One of Cleveland baseball’s best pitchers of the last decade will be returning to the Guardians’ organization. Carlos Carrasco made it official on Thursday when he formally signed his minor league contract.
Cookie Carrasco’s history with the team is one with some downs but mostly ups. Most notably, he was a staple of the Indians’ rotation between 2015 and 2018 where he pitched well enough to be worth the 7th most Wins Above Replacement of any pitcher in the game during those seasons. I actually recently wrote at greater depth about Carrasco’s tenure with Cleveland in my post about Bartolo Colon and the transactions that followed Colon’s time with the team. In short summation though, starting pitching was a hallmark of those very successful mid-2010s Indians teams, and Carrasco was a main contributor to that success.
After being traded in the Francisco Lindor trade after the 2020 season, Carrasco spent the last three seasons with the New York Mets. Unfortunately, a decent 2022 season (3.97 ERA in 29 starts) was sandwiched by two seasons riddled with injuries and ineffectiveness. Carrasco’s ERA was above 6 in both 2021 and 2023 and he only made about half the starts you would expect out of a every-fifth-day starter over those two seasons.
Still, Carrasco is coming home to an organization with which he is greatly familiar. Injuries were certainly a factor in what caused Carrasco’s struggles in the Big Apple and it stands to reason that he has a clean bill of health going into 2024. He will turn 37 years old before the season starts, so I would not expect the lights out version of Cookie we saw when he was sharing a rotation with Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin nearly a decade ago, but there is decent reason to believe Carrasco can still be an effective Major League pitcher.
The Guardians must think so too, as his contract included an invitation to Major League Spring Training. If Carrasco ends up making the roster, he will make a base salary of $2 million with incentives going up to another $2 million depending on how many games he starts.
How Could Carrasco Make the Roster?
So, what are Cookie’s chances of breaking camp with the big league club? The truth is, if Carrasco makes the team it will likely be because Guardians fans received some other form of bad news over the course of Spring Training.
Pitchers and catchers do not report for a little more than a week, but even now, the individuals that will make up the Guardians rotation are seemingly a known entity. Some form of Bieber-McKenzie-Bibee-Williams-Allen looks to be Stephen Vogt’s starting five.
Of course, injuries are always a factor. Last season was a perfect example as Triston McKenzie did not make it through Spring Training without injury and missed most of the season. Aaron Civale also missed time in Goodyear and although he started the Guardians’ home opener last season he would immediately go on the Injured List after the game. Carrasco will likely compete with the likes of Xzavion Curry, Hunter Gaddis and other Spring Training Invitees like Jaime Barria to be the next man up in case of injury.
Changes to the roster such as trades could also be a factor that would cause an opening in the rotation and rumors have swirled around a particular ace starting pitcher now for many months. If a team were to impress the Guardians with a trade offer for Shane Bieber, then another possible pathway to the Majors for Carrasco would be in order to fill the spot left behind by Bieber’s departure. In the event of such a trade, 26-year old McKenzie would become the elder statesman of the Guardians’ rotation unless Carrasco is promoted. The Guardians could potentially opt for Cookie over younger options like Curry and Gaddis just for the sake of veteran leadership. They did employ players like Noah Syndergaard and Kole Calhoun last season for similar reasons.
Carrasco does also have a history of pitching out of the bullpen at different times in his career. Not having to depend on him for as many outs might allow him to pitch at higher effort and simplify his pitch mix.
Why Wouldn’t Carrasco Make the Roster?
While I certainly don’t want to root against him, I think it is more likely that Carrasco does not make the team when they break camp.
Based on last year’s performance, Curry is likely the first option to fill a hole caused by injury or ineffectiveness in either the starting rotation or bullpen. With an above average 4.07 ERA while showing flexibility in a variety of roles that season, unless Curry has a poor spring, he has likely earned that first shot.
Additionally, as we get closer and closer to the start of a new season, I find it increasingly likely that Bieber will remain a member of the Cleveland Guardians, at least until the trade deadline. Between diminished velocity and injury problems, the last couple of years have been a perfect environment to zap Bieber of his excess trade value. For the Guardians to trade him right now, even with a full season of control (as opposed to half season at the deadline) would likely be selling him low. They should probably allow him to prove himself early this year both to allow the Guardians a chance to compete in 2024 as well as to increase Bieber’s value.
And while Carrasco has a history of pitching out of the bullpen, very little in his splits or Statcast profile suggest shortening his outings would have an out-sized impact on his success. His ERA during the first two innings last season was 6.58 and his fastball, which he would likely need to rely on along with a single secondary pitch as a reliever, has had negative run value for the last three seasons. Batters hit .352 on his 4-seamer last season.
So, What Happens If Carrasco Doesn’t Make the Opening Day Roster?
Carrasco very well could pitch effectively this spring and through no fault of his own performance, end up getting log-jammed behind the other guys in the Guardians’ rotation. Having made a significant amount of money and being at the back end of his career, I question whether he will really want to play deep into the season at AAA considering the lesser amenities that come with minor league baseball. If I were him, I’m not sure it would be something I want to do.
Often times, when veteran players sign a deal like the one that Carrasco has agreed to, there will be a clause in the deal that states that if the player hasn’t made the Major League roster by a given date (usually May 1st) they can opt out and become a free agent. In my research, I wasn’t able to find out if Carrasco has such a clause, though it wouldn’t surprise me. Even without a clause, the Guardians are an org that tends to do right by people. If there’s another chance out there for Cookie to pitch in the Majors elsewhere, the Guards very well could trade him like they did with Sandy Leon in 2022.
So a formal or informal opt-out could be an option, but also, if Carrasco is not going to make the team and either doesn’t have an opt out or doesn’t pitch in a way that leaves other organizations intrigued, then this current arrangement also could be a graceful way for Carrasco to end his career as part of the Cleveland organization. It is not out of the bounds of the imagination for Carrasco to just call it quits if he doesn’t make the team.
Lastly, What’s the Most Likely Scenario?
Most likely, I think that while Carrasco may not be on the Opening Day roster, I do think he could pitch for AAA Columbus during April as an insurance policy in case of injury. If multiple injuries do occur throughout the pitching staff, I would expect to see Cookie in a Guardians uniform. From there, I would expect him to bounce between the minors and Majors as needed, and if by July Bieber is indeed traded, Carrasco might become quite needed. To me, this is the most likely scenario, Cookie Carrasco contributing in spurts between AAA and the Majors and being included in September’s roster expansion for a proper send off, if he isn’t already on the team due to trades or injuries.