Covering the Bases: March 19

CarrascoFinal: A’s 13, Indians 3

FIRST: It’s been in the back of everyone’s mind for the past few weeks: Would Carlos Carrasco slip back into Carlos Fiasco mode at all this spring? Well, it happened on Wednesday and the rotation race officially has its first wrinkle.

Oakland tagged Carrasco for eight runs (five earned) on nine hits in 2 2/3 innings. He was supposed to log five. Yes, there was a fielding error that did the righty no favors. Yes, two runs were tacked on to Carrasco’s line after he exited the game.

Still, the Indians have asked Carrasco to focus on limiting damage and maintaining his aggressiveness. Neither elements were present in his abbreviated effort against the A’s.

“We started off an inning where we didn’t convert a play,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But then he didn’t limit the damage. I thought he worked away from his fastball a little bit. It’s a frustrating outing. The good part is it was Spring Training, but we’re looking for him to build. It was a little disappointing.”

This comes one day after Francona was raving about Carrasco.

“His stuff is off the charts,” Francona said on Tuesday. “His stuff is top-of-the-rotation stuff across the board.”

That said, both Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway both noted on Tuesday that Carrasco appeared to slip into some old bad habits during his “B” game outing last week. Even Carrasco, while discussing the race for the final spot in the rotation, mentioned that on his own on Tuesday.

“My last game, the ‘B’ game, I didn’t feel that,” said Carrasco, referring to the more-aggressive mentality. “I didn’t feel normal over there. But, no matter what, when you pitch, if you pitch an ‘A’ game or ‘B’ game, you have to continue doing your job, and have the same mentality. There’s a hitter right there, so it’s important to attack the zone.”

The first hitter Carrasco faced on Wednesday, Sam Fuld, drew a walk. The next batter, Daric Barton, drilled a double. Two runs came in the fifth inning (Carrasco’s first frame), and another three came across in the sixth. As Francona hinted, that inning did start with a fielding error by third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall. The floodgates were hardly blown open by that point, though. Carrasco had time to reel things in.

“That’s probably something we need to talk to him more [about],” Francona said. “We talked to him the other day, just about this same exact thing.”

SECOND: Let’s run through the scenarios for the final spot in the rotation.

(First, notice that I keep referring to it as the final spot and not the fifth spot. While the Indians have not come straight out and said it, it seems pretty clear  that right-hander Danny Salazar will open in the fifth slot. That will give him some more time to build up his innings before making his first start of the year. Cleveland doesn’t need a fifth starter until April 8. Obviously, this is all subject to change.)

Carrasco is out of options. Josh Tomlin has an option. Aaron Harang is a non-roster invitee who, if he’s not in the Opening Day plans, must be given a $100,000 retention bonus with a June 1 opt-out clause if he’s willing to go pitch in the Minors. Each contractual factor will play a role in the decision, especially for a team that needs to maintain as much depth as possible. Trevor Baur remains a darkhorse candidate, but he appears ticketed for Triple-A.

Scenario 1: Tomlin gets the final spot and Carrasco goes to the bullpen. This potentially puts Bauer one wrong development in the Majors away from a promotion, if Harang isn’t willing to pitch in the Minors. On Tuesday, Francona said he thinks Harang is a Major League pitcher. Does that mean Harang is a leading candidate for the final job? Or is Francona simply hinting that the Indians might try to do right by Harang and find him an MLB job if he’s not in the Opening Day plans. We’ll see.

Scenario 2: Carrasco gets the final spot. This would once again risk losing Harang as a layer of depth. Tomlin could go to the bullpen, but the way he’s pitched (arguably the best of the three main candidates), it seems logical to assume Cleveland would want him going every fifth day in the Minors to remain at the ready. That would also allow Francona to stick by one of the many relief candidates hanging around in the mix for the one or two jobs available in the ‘pen.

Scenario 3: Harang gets the final spot and Carrasco goes to the bullpen. This is an interesting option, because it would maintain the most depth. Tomlin goes to Triple-A and keeps Bauer’s timetable intact in terms of continuing his development and avoiding rushing him before Cleveland might think he’s ready. This also gives the Indians a way to limit Tomlin’s innings early in the season given that he’s coming back from Tommy John. It would also allow Carrasco to perhaps regain the kind of aggressive mentality he displayed as a reliever last year (“You can’t ignore that,” Callaway said Tuesday). This also keeps Harang’s veteran presence in the clubhouse, and buys some time for any rotation issues that might develop. And, hey, if Harang’s strong spring doesn’t translate into a strong season showing, you’ve got Tomlin waiting in the wings, or Carrasco possibly available to slide back to the rotation.

As of Tuesday, I was thinking more along the lines of Scenarios 1 or 2. After Wednesday’s outing by Carrasco, Scenario 3 now looks more intriguing. If we’re going strictly on performance, and ignoring the contractual elements, Tomlin would certainly appear to be the front-runner. There are probably some readers who would be fine with Carrasco being outrighted. I believe another team would grab him off waivers. His stuff is good, and there are needs around the league.

The rotation battle already looked like a tough call. It just got a little more interesting.

THIRD: Oh, hey, Salazar. Remember him? He pitched, too! The hard-throwing righty actually got the start and was supposed to log four innings. Things went a little awry early on, so Cleveland pulled Salazar after 3 2/3 innings to keep him on his pitch count. The righty didn’t give up any runs and ended with three strikeouts and two walks.

“I just think he’s still working to try to drive the ball down,” Francona said. “He had some good life on his fastball. He’s just still leaving a lot of fastballs up. I think with repetition and getting his legs under him, he’ll start driving his fastball down better.”

Salazar essentially said as much after his outing. He said he felt like he could’ve thrown harder, or put more on his pitches, but decided to hold back a little since it’s still Spring Training. Salazar said he was trying to work on getting his fastball down in the strike zone more consistently and focusing on his slider against lefties.

“I got behind in the count a couple times,” Salazar said. “I think that’s why they took me out, because I threw too many pitches [in the first inning]. My fastball, I tried to work down. In the bullpen, I threw really good. Out there, I was a little wild.”

Physically, Salazar said he feels ready for the season. And possibly being the fifth starter? That’s fine with him.

“If you’re there, first or second or even fifth, that means you’re good,” Salazar said. “You’re good enough to be there.”

HOME: This was the first game of the spring that featured Chisenhall at third base and Carlos Santana behind the plate. It was actually Santana’s first game as Cleveland’s catcher this preseason. If they both make the Opening Day roster (meaning, if Chisenhall isn’t sent to Triple-A), you’d probably see that alignment mostly against right-handed pitchers. Santana would presumably be a sound option against tough lefties (Chisenhall’s weakness to this point in the big leagues).

That said, Yan Gomes’ off-days from catching and the days Cleveland faces a lefty surely will not always align consistently throughout the season. That makes the third-base playing-time situation an interesting one, and it’s probably one reason why Francona is quick to admit that he’s still not sure how this is going to go. One thing he does know is that Santana doesn’t want to be the designated hitter on a regular basis.

“I think he’d much rather play a position,” Francona said prior to Wednesday’s game. “I think he’s enjoying the heck out of playing third. The part about going behind the plate it to try to help our team more. Honestly, I think if he had his choice, he’d play third base every day, but he understands that we’re trying to put the best team out there and he’s willing to try to do this.”

Chisenhall (11 games) made two errors in the field on Wednesday, pulling him into a tie with Santana (11 games) in Spring Training blunders. I will say this, Santana has looked increasingly comfortable at the hot corner since the first handful of games he played at the position.

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links:

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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