Carrasco Deal a Calculated Risk for Both Sides

The current Cleveland Indians have taken a page straight from the playbook of former Tribe general manager John Hart. Over the past few years, management has locked up what it feels to be the core and the future of the team with long-term contracts.

As it was in the days of Hart, this tactic is still a gamble for both the player and the team. The player, naturally, is trading in his first couple years of free agency for long-term security. He may miss out on some money of he outperforms the contract. The team takes a risk in signing a young player that he may not live up to potential that has been exhibited in a small window of opportunity.

After spending the weekend hammering out a long-term deal with ace and reigning American Leauge Cy Young Corey Kluber, the Tribe turned its attention to current No. 2 starter Carlos Carrasco.

On Tuesday, a four-year extension worth $22 million with built in incentives and team option years for 2019 and 2020 was announced for Carrasco. If the right-hander pitches anything close to what he did over the final two months of last season, this deal is a steal for the Indians – and the complaints about the deal by Carrasco’s agent and the Major League Baseball Players Association could have some merit.

Carrasco refuted those complaints saying he was happy with the security he was getting in Cleveland. He should be. The Indians are taking a chance in inking a long-term agreement with a guy who has always had the stuff to be successful, but had issue with injuries, command and sometimes a hot temper before the 2014 season.

Where this is a big risk for the Indians is if Carrasco reverts to the guy he was before a demotion to the bullpen at the end of last April.

Carrasco entered last year’s spring training with nothing given. The prior three years had been a roller coaster, to say the least. His 2011 campaign was cut short due to elbow issues followed by the infamous Tommy John surgery. Before going under the knife, Carrasco had seen a mixed bag of results in going 8-9 with a 4.62. He had been suspended once for throwing at a batter and on the verge of a second when he went on the disabled list.

Carrasco, a key part of the 2009 trade that sent 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee to the Phillies, missed all of 2012 following his procedure. Before he could take the mound in 2013, he had to serve an eight game suspension, which made it difficult for the Tribe to call him to the big league roster and be down a man. When he finally got back to the big leagues, it was a bit disastrous. He went 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in 15 games, seven of which were starts. He did not play a major role in Cleveland’s Wild Card qualifying squad.

Carrasco, out of minor league options, was named a starter for the 2014 season. Despite the prior three years, Cleveland feared losing a guy to waivers who was only 27 and had an arm. All he needed to do was get his head right and he could be top-notch starter, was thinking among Tribe management.

Last April was about as much of a disaster as the 2013 campaign. In four starts, Carrasco was 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA. He was demoted to the bullpen at that point. The Indians still wanted to be patient with they young hurler, but not to the degree of having pitch every five days on a team with playoff aspirations.

Suddenly, as a reliever, a light seemed to turn on. Carrasco became nearly unhittable out of the pen. In May, June and July, Carrasco saw his ERA drop more than three runs from the point he was removed from the rotation. That is hard to do on limited innings without truly performing at an elite level.

Due to injuries and struggles from other starters, the Indians finally injected Carrasco into the rotation in August. At the time, it was thought to be a temporary move. Then, he started to pitch even better than he had as a reliever. Start after start, Carrasco was throwing nearly shut-out ball. He took the mound for 10 start over the final two months and was 5-3 with an AL-leading 1.30 ERA over that stretch. Aside from a game in which he gave up four earned runs to Detroit, Carrasco allowed two or less tallies in his other nine starts. He would have gone 9-1 in that stretch with more offense. He and Kluber became a dominant 1-2 punch, as good as any in the game.

Carrasco enters this season as Cleveland’s number two starter. If her performs like a number two starter, $22 million guaranteed is not a lot. He would surely earn the $9 million and $9.5 million that his option years are worth.

The Tribe is banking on Carrasco having turned the corner last season and figuring out how to be a successful Major League pitcher. For a small market team, $22 million is a lot to have on a guy performing at a substandard level. The Indians can’t eat the $8 million owed in his final year that a team like the Yankees or Red Sox could.

Any long term deal with young player is, of course, a risk. The Jason Kipnis contract could blow up in the Tribe’s face if he doesn’t get back on track. A guy like Kipnis, however, did not have the unsuccessful track record of a Carrasco before signing. That is what makes this contract more of a risk – that Carrasco was a mess for almost three years before getting on track.

This is where you have to trust the coaching staff and management. Terry Francona and Chris Antonetti have fairly strong track records in assessing talent. The prevailing though may be why not wait a month and see if Carrasco can get out of the gates strong. At the point it may have made more sense to deal long-term, knowing it was not a one-year or four-month run of good fortune.

Of course, if the team feels Carrasco has exhibited the same stuff in spring training as he did at the end of last year, perhaps they did need to strike while the iron was hot. A strong April might have convinced Carrasco to hold out for more money than he is getting.

It is a gray area. In the end, both sides are taking a chance with this deal. Because of that, you have to call it a good one. For the Indians, if it works out, they are a small market team with as good 1-2 punch as there is in baseball for the next half decade. If it doesn’t work, the rotation could be messy for the time period.

For Cleveland’s sake, lets hope the Indians are correct. It is nice to see them lock up a talented, young core. If it works out, the Indians have a pretty good window of opportunity to contend for at least five more seasons.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

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