Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ten Little Indians - Part III

Rolling on in the overview of potential arms for the linchpin of the Indians’ 2010 season (and, let’s be honest about this, past 2010 more importantly) that is the starting rotation, let’s cast our eyes to the two arms on the cusp of the parent club who may project as the missing top-of-the-rotation starters that seem to be lacking. Thus, having examined the “sure things” (and if I could use the term any more loosely, I would) and the two southpaws that should be given long leashes to establish themselves in MLB in 2010, the two highly-regarded, absurdly young for their level righthanded options that could ultimately project higher in the rotation than any of the previously examined pitchers are Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon.

As the 2010 season draws near, it would seem that they figure to themselves just beneath the surface for now (for entirely justifiable reasons) in that they both could probably use more time in the Minors. However, both should figure legitimately into the mix in 2010 and, given their talent and upside, each may figure in more prominently than anyone else at the upper levels of the system who figures to start a game this season past 2010.

Lest anyone think that this will be a plea to allow Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon to take their lumps in MLB in 2010 because that’s the only way to truly get a sense of how a pitcher eventually projects in MLB, that isn’t happening here. That’s mainly because there are some pretty stark differences between the cases of Huff and Laffey (for whom the case can be made to “take their lumps”) and Carrasco and Rondon…and I don’t just mean because Carrasco and Rondon still haven’t really had a chance with the parent club to date.

Whereas both Huff and Laffey have been exposed to MLB as starters and have experienced some success with little left to prove in the Minors (particularly given their age), Carrasco and Rondon enter the 2010 season as a 23-year-old in Carrasco (he turns 23 next month) and as a 22-year-old in Rondon (he turns 22 next week) with terrific numbers throughout their MiLB careers but with more refinement needed on their repertoire. Given the pitchers ahead of them developmentally in the organization and realizing that 2010 is all about development, the refinement of each pitchers’ arsenal should come in AAA with the idea that they’ll be called upon to contribute in the Indians’ rotation at some point in 2010 and having either closer to being a finished product (or calling either up while they’re in the midst of a “roll” in AAA) makes more sense for either of these highly-regarded young arms.

Some would scoff at the notion that either of these players is “highly-regarded” with the idea that either project as a top-to-middle-of-the rotation starter, but the body of work is there for each that have placed them in the upper echelon of pitching prospects. While it’s popular to take the stance that Carlos Carrasco is a “batting practice pitcher” on the basis of his performance with the Indians, I still have a little trouble believing that the luster came off of a not-yet-23-year-old Carrasco’s star as quickly as it did in some people’s minds. While Kyle Drabek became the “flavor of the day” in the Phillies’ organization, Carrasco became the “disappointment” and the “bust” as he suddenly went from being a 5-star prospect prior to the 2009 season (and he was, at least according to B-Pro) to a 3-star prospect (which is where B-Pro sees him this year) because of…what exactly?

Was it the 3 lousy months in AAA Lehigh Valley as a 22-year-old (when he was the youngest pitcher to throw a pitch for Lehigh Valley in 2009) or was it the “hide the women and children” cup of coffee he had with the Indians last September…you know, the 22 1/3 innings?

Lest anyone forget, Carrasco’s performance in Columbus after joining the Indians’ organization was a 3.19 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP, and 36 K to 7 BB in 42 1/3 IP and while his numbers in Lehigh Valley may count as a disappointment in that he was repeating AAA, he did strike out 112 batters in 114 2/3 innings in Lehigh Valley and posted peripherals that were pretty much in line with his career numbers, other than the 5.18 ERA. But what of that ERA, in that Carrasco’s FIP (that’s Fielding Independent Pitching, which attempts to measure the things that a pitcher is directly responsible for) was 3.96 in Lehigh Valley.

Interestingly, if you take a look at how Carrasco’s 2009 numbers compared to those of another highly-touted arm in Tampa’s Wade Davis (who is still well-regarded), more confusion sets in:
Carlos Carrasco 2009 in AAA as a 22-year-old
3.71 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 148 K, 45 BB, 17 HR allowed in 157 IP

Wade Davis 2009 in AAA as a 23-year-old

3.82 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, 140 K, 60 BB, 14 HR allowed in 158 1/3 IP

Seeing as how Davis is still considered a top prospect (he’s #33 in B-Pro’s recent ranking heading into 2010 and #15 in Keith Law’s ranking a few weeks ago) and Carrasco is nearly summarily dismissed as a disappointment, where’s the disconnect here?

