How the Indians/Guardians Turned a $3K Signing Bonus Into Some of Its Best Ballplayers: A Retrospective, Part 2

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READ PART ONE BY CLICKING HERE!!!

What you’re about to read is part two of a retrospective on a chain of transactions completed by the Cleveland Indians/Guardians organization that has spanned over three decades. The players will be familiar and their stories will be known to most of you, but the sequence of events in itself is remarkable. Even if you know the story, a look back may provide fresh perspective as we now have the benefit of hindsight on the deals that have transpired in this chain of events. I personally enjoyed the nostalgia and that hindsight in looking back over the facts and figures, and I hope you will do the same.

When we last left off, the year was 2009 and the Indians were struggling with a 42-59 record, less than two years removed from the ALCS. Their current core was either injured or about to be priced out of the team’s payroll in the coming off-seasons. To this point in our story, they have turned international free agent signee and his $3000 signing bonus into their ace, then swapped him for their once-star center-fielder Grady Sizemore as well as Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. But given the circumstances, the organization finds itself needing to act.

So the Indians acted. And they acted by trading their reigning Cy Young Award winner in Lee to the Philadelphia Phillies for four minor leaguers: infielder Jason Donald, catcher Lou Marson, and right-handed pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco.

Much like when Colon was dealt, Cleveland fans were up in arms, angry at the team’s retreat despite the writing being on the wall. The crux of their frustration was how a team that was now trading a Cy Young Award winner for a second consecutive season (CC Sabathia was traded the previous year) could possibly expect to compete. Again, being less than two years away from narrowly missing the World Series, the natives were restless. Lee immediately anchoring pitching rotations in the World Series for Philadelphia in 2009 and then again in 2010 for Texas would add further angst over the move. He would make three more All-Star teams and pitch at an ace level through 2013.

For all their heartburn with the fan base, the Indians received three players that earlier that year had been named as top-70 prospects by Baseball America with Carrasco being ranked the highest at #52. Knapp, the only one not listed, was just 18 years old and at A-ball for all of 2009. He would show enough stuff over the course of the summer that he would be ranked as Baseball America’s #64 prospect going into the following year.

Knapp’s story would be short and sweet though. He would pitch only 28 1/3 innings of minor league ball in 2010 and would suffer from multiple shoulder injuries over the next couple of years. The injuries would cause the team to step away from him after the 2012 season. He hadn’t pitched in two years at that point. He’d make a brief return in Texas’s organization in 2014, but would never reach AA ball.

Marson would develop into a perfectly adequate backup catcher over the course of the next couple of seasons. He would bounce between AAA Columbus and the Majors to end 2009 before spending most of 2010 and all of 2011 and 2012 on the Indians’ active roster. He would average appearing in about 79 games per season over those three years and would perform as a solid defensive catcher. His bat though, with a measly slugging percentage of .290 and only four homers over 236 games, would hold him back from being a serious option every day behind the plate (Carlos Santana‘s ascension would also have something to do with it too). Early in the 2013 season, Marson would be involved in a home plate collision and end up on the disabled list with a neck strain. He would subsequently suffer from right shoulder inflammation. Those injuries would be a horrible and unforeseen break in Marson’s baseball career. He would not appear for the Indians again and wouldn’t be tendered a contract in the off-season. He would play in the Reds organization the following year but never again make the Majors.

Donald would make his Major League debut for the Indians in 2010. He would bounce between AAA, the Majors and the disabled list over the course of the next three seasons. Much like Marson, defense was never a problem for Donald, who was comfortable across the infield diamond. Unfortunately, in 170 MLB games, he would have an OPS+ of just 89 with a slash line of .257/.309/.362. He would strike out 145 times with just 34 walks. Donald is probably most famous for his ninth-inning two-out infield single off of Armando Galarraga during Galarraga’s blown-perfect game against the Tigers in Detroit. On a ground ball to first base, the throw to Galarraga covering the bag had clearly beat Donald, but Donald was called safe at first by umpire Jim Joyce. This lone play would be one of the main reasons for MLB’s implementation of replay reviews in future seasons (the best part of the story was the grace both Joyce and Galarraga showed after. Joyce was incredibly forthcoming and apologetic, knowing he blew the call. Galarraga took the scenario and apologized with tremendous dignity). Donald would be traded to Cincinnati following the 2012 season and never played in the Majors again.

