New and Improved Carrasco Key in Cleveland Rotation

The 2014 season was hardly what Cleveland Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco would have expected.

For six years, the Indians have been waiting for positive results from one of the pieces acquired in the 2009 trade with Philadelphia that dealt the reigning Cy Young award winning pitcher, left-hander Cliff Lee, to the Phillies for four players.

A half dozen years later, Carrasco is the last piece remaining in the Cleveland organization.

Gone are utility man Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson, who contributed sparingly at the Major League level. Pitching prospect Jason Knapp was unable to climb through the minor league system after injuries derailed a potential career.

Now, Carrasco will be looked to as an integral arm in the Indians rotation after a strong second half reignited some hope that the team still had a useful piece for the future in the 27-year-old.

Carrasco has been anything but steady or reliable, that is, until a trip to the bullpen last season seemed to right the wrongs of the Indians righty.

As has been the case with several pitchers prior, a la Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez, the puzzle pieces that were the mind and psyche of Carrasco were put together by a coaching staff led by Mickey Callaway and Kevin Cash. Callaway has been frequently credited for his efforts in turning around pitchers on the Tribe’s pitching staff, while bullpen coach Cash’s efforts were recognized and rewarded by the Tampa Bay Rays, who named the former Indians staff member as the club’s new manager in December.

The turnaround was a long and bumpy process for Carrasco. He made five starts for the Tribe when they acquired him in 2009 and the results left something to be desired. An 0-4 record with an 8.87 ERA was clouded with an even eleven-walk, eleven-strikeout ratio and six homers allowed in just 22 1/3 innings.

He started the 2010 season in the minor leagues and the numbers looked much better there. In 25 starts, he was 10-6 with a 3.65 ERA. He struck out 133 batters in 150 1/3 innings and contained his walk rate with just 46 free passes in those innings. His home run rate dropped to just one per nine innings. In a seven start span from the end of May to the end of June, he won six of seven games, including a three-hit, eight inning outing against the Rochester Red Wings where he struck out nine batters, a season-high for innings and K’s.

He was called up for the final month of the season and finished 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA. As with the previous season, he allowed six home runs, but in double the number of innings. Even more promising was his control, as he struck out 38 batters and walked 14, including a then career-high nine batters in his final start of the season against the Chicago White Sox.

His 2011 season ended prematurely and on a sour note after an 8-9 start in 21 games. His season was slowed by a pair of trips to the disabled list with pain in his right elbow. The second trip would be the worse of the two as it was determined that, after a seven inning start in Boston on August 3rd, Carrasco would need Tommy John surgery to address an injury that he believed he sustained at the age of 14.

“Carlos told us he hurt his elbow when he was 14 and didn’t throw for six to eight weeks,” then head trainer Lonnie Soloff told the media after the announcement that Carrasco would need surgery. “That was evidenced by the chronic, or old, changes on the MRI. Then just through repetitive throwing over the years, the ligament is not doing the job it should be doing – stabilizing the inside of the elbow.”

Carrasco missed the entire 2012 season while recovering from the procedure.

On top of the injury, surgery, and lengthy rehab, Carrasco also had the pending six-game suspension waiting for him for throwing at the Kansas City Royals’ Billy Butler on July 29th. It was served at the start of the 2013 season, but after a seven-run dismantling at the bats of the New York Yankees on April 9th, he was returned to Columbus. He showed promise with the Clippers, making seven appearances of one earned run or less in his first ten outings, striking out as many as ten on April 20th, but he was not pitching late into games with much regularity.

Despite the somewhat mixed results, Carrasco returned to the Major League roster with the rotation’s loss of Zach McAllister to a right middle finger sprain. His results were more underwhelming than anything, as he was charged with a pair of losses in four starts and twice allowed six runs in an outing. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was just barely over one, and opposing hitters were batting .326 while tagging him to a 6.65 ERA.

He was returned to Columbus but remained on the shuttle back and forth to Cleveland in his final season with options, finally returning for good to the Indians in the second week of August. There, after allowing ten hits in four and one-third innings in his second game back, he was transferred into the bullpen where he stayed for the rest of the season. While being used exclusively in relief, his numbers showed some promise – he struck out seven batters and walked a pair on six hits in eight and two-third innings. He posted a 2.08 ERA and the opposition hit just .194.

