While the offseason has been historically slow and the winter has crawled along at an even slower pace, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night look ahead to the warmer days of the 2018 season by remembering Tribe players past and present.
Countdown to Opening day – 59 days
Some obscure names in the history of baseball, with a few cups of coffee between them, occupied the number 59 in Cleveland until Carlos Carrasco made the number mean something to the Indians organization.
It could be Carrasco’s number for at least a couple more years on the shores of Lake Erie, if not longer.
Carrasco ended the 2017 season with a fourth place finish in the American League Cy Young voting. That feat is impressive enough, but it is all the more meaningful when remembering the bumpy road marked by pothole-sized obstacles traveled by the right-hander over the course of his eight seasons at the Major League level.
Expectations have been high for Carrasco since he came to town. The need for a strong return from him were only magnified as the other players acquired alongside him in the 2009 Cliff Lee trade failed to pan out as bona fide MLB players (Lou Marson saw some consistent work behind the plate for the Indians, while Jason Donald served briefly as the team’s utility man and pitcher Jason Knapp was lost early in his pro career to injury). During Carrasco’s first few years in Cleveland, the club failed to see much of a return on its investment in the entire package of prospects, but patience (and lots of it) has led the Indians to a steady number two pitcher in its rotation and one of the better arms in the league today.
Carrasco wrapped up his 2017 season with an 18-6 record with a 3.29 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP. He was tied for the MLB lead in wins for the season with his own personal best, and he established new career highs with 32 starts, an even 200 innings pitched, and 226 strikeouts. It marked the third straight season that he had made at least 25 starts (and he would have had more in 2016 had it not been for a pair of fluke injuries over the course of the season that led to lost time after a hamstring injury covering first base and a broken hand after being struck by a line drive).
Carrasco’s path to the Majors was no easy one and is well chronicled. He was thrust into the big league rotation quickly, debuting with the Indians less than five weeks after being acquired. His numbers in his debut effort that September – which included an 8.87 ERA and a 2.28 WHIP over five starts – left a little something to be desired. He would spend nearly all of the next season at Triple-A, getting another late season call-up, before seeing regular work in 2011. That year, he was shut down in August after an 8-9 record in 21 starts while dealing with an elbow inflammation issue and in September, he underwent Tommy John surgery, losing the rest of that season and all of 2012.
He was back in the rotation in 2013, dealing briefly with some delayed suspension issues that had led to a reputation as a bit of a headhunter and a head case. He split time that season between Columbus and Cleveland, eventually falling into limited work in relief down the stretch while the Indians fell short of advancing in the AL Wild Card game. He started 2014 back in the rotation, even after some suspect numbers in February and March (3-1 record in five starts with a 5.17 ERA, a 1.72 WHIP, and a .338 average against), but those spring struggles carried over into the regular season and he was sent packing for relief work again after losing three of his four starts with a 6.95 ERA in that 22-inning stretch. He would find himself there, working well out of the bullpen, and would later get an opportunity to slide back into the rotation on the insistence of the coaches on the team’s staff. Back in his old role, he would make ten starts in the final two months and would go 5-3 with a 1.30 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP in 69 innings.
The new-look Carrasco has been the one Indians fans have seen more often than not over the course of the last three seasons. He started the 2015 season by signing a long-term team-friendly contract extension, then rewarded his employer’s loyalty by posting a then career-high 14 wins with a 3.63 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 30 starts (including three complete games and one shutout). The season netted him some Cy Young votes, as he finished 13th in the league at season’s end. In 2016, he put up comparable numbers before a late April injury cost him five weeks. The latter injury that season, when he was struck by a line drive off of the bat of Detroit’s Ian Kinsler in the first inning of a mid-September start, may have played a role in the Indians losing in seven games in the World Series, as the injury-depleted and overworked starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin pushed the Chicago Cubs to the limit before finally running out of gas in the final moments of one of the more memorable Fall Classics in recent memory.
Had Carrasco been healthy and in the rotation for the playoffs, it is fair to think the outcome might have changed slightly.
Carrasco, who will turn 31 in the days just before the start of the 2018 regular season, is potentially in the final year of his contract with the Indians, but barring something unbelievably unforeseen, he will be back in town beyond that. The Indians have team options in ink for both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, keeping a key piece of the team’s pitching staff locked in place right in the front of the rotation for several years to come at several below-market price tags, if his performance maintains. As it stands, he will make $8 million in 2018 and could make $9 million in 2019 and $9.5 million in 2020, although those latter two figures may have increased based on his appearance on the Cy Young top-ten list (his contract reportedly has $4 million in escalators based on finishes in the league’s top ten in the annual award).
Carrasco is easily the longest tenured 59 in Indians history, but he is also one of the most successful players to wear it in MLB history. Given where he came from, the hurdles he has jumped, and where his future still may take him, it is a remarkable accomplishment. His ability to stay healthy and in the Tribe’s rotation for the next few years is a key factor in the Indians’ chances of capitalizing during this current window of opportunity, when the organization hopes to bring several more seasons of meaningful October baseball back to Cleveland.
Other players to wear #59 for Cleveland – Kevin Bearse (1990), Jim Thome (1991), Albie Lopez (1993-97), Jason Rakers (1998-99), Mark Watson (2000), Alan Newman (2000), Jason Phillips (2002-03), Alex Herrera (2003), Guillermo Mota (2006), Matt Miller (2004-07), Jon Meloan (2008)
Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images