Earlier this month, Carlos Carrasco was nominated for baseball’s Roberto Clemente award. The nominees are chosen based on this criteria – who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” Carrasco has a long list of charitable endeavors, and by all accounts is a great teammate and a great guy; this nomination is very deserved. (And winning the award would be as well).
But this nomination also got me thinking about how Carrasco has evolved over the years, both as a person and a player. And I think that we, as fans, have evolved in how we discuss/perceive him as well. So I dug up some old articles on Carrasco, both from IPL and other sources. Since we’ve only existed since 2011, we obviously weren’t around when Carrasco first came to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee deal in 2009. But we were around to discuss him during some of his rockier years, that included suspensions and Tommy John surgery.
The Indians traded reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies at the 2009 trade deadline. In return, they received Carrasco (at Triple-A at the time), Lou Marson, Jason Donald, and Jason Knapp. At the time, Jayson Stark said “the Phillies weren’t required to give up pitcher J.A. Happ or the three prospects they balked at trading for Roy Halladay, outfielders Domonic Brown and Michael Taylor and pitcher Kyle Drabek.” The Phillies eventually would trade for Halladay, but none of those “top prospects” they held onto in the Cliff Lee deal became superstars. The centerpiece of the deal was supposedly Jason Knapp, who had shoulder issues and eventually retired as a minor leaguer.
At the time, it looked like the deal was a bust for the Tribe. Knapp was hurt, and Donald and Marson weren’t going to be stars. Carrasco was more of a question mark, but didn’t seem to be bowling anyone over at that point. At the time, I remember that I wasn’t necessary angry about Lee being traded. I understood the dynamics of a small market team, and that the Indians could replenish their farm system by dealing a player with a year and a half of control remaining. What made me more angry – I figured that there had to be a better deal out there for someone of Lee’s caliber. (And I was also a little miffed that years of bad drafts left the farm system less than stocked).
I fully believed, for several years, that this deal would end up being a bust. That they ended up surrendering Cliff Lee for a bag of magic beans, essentially. It started to look like Carrasco may end up being a serviceable major league pitcher though. He had some decent outings in 2011, although command was definitely an issue with him. However, that season would end badly for Carrasco for a number of reasons.
On July 29 in a game against the Kansas City Royals, Carrasco threw at the head of Royals hitter Billy Butler during the fourth inning. He received an ejection for the incident, as well as a six-game suspension. Granted, the pitch could have been an accident; however, it came immediately after Carrasco surrendered a grand slam to Melky Cabrera. (And he also surrendered a home run to Butler in the first inning of the game). Carrasco made one more start after this (he was appealing the suspension), before going on the DL with elbow inflammation. By early September, his season would end as he underwent Tommy John surgery. He would still need to serve his suspension once he returned from surgery.
I hadn’t written much at the time about the Carrasco incident, probably because I felt pretty dejected by that point. A season that was surprisingly promising earlier in the summer was slowly slipping away. I actually wrote this line about the Indians after the Royals series: “Where do they even go from here? This slump stopped being a rut in the road a few weeks ago – now it’s a sinkhole that just swallowed a house and a few cars.” I went on to add this bit about the Carrasco incident: “One thing that should be done immediately, regardless of a trade – Carlos Carrasco should be removed from the rotation and sent to Columbus. He’s been extremely inconsistent this season, and downright lousy in the month of July. While Kansas City has a respectable offense, I heard that most of his pitches were right out over the center of the plate tonight. Why would you throw at someone’s head (like he did with Billy Butler) when you’re all but placing the ball on a batting tee in front of them? I think he needs to go away to work on his mechanics and to cool off a little.” He obviously had plenty of time to cool off after the elbow injury.
By 2013 Carrasco was ready to return with a relatively clean slate – a brand new elbow ligament and a year and a half to mature and put the past incident behind him. He still had to serve part of the suspension, but the Indians had found a way to juggle that so it caused the least harm to the team. He was on the active roster at the beginning of the season, but not penciled into a spot in the rotation. That way he could get the suspension out of the way, and head to Triple-A Columbus to start the season. After an injury to Scott Kazmir shelved him for a brief time, Carrasco was forced to step into the rotation at the completion of his suspension.
On Tuesday, April 9 in what eventually was a 14-1 loss to the Yankees, Carrasco threw at Kevin Youkilis. It all started with two out in the fourth inning (what is it with the fourth?) when Carrasco gave up a 2-run home run to Robinson Cano to make the score 7-0 New York. The next batter was Youkilis, and Carrasco threw high and tight to hit him on the left shoulder. He was ejected from the game, and eventually given an 8-game suspension. Carrasco swore repeatedly that it was not intentional, that the pitch honestly got away from him. This may have been the truth, but with his recent track record he was never going to get the benefit of the doubt. Even though the Indians sent him back to Triple-A after the outing, they now were stuck with trying to find a way to get him to serve his suspension before he was eligible to pitch again in the majors.
At the time, this is what I had to say about Carrasco and his spot with the team early in the 2013 season: “I’m not sure what this all means for Carrasco, at least in terms of his season with the major league club at this point. The Indians played short staffed to get his five game suspension out of the way; I can’t imagine them making that sacrifice again any time soon. What if there are injuries to current pitchers on the staff? What if Carrasco starts dominating in Columbus, and could really help the club? They’ll have to bring him up to sit for at least eight games. And if they’re not buying his “accident” claims, they’d have to worry that he still wouldn’t be able to control his temper if he got knocked around up in Cleveland. It’s a shame too; while I think he needs a bit more time in the minors at this point, I still think that Carrasco has good stuff. It’s a shame that his temper is directly interfering with his ability to perform on the mound.”
Carrasco did return in August of 2013, but pitched primarily out of the bullpen. His one start didn’t go that well (4.1 IP, 4 runs on 10 hits), but he had a 1.32 ERA as a reliever in 13.2 IP. Granted, it was a small sample size, but it definitely showed that he had the ability to pitch well. (And the ability to pitch without earning an ejection and a suspension). Carrasco would bounce between the rotation and the bullpen in 2014, but with much different (and better) results overall.
In 2014, Carrasco started the season in the rotation, and did not pitch well. He was moved back to the bullpen at the end of April, and again pitched well in relief. In early August the Indians moved him back to the rotation. Instead of falling apart (as he’d done with the prior move back to the rotation) he pitched well and established himself as part of the rotation. He had a breakout year in 2015, including pitching a game against Tampa in which he came within one out of a no-hitter. And when that no-hitter was broken up in the ninth inning, Carrasco laughed and seemed to thoroughly be enjoying himself. He was just happy to have come so close; surprising considering the serious discussions people had about his attitude just a few years prior. This definitely did not look like a man with any kind of anger or resentment when things didn’t go his way.
Over the past five years, Carrasco has gone from someone viewed as a hot head that can’t control his temper, to someone now seen as an even-keeled, reliable part of the starting rotation. There was ample discussion that he was a bust, that the Cliff Lee trade was completely worthless and that Carrasco was someone that would never be a core part of the Indians’ roster. It’s amazing how far he’s come as a player over the past several years, and how much our views of him have changed. If you would’ve asked any fan at the beginning of the 2013 season whether or not they thought Carrasco would be a key part of the rotation, and whether or not he’d be nominated for the prestigious Clemente award, they probably would’ve thought that you were talking about a different player.
I think this is a great example on why you shouldn’t give up on a talented player, and why we as fans should be willing to give someone a second chance when they make a mistake. If the Indians would’ve released Carrasco after all of these problems, if fans would’ve been hostile toward his return, he’d be having this success somewhere else. Instead, we have the benefit of seeing his resurgence both on and off the mound.