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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 59
It may not seem like it, but the number 59 has made annual visits to the homes of the Cleveland Indians for all but two seasons since 1990. While most of the 13 names may be largely forgettable (who remembers Kevin Bearse, Mark Watson, or Winston Abreu?), the number did hang in the locker of Jim Thome in 1991 and Albie Lopez from 1993 to 1997.
But the most recent and longest tenured wearer of 59 has been current Indians starter Carlos Carrasco, who broke into the Majors with it in 2009 and has remained in it ever since.
Carrasco’s difficult path to becoming a top starting pitcher in the game is well chronicled. His move from the Philadelphia Phillies organization to that of the Indians in the 2009 Cliff Lee trade put him in a position of having to salvage a deal that not only felt unnecessary at the time, but left Cleveland with very little in return for a reigning Cy Young pitcher. Jason Knapp was lost to injury, Lou Marson’s bat failed to catch up to Major League pitching, and Jason Donald was just briefly a Major League caliber utility player.
As if a little extra pressure wasn’t enough, Carrasco had early struggles adjusting to the big league game. He posted an 8.87 ERA and a 2.28 WHIP in five starts during his debut year in 2009. He spent much of the following season in the minors, getting a September call-up, and in his first real test in the Majors in 2011, he went 8-9 in 21 starts before elbow inflammation shut him down in August. Tommy John surgery followed in September, spoiling the end of his first full season and all of the 2012 campaign. He also dealt with fears that he was a head case and a head hunter after an ejection for throwing at Kansas City’s Billy Butler.
His return in 2013 was split between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland and in 2014, his ineffectiveness in the starting rotation led to a banishment to the bullpen. That stint in baseball purgatory may have been the best thing for Carrasco, as he later got an opportunity to return to the rotation at the end of the season and looked significantly better. He has maintained his new found success back in that role since and now enters the prime years of his career while locked up with the team through at least the completion of the 2018 season and possibly the two years to follow, if his team friendly team options are picked up.
He made a career-high 30 starts in 2015, posting a 3.63 ERA and 1.07 WHIP while striking out a career-high 10.6 batters per nine innings (216 for the season). He followed it up last season with an 11-8 record, a 3.32 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP, but lost time early in the season with a strained left hamstring. His season ended prematurely at 25 starts when in September he was struck in his pitching hand by a line drive, dealing a devastating blow to the Indians’ postseason rotation.
While the Indians took their playoff run to the final game of the World Series, one can only wonder how much different the results might have been had Carrasco been following Corey Kluber to give Cleveland a lethal one-two punch at the top of their rotation. Utilizing Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer as the starters on the postseason staff proved to be serviceable, but neither would have instilled the fear that Carrasco (nor his fellow injured starter Danny Salazar) could have put into opposing hitters.
Had Carrasco been healthy all season, he was on pace to set a new career-high for innings pitched and would have been knocking down the door for a second consecutive 200-strikeout season. Even with his reduced efforts, the Indians got their money’s worth on the $4.5 million that they paid him for 2016.
A Cleveland rotation able to get a full and healthy season from Carrasco should be in a solid position to defend its American League title and get a second chance at a World Series championship with Terry Francona at the helm.
Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images