contributor going 8-4 with a 3.90 ERA from April through June, including a six-start stretch in June of 4-2 with a 1.90 ERA. Arm issues had been a recurring issue during the season, however, as he landed on the disabled list for a brief period in late April and early May. He was officially shut down for the remainder of the season in early August with elbow inflammation before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

The 2011 season also revealed something about Carrasco that didn't have to do with his mid-to-upper 90s fastball or elbow inflammation. On July 29 in Kansas City, the right-hander was in the middle of a tailspin going 0-4 with a 7.52 ERA in four previous July starts and unfortunately, this start was no different as he allowed seven earned runs on seven hits, including three home runs, in just 3.1 innings. One of those home runs was a grand slam by Royals outfielder Melky Cabrera. That's where something snapped for Carrasco as he pelted the next batter in Billy Butlerwith a pitch and was immediately ejected. Following the game, Major League Baseball issued a six-game suspension for the right-hander.

Due to his Tommy John surgery, Carrasco was not able to serve out his suspension until the 2013 season. He was called up for the start of the year to serve out his suspension. He also got the chance to make a spot-start in the second home game of the season against the Yankees. Expectations were a bit high due to his first-half performance in 2011 and hopes that he had learned from his suspension. 

Not so fast, in 3.2 innings of work, Carrasco once again gave up seven runs seven hits and served up two home runs. And once again, it appeared that emotions got the better of him as he plunked Kevin Youkilis, earning him another ejection and suspension.

This was enough for the Indians as they optioned him back to Columbus the next day and kept him down there until June. When injuries and inconsistency cropped up in the rotation, Carrasco was eveuntually called up to serve out his new eight-game suspension and make various spot starts. His escapades as a starter were nothing to write home about, though, as he was winless with an ERA of nine. 

Something did click, though, when they moved him to the bullpen in August. As a long-reliever, he appeared in five games and posted a 1.32 ERA in 13.2 innings of work.

Here we are in 2014 and Carlos Carrasco currently figures to be one of the top candidates for the final rotation spot, barring the acquisition of a better starting pitching option. Manager Terry Francona and the Indians front office have expressed interest this offseason in using as a starter. However, he will still have to compete with Trevor Bauer,Josh Tomlin and newly-acquired Shaun Marcum for the job.

So what exactly is the problem with Carrasco and what is standing in his way to become the dominant starter that he was projected to be?

There are several theories and speculations, but generally speaking, the issue still resides between his ears.

By his own admission, the right-hander has allowed mental hurdles to get in his way on the mound as a starter. In other words, he lacks confidence in his talent and ability. He talked about how he would often over-think his pitches and try to add extra deception to what are already quality pitches. Doing so led to more walks, hits and runs.

So what changed between moving from the starting rotation to the bullpen?

Quite simple, actually. The life of a starter and reliever are very different. When you're a starter, you have five days to think about your previous and next start. As a reliever, you don't have any time to think. Unless you're a closer or setup man, your role is not established, meaning you never know when your next appearance will be.

Basically what it comes down to is a pitcher who can pitch well as long as he doesn't think all that much about it.

And how good is the "good stuff" we've heard about since acquiring him in 2009?

Obviously he has velocity on his side as he is capable of throwing as hard as 98 mph. He is also capable of missing bats with his changeup and slider, which he can use his fastball to set up if he locates it properly.

It may also help if he goes back to using his two-seam fastball more often. He only threw a two-seamer 8.6% of the time during his time with the Indians in 2013, a big drop off from the 25.1% in 2011 and 20.4% in 2010, according to Fangraphs. Now, he doesn't get a lot of strikeouts or swings and misses with it, but it may help better set up his slider and changeup if he can throw it for strikes.

The big obstacle still remains in his own mind, though. As good as stuff as he may have, it's almost worthless if he doesn't believe in it. Once he does that, the sky's the limit, but it's easier said than done.

The good news for Carrasco is that he has two great coaches to work with in Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway. Like they did with Ubaldo Jimenez last offseason, they are making Carrasco this year's special project and are hoping to yield similar, if not better results. However, with no remaining minor league options, time is running out.