Was it unreasonable to expect Carrasco to thrive in AAA to start 2009, seeing as how he posted a 1.72 ERA, 11.3 K/9 line there in 2008 over 36 2/3 innings?
Not at all and he unquestionably got off to a rocky start (though his WHIP in Lehigh Valley in both 2008 and 2009 was identical at 1.36 and his BB/9 rate and H/9 rate stayed wildly consistent), but what exactly causes a player like Carrasco to go from the 16th highest rated pitching prospect going into 2009 by Baseball America and the 25th highest rated pitching prospect going into 2009 by Keith Law to being an unmitigated disaster (at least in terms of perception) in such a short window of time?

Prior to the 2009 season, Kevin Goldstein at B-Pro wrote that, “Carrasco is the total package, combining a power frame with three above-average pitches and plus command. His fastball sits in the low 90s and can touch 94 mph, but his best pitch is an outstanding changeup with plenty of late life. He also has a nice curveball that he can throw for strikes or use as a chase pitch.” While Goldstein continued to write that Carrasco has issues with allowing small problems into bigger ones, doesn’t the idea that “the total package” who has a low-90’s fastball and an “outstanding changeup” with a third pitch in a curveball hold some merit?

This off-season, Goldstein wrote that Carrasco “parks his fastball in the low 90s, the pitch features good movement, and he tends to stay in the strikezone with it. His changeup is a true plus offering with hard, late movement, and his curveball is solid” meaning that the arsenal is still there, but Carrasco needs to refine his pitches and mature as a pitcher...something he can still do in AAA as a soon-to-be-23-year-old and eventually in MLB.

As for his MLB stint last year, were Carrasco’s first 5 starts an absolute trainwreck?
Well, the numbers associated with those starts are almost above the level of “trainwreck” on the disaster scale as he improbably gave up 6 HR in 22 1/3 IP while posting a 2.28 WHIP over those 5 starts.

However, age does matter here as does level of development when you realize that Carrasco was taking his lumps as a 22-year-old in MLB. For some perspective on that, 13 pitchers threw more than 20 innings exclusively as a starter in MLB in 2009 that were 22 or younger and while Carrasco unquestionably performed the worst among the 13, did you know that both Bartolo Colon and Cliff Lee were pitching in High-A ball as a 22-year-olds?

Again, that’s not to suggest that Carrasco WILL be a front-of-the-rotation starter, but the tools seem to be there for him to perhaps grow into one. To start the season, the Indians should put Carrasco in the back pocket of Charles Nagy in Columbus in an attempt to get Carrasco to refine his secondary pitches and to not let little problems become big problems. Carrasco’s been a highly-touted prospect for multiple years in the Philadelphia system and the Indians should take the beginning of 2010 to rebuild his confidence and to refine that repertoire in AAA to get some momentum back for him. Once Carrasco finds that groove (hopefully) in Columbus, that should be the point when a promotion is to the parent club is considered, if only so the trainwreck of his cup of coffee would be far away from his memory.

As for the other RHP that figures into the Indians’ rotation (just not right now), Hector Rondon will go into 2010 attempting to continue the momentum of his 2009 season when he dominated hitters in Akron and, after a brief experiment as a reliever, continued his effectiveness after being promoted to Columbus. When it was all said and done in 2009, Rondon’s line in 2009 read like this:
3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 4.72 K/BB in 146 1/3 IP

I know that I’ve brought up the idea before that what Rondon did in 2009 is not all that different than what Dave Huff did in 2008 as Huff’s 2008 cumulative line (also in AA and AAA) lookd like this:
2.52 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.93 K/BB in 146 1/3 IP

However, as was discussed earlier, age is important in the development of a pitcher and if Dave Huff is thought to have a ceiling of a #3 or #4 starter at some point when he’s putting those numbers up in the Minors as a 24-year-old, what is to be made of Rondon putting them up as a 21-year-old at the same levels?

Certainly his floor looks to be higher and his adjustment to the upper levels, where hitters are more selective and feast on a fastball-heavy diet, is going to dictate what kind of success Rondon has as a legitimate MLB pitcher. That being said, let’s remember that Rondon’s 146 1/3 innings in 2009 are the only he’s made above Kinston and, while that was also true with Huff to start the 2009 season, there’s a difference in development and expected arrival time to MLB between a 24-year-old former 1st Round Pick and a 21-year-old in that time still exists for Rondon before he approaches his mid-20s to develop further and refine his secondary pitches.

