Image: USA Today
Carlos Carrasco came to Cleveland from the Phillies in 2009 as part of the return for the Cliff Lee deal, and he spent his entire major league career with the Tribe. “Cookie,” as he’s affectionately called by Clevelanders, fought through a myriad of injuries throughout his career and bounced willingly back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen in his early years with the team as they labored to find the right fit for him.
It seemed like a match made in heaven
The organization showed rare patience with their pitcher in his youth and unwavering support through his notable leukemia diagnosis.
Carrasco returned the favor by signing multiple team-friendly deals (2015 and 2018) and an unselfish willingness to do whatever the team needed, even returning to the bullpen for the 2019 stretch run just weeks after undergoing cancer treatment.
Then they traded him.
The New York Mets acquired more than just a future hall-of-fame shortstop this winter, they snagged one of Cleveland’s most beloved pitchers as well. Carrasco’s inclusion in the deal was a gut-punch as it came as a bit of a surprise that the team moved on not only from another veteran starter, but a clubhouse leader with deep sentimental attachments to the fanbase and a raconteur’s dream story.
The natural explanation of the decision was financial. Even if his contract is a bargain compared to his presumptive market value, the team did shed almost $35 million by moving their top-two salaries.
It makes sense. The organization that has earned a reputation for developing elite pitching sits on a wealth of young arms (Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie, Logan Allen, Joey Cantillo, Espino, Hankins, etc.), so if there’s a position to deal from to improve the team, pitching is probably it.
And if you’re going to deal a pitcher, you may as well pick the one that makes 20 times more than anyone else in the rotation.
But what if the motives weren’t purely financial?
What if Antonetti and the rest of the front office were carefully setting emotion aside and committing to a principle they’ve been intentional about observing for years now?
In December 2019, the Indians traded Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers. While Kluber was coming off an arm injury that sidelined him for much of the 2019 season, the motives did appear to be primarily financial as the team unloaded his $17.5 million salary.
Kluber pitched one inning for the Rangers.
At last year’s trade deadline the team traded Mike Clevinger and Greg Allen (who was DFA and then traded to the Yankees this offseason, if you didn’t hear) to the San Diego Padres for six players including Josh Naylor. There was the Clevinger/Plesac COVID protocol violation headache, but again the move appeared to be primarily financial as the pitcher’s arbitration number was set to continue growing.
Clevinger pitched 19 innings across four games for the Padres before undergoing Tommy John Surgery that ended his 2020 season and should keep him sidelined for all of 2021.
Carrasco, who is now 33, spent most of early March battling right elbow soreness, which he was optimistic would not be serious enough to keep him off the Opening Day roster. After the pitcher threw a live batting practice in mid-March, an MRI revealed that he had suffered a torn hamstring that will keep him sidelined for 6-8 weeks. He hasn’t even appeared in a Spring Training game for the Mets.
Between Kluber, Carrasco, and Clevinger (who you may not realize is already 30), more than 5200 innings were on those arms when they were traded. The Indians were happy to take what they could get and trade their team-friendly contracts to other clubs so they could sit on their Injured Lists. You can add Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Brad Hand to the list of arms they’ve abused and scrapped as well if you’d like.
Love it or hate it, the Indians don’t like paying 30-year old pitching, and they refuse to trap young pitching talent to do it.
They moved on from the aging guys like Josh Tomlin, Justin Masterson, and Ubaldo Jimenez in favor of the fresher arms of Carrasco, Kluber, Clevinger, etc., and now they’ve moved on from the entire 2016 American League Championship rotation in favor of Bieber, Plesac, Civale, McKenzie, Quantrill, etc.
Of course, one name that’s been glaringly absent thusfar is Trevor Bauer, who delivered the Cincinnati Reds their first ever Cy Young Award after being traded out of Cleveland (the thought of 2020 Bauer and Bieber in the same rotation gives me chills), but in general the strategy has worked out for the Tribe – they’ve gotten out at just the right time.
It goes without saying that no one in Cleveland is rooting against Carlos Carrasco. We wish him a speedy recovery and nothing but the best in New York. But whether it’s just extraordinary luck or underappreciated skill, last week’s reports of the injury-marred start with his new team reaffirmed a Cleveland front office that always seems to know something that other organizations don’t when it comes to pitching.