2014 looks like Carlos Carrasco's last chance to prove he belongs in the Cleveland Indians rotation. After years of failing to live up to the hype, his spring training takes on greater importance than ever. Luckily for the 26-year-old Venezuelan (he'll be 27 come Opening Day), with the Tribe losing Scott Kazmir this offseason and unlikely to retain the services of Ubaldo Jimenez, there's a spot in the rotation that is up for grabs, a spot that has Carrasco's name written all over it.
The battle for the fifth spot is sure to be one of the most intriguing position battles during spring training. There are some who believe Carrasco already has the spot in hand. Does he deserve this assumption? What right does he have over other candidates like Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, and Shaun Marcum? Let's take a look at his numbers.
It's undeniable that Carrasco was horrible as a starter in 2013. He spent 2012 re-habbing from Tommy John surgery, so a certain degree of rustiness was to be expected, but Carrasco had a lot of rust: He finished the season with a 6.75 ERA, and a dreadful 56 ERA+. Those numbers include an impressive run in the bullpen to end the year: After his final start on August 14, Carrasco pitched in relief on 7 occasions, earning a 2.08 ERA over 8.2 effective innings. That run did little to improve his overall numbers though, which were awful.
It's not all doom and gloom though, there are some silver linings to be found. His FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) was 4.10, a dramatic decrease from his 6.75 ERA. With better play from his defense, it's not hard to imagine Carrasco enjoying a better time on the mound. He also had a 50.3% groundball rate last year, in line with his career average (50.4%). The league average usually hovers around 44%, so if our infielders can take advantage of Carrasco's ability to induce daisy cutters, he should experience more success. Last, but not least, Carrasco's BABIP in 2013 was a ridiculously high .364 (league average is normally close to .295). Carrasco should be due a significant regression, leading to an improvement in his stats (Steamer predicts a drop to a more natural .295).
It's clear the organisation still has a lot of faith in the right-hander, and for good reason, given his stuff. His mid-90's fastball can be electric and when he combines it with his devastating changeup, hitters can't enjoy facing him. Over the winter Carrasco tinkered with his arm slot a bit to increase his chances at deceiving hitters, and to improve his overall delivery. Terry Francona sounds upbeat: "I know he's comfortable. He's had a good winter. He's strong. He's excited. It's his time to go show what he can do."
Carrasco's current status with the club is also in his favor: he is currently out of options and would have to clear waivers if the Indians want to demote him to Triple-A. I can't imagine them taking that risk, because there's bound to be at least a few clubs who'd be willing to take a chance on his potential. Therefore he seems almost assured of breaking camp with the Tribe. He'll either achieve his goal of claiming that final spot in the rotation, or he'll be put back to use in the bullpen. That's not necessarily a bad thing given his previous success there, but the rotation is a more significant need for the team.
It's hard to argue with the notion that Carrasco is the front-runner to take the job, despite his troubles last year. Carrasco clearly has the talent to be an MLB starter. If he can master the mental side of the game to go along with his impressive physical capabilities, a lot of the frustration fans have had for him will vanish.
With fellow rotation candidate Shaun Marcum still recovering from a shoulder injury, Carrasco's chances are even better. Now is the time for him to harness his massive potential and provide better results on the field.