The real crown jewel of the Indians’ 2009 trade was the pitcher ranked as a top prospect three times by Baseball America, Carrasco. But even with a great prospect pedigree, things wouldn’t always be rosy regarding Carrasco’s performance for the Indians.

He would debut with the Big League team in ’09 and would spend some more time in the Majors in 2010 but wouldn’t spend the majority of a season in the Majors until 2011. That same year he would require Tommy John surgery and would miss all of 2012. Upon his return, he would be woeful as a starting pitcher. He would be demoted twice during the 2013 season and would have a 9.10 ERA in July at the time of his second demotion. He would spend that second trip in AAA simplifying his mechanics and working on pitching out of the bullpen. Carrasco would actually return to the Majors later in August and make 7 relief appearances only allowing 2 runs.

The Indians would try Carrasco in the rotation again to start 2014, but he would once again struggle, with a 6.46 ERA in five starts. A major complicating factor in his scuffles, early in his career Carrasco would pitch like a hothead. On multiple occasions, there was at least a perception that he was intentionally trying to hit batters if not a full-on intention. On two different occasions, Carrasco faced disciplinary action from the MLB for perceived bean-balling.

But a trip back to the bullpen in 2014 would see him right the ship. Between May and August, Carrasco would make 25 relief appearances and pitch to a 2.40 ERA in 41 1/3 innings. It seemed that his future might be as a prominent reliever. But on August 10th, the team would make the decision to try Carrasco in the starting rotation again. And rather than crumble, Carrasco would persevere. He’d pitch five shutout innings vs. the Yankees and end up making ten starts to end the season, pitching to a mystifying 1.30 ERA, including a complete-game shutout against Houston. He would pitch into the 7th inning on seven different occasions to close the season.

The following season the Indians would sign Carrasco to a contract extension with option years dating through 2019 and 2020 in hopes that the version of him they saw at the end of the previous year would stick. Their hopes would come to fruition.

Carrasco would join what ended up being one of the best starting rotations of their era. Between 2015 and 2018, he would make 117 starts, pitching to a 3.40 ERA and being worth the 7th most WAR of any pitcher over the course of those seasons. He would come away with a 60-36 record and finished 4th in Cy Young voting in 2017.

That ’17 season would arguably be his peak. Carrasco would win a league-leading 18 ballgames with a 3.29 ERA in 32 starts over exactly 200 innings pitched. On four different occasions, he would pitch at least eight innings while only allowing a single run and posted five different games with double-digit strikeouts over the course of the season. He was truly one of the best pitchers in baseball for a team that won more than 100 ball games.

Following a 2018 season that was nearly as good, only a wretched health scare could slow Carrasco down. He would leave the team in June 2019, originally diagnosed with a “blood condition”. That condition would end up being a treatable form of leukemia. He would be away from baseball for a couple of months starting in June, but would actually return to the team in August and pitch out of the bullpen. His on-the-field numbers did suffer on the year, but his story and return were inspiring to the club, fans and people across the game.

Despite his diagnosis the previous year, Carrasco would play during the 2020 COVID season, making all 12 of his starts and returning to his usually dominant self in spite of it all. His 2.91 ERA was actually his best as a starter over the course of a season (although it was a much shorter season).

He may or may not have known it at the time, but that dominant 2020 season would see Carrasco end an exceptional, mercurial and inspiring tenure in Cleveland. Unlike in the cases of Colon and Lee, it wasn’t so much that times were changing for baseball in Cleveland, but one of its other major faces was about to depart.