That refinement of his secondary pitches is how Rondon should be spending his 2010 season (at least to start it) with him getting handed the ball every 5th day for Columbus to get him back to some semblance of a routine after his 2009 season was interrupted for a brief moment when the idea that he could have been moved to the bullpen was in play. Perhaps he eventually ends up in the bullpen when it’s all said and done, but at this juncture he could certainly benefit from increased exposure at AAA and steady work. Another reason for Rondon to remain in AAA to start the season is because, while his overall 2009 line looks good, his performance in AAA wasn’t nearly as good as it was in AA:
Rondon 2009 in Akron
2.75 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.56 K/BB in 72 IP

Rondon 2009 in Columbus

4.00 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 4.92 K/BB in 74 1/3 IP

In terms of his repertoire, what stands out most about Rondon is his command and his reputation as a strike thrower, evidenced by the spectacularly steady K/BB rates in both AA and AAA. At this point, there’s very little question about Rondon’s fastball (which has hit 95 MPH), but like most young pitchers, his secondary pitches need refinement so more advanced hitters can’t just sit on his fastball so allowing him to start the season in AAA, under the watchful eye of Charles Nagy (who hopefully is in the organization for more than just PR and can teach both Carrasco and Rondon how to complement their fastballs) will allow Rondon to grow as a pitcher as well as allowing his confidence to grow.

Going into this season, Rondon is the 23rd highest rated pitching prospect in MLB according to Keith Law and he should get his chance to contribute some starts in Cleveland this season. Given the arms that factor in front of him (in terms of developmental level, not talent), he should start the 2010 season in AAA with Carrasco in an attempt to allow both RHP to become more finished products where MLB success is more of a possibility for each.

Now, don’t take this to mean that Carrasco and Rondon are two top-of-the-rotation certainties just waiting to be finished off in their development and that it’s only a matter of time before each is a perennial All-Star.

That’s not the purpose of this at all as it must be mentioned that just because a pitcher progresses quickly through the Minors, with success at each stop does not imply that MLB success is a given. It should be remembered that there was a time that Jason Davis, Danys Baez, Ricardo Rodriguez, and Francisco Cruceta were seen as young RH prospects who had the capability of becoming top-to-middle-of-the-rotation possibilities if they were able to…wait for it…refine their secondary pitches to complement their fastballs.

Perhaps Carrasco goes the way of Rodriguez or Cruceta (bouncing around after not being able to adjust to MLB, perpetually maddening teams with his potential), and maybe Rondon goes the way of Baez (to the bullpen) or even Jason Dangerously (into oblivion or maybe even taxidermy), but if the group ahead of Rondon and Carrasco figure to be middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation arms in that Huff and Laffey may be what they are, here is the first organizational offering of high-risk/high-ceiling guys with each able to throw in the mid-90’s with developing secondary offerings. If the Indians are able to net a #2 or a #3 starter out of either Carrasco or Rondon, then the implications of having a young, under-club-control, and cheap arm cannot be underestimated.

Again though, don’t take this as an impassioned plea that either should be breaking camp with the Indians to start the season in the starting rotation as the quintet of Westbrook, Carmona, Masterson, Huff, and Laffey should be given that shot with some pretty long leashes. However, if Rondon and Carrasco are both sent to Columbus to start the year, allowing them to refine their secondary pitches with Charles Nagy, the moment will arrive when a spot opens up in the rotation either due to ineffectiveness, injury, or trade. That point is when the Indians should promote one of their young RH arms to take a spot in the rotation, it should be done with the idea of attaching that same long leash that should be already be attached to Masterson, Huff, and Laffey throughout all of 2010.

Development is the name of the game this year and the prudent path to take with the young RHP at the upper levels would be to start Rondon and Carrasco in AAA and to allow their success in AAA dictate when they arrive in MLB, coinciding with if (no, make that when) Westbrook is out of the rotation or if any of the principals get injured or are rendered ineffective.


GeronimoSon said...

Speaking with a member of the Trenton Thunder last season, they seem to beleive that Jeanmar Gomez is the "real deal". (they were QUITE impressed with the manner and approach to pitching) Wouldn't he be expected to be part of this near MLB ready group (Carrasco & Rondon)that could be counted on to make a start or two when/if an opportunity arises during the 2010 season?

Paul Cousineau said...

I'm interested to see how Gomez's 2010 goes as 2009 was certainly a break-out for him. If he can keep the momentum going into 2010 and perhaps into AAA, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he got a look later in the season.

He's been added to the 40-man and figures to be in the mix this year after being named Eastern League pitcher of the year. That said, he did start the season in Kinston in 2009 and could be a year behind Rondon in terms of level and development.

His age (he just turned 22 last week) would seem to point to the idea that the Indians can be rather patient with him and allow him to succeed at AAA for a while before he gets the call.