Jake's Takes

Alex Rodriguez suspended for 2014 regular season and postseason... Like just about every baseball fan, the sooner the A-Rod circus ends, the better. However, since everyone else is talking about it, I may as well throw in my two cents.

First off, the interview of Biogenesis mastermind Tony Bosch on "60 Minutes" left me speechless. The details he provided and the evidence uncovered were just unreal. Of course, there is skepticism to how much of his testimony can be taken at face value due to the fact that Major League Baseball is granting him protection and handling his legal issues. However, an interesting piece of information provided by MLB Chief Operation Officer Rob Manfred saying that despite his numerous public denials he has not gone on legal record with a denial during his appeal and other proceedings thus far does speak volumes.

Second, A-Rod is planning to attend and participate in spring training with the Yankees. If he does, all that says is he is putting himself ahead of the team. Unintentional as it may be, the unwanted scrutiny and distraction from fans and the media that he will bring to camp could end up being very disruptive to spring training activites and possibly detrimental to the team heading into the season.

Finally, news broke on Monday that A-Rod is filing a lawsuit against Major League Baseball as well as the Players Association. Now, I don't know Mr. Rodriguez and don't know his line of thinking behind this, but I am failing to see the logic in not only suing MLB, but also including the players' union in it.

The MLBPA was not thrilled with the arbitrator's decison to only reduce his suspension to 162 games and has not appreciated MLB's conduct during all this, so there may have been a chance of A-Rod successfully reaching out for their support in a lawsuit against MLB. Of course, they were not obligated to support him in any further legal action following his appeal, but he has now cut off any possible future support from them.

In short, Alex Rodriguez has officially become a man without a country.

John Axford was tipping his pitches with the Brewers... This is based on a report formulated and posted by the good folks at Baseball Prospectus, who analyzed the claim by Cardinals coaches that new Indians closer John Axford was tipping off his pitches prior to being traded last season.

I encourage all Tribe fans to give this a read: Baseball Prospectus | BP Unfiltered: John Axford Tips Well

To briefly summarize, the windup for Axford's fastball was much different than his breaking ball. In a side-by-side comparison, the position of his knee and glove in his fastball delivery was shown to be higher than they were when he threw his breaking ball, something that batters could clearly pick up on.

The day after being traded, Cardinals coaches pulled Axford aside to discuss his pitch-tipping issues and immediately begin working on correcting it. In a second side-by-side comparison of Axford's delivery after joining St. Louis, the differences in his windup were much more subtle and harder to pick up on.

Just as a reminder, his ERA after joining the Cardinals dropped to 1.74 compared to the 4.45 mark he had in Milwaukee.

Orioles' health concerns with Grant Balfour revealed... Back in December, the Orioles agreed to terms with top free agent closer Grant Balfour to a multi-year deal pending a physical. The deal then fell apart after unspecified concerns with his physical and both parties ended up going their separate ways.

Initially, it was suspected that a shoulder issue was the concern in the physical, but it was revealed on Monday that concerns about his wrist and knee were the primary reason behind the Orioles abandoning the deal.

I don't know exactly how this affects his free agent value or whether this increases or decreases interest from other teams, but now that it's out in the open, we could see things begin to start moving on his market again in whatever direction it may go. I still say that if a team who needs a closer or another back-end reliever could get a decent bargain for him if they are willing to absorb the risk with his health.

In conclusion...

Personally, I would feel better if the Indians went out and signed another starter like Matt Garza or a reunion with Ubaldo Jimenez, but if that doesn't happen, the re-emergence of Carlos Carrasco as an effective big league starter will be crucial for their success to help replace some of the innings Jimenez and Scott Kazmir gave us last year.

Trevor Bauer and Shaun Marcum are also key candidates to fill that role, but the team has made it clear that if Carrasco is able to make adjustments, he'll be their top guy. It's up to him if he can translate the mindset he had in the bullpen back to the rotation.