Carrasco was part of a bigger mix of rotation possibilities at the start of 2014 and his lack of minor league options remaining almost ensured that he would have a role at the Major League level. The belief seemed to be that he had the stuff to pitch at the MLB level, but was lacking either the confidence or the maturity to handle the role. In his limited bullpen chances, his pitches showed an ability to get batters out, so the likelihood that Carrasco would pass unclaimed through waivers seemed slim.

He was given the number five starter spot out of spring training. Veteran Aaron Harang was released in the final week of spring and eventually landed in Atlanta, where he went 12-12 with a 3.57 ERA in 33 starts. Young pitching option and former first round pick Trevor Bauer, one of the other camp options, was sent to Columbus.

Carrasco did not capitalize. In 22 innings, he allowed 18 runs, 17 of which were earned. He allowed a pair of homers and walked nine while striking out 23. The opposition hit .286.

The Indians had to make a decision – try to designate Carrasco for assignment and hope he passed through waivers unclaimed, or move him to the bullpen and hope that he could work through whatever issues were present and become a contributing piece there.

Management did the latter and the choice paid off. In 26 appearances, Carrasco worked 43 innings and limited the opposition to a .217 average and earned a 2.30 ERA. He struck out 39 batters, walked nine, and allowed just three home runs while earning a 3-1 record and his first MLB save.

The persistence and persuasion of Callaway and Cash on manager Terry Francona were contributing factors in putting Carrasco back into the rotation.

This time, Carrasco did not disappoint. Instead, he took on a role quite similar to another pitcher rebuilt by Indians coaches, Jimenez, and what the former Indians right-hander was able to do in the second half of the 2013 season when Cleveland made its push into the postseason American League Wild Card Game.

It started with a new approach. Indians coaches decided to shorten his pre-game bullpen sessions before each start. After working as a reliever for four months, Carrasco had learned how to warm up quickly and the longer sessions were not needed. He showed that immediately from his first start back in the mix.

On August 10th in New York, he allowed just two hits and no runs in five innings in a win against the Yankees. Two-thirds of his pitches were for strikes. In his next start against Baltimore, he went seven innings, struck out five, threw 72% of his pitches for strikes, and kept the birds off of the scoreboard while limiting them to just three hits. In start three back in the rotation, he allowed one run on two hits in six innings while striking out eight on 67% strikes. In four total August starts, he allowed two runs on eleven hits in 24 2/3 innings with 24 strikeouts and three walks.

September was just as strong, despite a 2-3 record in six starts. He struck out 54 batters to just eight walks in 44 1/3 innings. Three times he struck out ten or more, including a career-high 12 on September 17th in a complete game win against Houston. He earned a 1.62 ERA and allowed a .204 batting average against and just one home run in the month.

After a disastrous starting pitching debut in April, he wrapped up his season with ten more starts, one complete game, 69 innings tossed, 78 strikeouts, eleven walks, a 1.30 ERA, and a .179 batting average against him. A total of 71% of his pitches in that late stint as a starter were for strikes, compared to the 61% from his earlier season time in the role and the 67% tossed during his time as a reliever.

“He’s got so much to be excited about going into the offseason and then into next year,” said Francona following Carrasco’s final start of the season.

“It meant a lot to me. Those two guys trusted me and now I trust myself, too,” said Carrasco about Callaway and Cash following that start. “[Cash] kept telling me go hard and that’s what I’ve done.”

The key for Carrasco moving forward will be to pound the strike zone and to limit the home run ball damage. He will also have to continue his strong 2014 numbers as a starter when facing batters for the third time in a game. Previously, opposing teams had hit .335 against him later in the game, but last season, he limited them to a .128 average.

The stigma that Carrasco was a head case, a pitcher who was battling himself and the big inning more than he was battling opposing hitters, seems to be lifted. This new look Carrasco, rebuilt and confident heading into 2015, will be needed as a big arm in the starting rotation. He looks to slot in to the middle of the mix, joining Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, Bauer, Danny Salazar, and free agent addition Gavin Floyd, along with returning players with outside chances of claiming a spot, Josh Tomlin, T.J. House, and McAllister.

If the Carrasco that ended the season so strong in the starting rotation is the same one to return for the coming campaign, the Indians may have finally received payment on the investment they have made in him over the years.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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