Carrasco would be included with former star shortstop Francisco Lindor in a trade with the New York Mets during the course of the 2020-2021 off-season. The trade would see Cleveland jettison two of its most appreciated players, but with Lindor in the final year of his contract and no intentions of returning to town at a pay rate Cleveland could afford, the move was in the offing. Carrasco, who was about to be in the final option year of a very team-friendly extension, was certainly used to sweeten the pot.

That pot, or the players the Indians received in return, were infielders Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez. Rosario was a former top prospect who at this point had a couple years of Major League play under his belt. Presumably, he would slot in as an everyday player for the Indians immediately in 2021.

And that, he did. Rosario would have an up-and-down time of it in Cleveland but he would largely be the team’s everyday shortstop throughout his time in town. In 2021 and 2022 he would perform as a slightly above average hitter while being a below average fielder at short. He would lead baseball in triples in 2022, and overall, would use a combination of bat-to-ball skills, and speed to make himself a viable, though not incredible, everyday player. After those two solid seasons, he would struggle more offensively in 2023 before being traded mid-season to the Dodgers for Noah Syndergaard.

Gimenez though, arguably would be and currently is worth the hefty price of the deal. Most notably, the Guardians’ current second baseman was named last season’s Platinum Glove winner as the best defensive player in the entire sport just a couple of months ago. On the offensive side of things, he did struggle offensively in his first season in Cleveland in 2021 and did not spend the entire year in the Majors, but since, has an OPS+ of 118 and a slash-line of .273/.341/.430 in 299 games. Both seasons have seen him steal 20 or more bases and hit 15 or more home runs. He finished 6th in MVP voting in 2022 and is a two-time Gold Glover to go with his platinum. Over the last two seasons, he has hit for better average, better on base, stolen more bases and struck out less often than Lindor while also being worth more Outs Above Average in 2023 alone than Lindor has been over the course of the last two seasons. That’s all to say, Gimenez is a pretty good ballplayer in his own right.

It cannot be certain, but presumably, Cleveland would not have gotten the same haul in the Mets’ deal without including Carrasco. At the time, he was pitching at near ace level while still being on a great contract. The Mets likely saw his value and that easily could have helped them part with a prospect of Gimenez’s caliber.

So maybe it’s not a perfectly direct relationship, but let’s remember where this story started. In 1993, the Indians signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league contract via the use of $3000 and a dream. That $3000 signing bonus would afford the Indians an ace starting pitcher between 1998 and 2002. They would then turn Colon into an MVP candidate in Sizemore (although only briefly) and a Cy Young Award winner in Lee. Lee would then turn into Carrasco, one of the most successful pitchers of the Terry Francona era and the 7th best starter in baseball between ’15 and ’18 by WAR. Carrasco would then partially turn into Cleveland’s everyday shortstop in Rosario, and the best defensive player in the entire sport in Gimenez.

Overall, Cleveland turned a $3000 signing bonus into 106.1 WAR, six All-Stars, four Gold Gloves, one Silver Slugger, one Cy Young Award, one ERA title, one Platinum Glove and one defeat of cancer between three ace-level pitchers, a MVP-level center-fielder and the best defensive player in the entire sport.

And those numbers continue to accumulate. Gimenez is signed on to be a member of the Guardians through 2029 with a club option for 2030. The legacy of June 26th, 1993 continues to this day. The signing of Bartolo Colon, and the chain of events that have come after continue to be a rabbit pulled out of this franchise’s hat. They are yet another example of how Cleveland’s front office has operated brilliantly for more than three decades and why downturns for this ball club should be expected to be fleeting.

The story of baseball in Cleveland is about continued success despite having to do more with less. I can think of few better examples of how this team has found that success than this story that started three decades ago with a single prospect found in the Dominican Republic.

READ PART ONE BY CLICKING HERE!!!

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