The bases are loaded and he's about to throw his payoff pitch...

Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.

User Comments

January 16, 2014 - 1:47 PM EST
Something I found somewhat interesting (though ultimately meaningless)...

ZiPS 2014 projections for the Indians have Carlos Carrasco's #1 Mickey Callaway...
January 14, 2014 - 11:22 PM EST
The trade does still hurt. The fact Lee was traded when he was still under contract for the following year and we got crap in return is mind boggling. He wasn't just a 6 week rent a player. There was no urgency to trade him.
Bush falling in the woods
January 14, 2014 - 3:46 PM EST
Carrasco made that five-start stretch with a .92 ERA. Does anyone care that he sucked for the next month prior to getting hurt? It was 6 or 7 starts. He's been average to below average before and after. Whoever says he's got dominant stuff has no credibility. Krate nothing special. Walk rate nothing special.
January 14, 2014 - 3:36 PM EST
They need to drag out the film of those six consecutive starts in June, 2011 when he had a 1.90 ERA. He was kicking butt that month until his arm gave out. If he can get back to that point, his confidence won't be a problem because he'll be blowing everybody away.
January 14, 2014 - 3:25 PM EST
This is the year we find out if Carrasco finally lives up to his potential or he becomes a journeyman major leaguer. This will be a tougher challenge for Callaway since he will be dealing with Carrasco mind not his mechanics like he had to with Jimenez. If Carrasco does get his head right and becomes a confident pitcher look out.
January 14, 2014 - 2:33 PM EST
@World Class

Yeah, I think a lot of people forget that Knapp was actually the highest rated prospect the Tribe got at the time of the deal. Carrasco was rated higher when the year started but his stock was on the decline (same with Marson and Donald). Definitely isn't looking like one of Shapiro's finer trades in any case...
January 14, 2014 - 2:20 PM EST
If this guys finds his command and gets consistent starts, I think he'll be the ace of the staff before long. His stuff is DOMINANT
January 14, 2014 - 2:12 PM EST
Carrasco had a heck of a run in June-July 2011 before having TJ surgery, the Billy Butler incident notwithstanding. And I'll give him a mulligan for 2013 because command is the last thing that comes back after TJ. If anything, he proved he still has the stuff and velocity.
World class beef soda
January 14, 2014 - 1:18 PM EST
I take exception to this quote" the Phillies on their way to another pennant pulled off a trade for Cy Young winner Cliff Lee of the Tribe. Unfortunately, the cost was Carrasco as well as several lesser prospects.".... Knapp was the prize of this trade. Carrasco was the secondary "good" piece...
January 14, 2014 - 12:39 PM EST
Jake, every week you spend about 1,000 words going over the career narrative of whatever player you choose to write about. You're a good writer and you might be able to get more out of your talents if you skip over this fluff. Most of us already know a lot of these details anyhow, and there's certainly no need to go over every single thing that a player has done since he started playing. That's what bio pages are for. Just my two cents. I want you to harness your talents toward greater things. Look at me as the peanut butter to your fluff.
January 14, 2014 - 12:01 PM EST
I have said this before- Carrasco is emotionally volatile and has trouble thinking and game-planning as a starter. He is subject to coming undone when he focuses on anything but the next pitch and a nine inning game w 4 days between starts is too much imagination time for him. They need to try to develop him into a one batter, one pitch at a time closer or set up guy or trade him while he still has an arm and some stuff that are attractive. Maybe w Ubaldo gone, Callaway can spend more time w him. They're both big strong guys w live arms and BFS- brain fart syndrome. As Yogi Berra said " 50% of pitching is mental and the other 50% is in your head" That's why I feel better w Josh Tomlin on the mound than Carlos Carrasco.
January 14, 2014 - 10:22 AM EST
That trade still hurts. My biggest issue was that Knapp was injured. We took the Phillies' word for it that it was a bicep injury but it turned out to be a shoulder........I would never trade for a hurler that has the inverted-W that has had shoulder issues....never (okay maybe as a thow-in but Knapp was a primary part of that trade).

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