Sunday, January 31, 2010

Finding Fausto Carmona

The Cleveland Indians need an ace, a stopper, a guy that not only has wicked stuff, but is able to use it to win ballgames. No, I'm not talking about a default ace that struggles through six or seven innings, and at best can win you about 15 games, but more likely will lose you about 15 games. I'm also not talking about the guy who wins the the Indians King of the Mountain game between their brigade of #3 and #4 starters.

I'm talking about an actual ace.

We all know the irony after the Indians dealt away back-to-back Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, then watched them face off against each other in this past season's World Series. In the meantime, the Indians left themselves with a rag-tag group of starting pitchers for the 2010 season. Justin Masterson, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, an injured Jake Westbrook, David Huff and a slew of unknowns will enter spring training hoping to grab a spot in this very unassuming rotation. The unknown commodity remains to be Fausto Carmona, who went from domination in 2007, to an abomination since.

Fausto Carmona is the one and only current member of the Cleveland Indians pitching staff who not only has the ability and stuff to be an ace, but has already done it. The catch-22 for Fausto is that he could just as easily lose 20 games, as he could win 20. The catch-22 for the Indians is that he could win 20 games this year and the Indians STILL could lose more than they win, but their chances of winning will improve exponentially if the big righty can find what he's lost over the past two seasons...which would be the strike zone.

In 2007, Carmona went 19-8 with a paltry 3.06 ERA in 215 innings. Carmona was electric, peppering the lower part of the strike zone with both his hard sinker and slider. He struck out 137 batters, while walking only 61. Most importantly, he trusted his viscous stuff, which was in question after he bounced around from Triple A Buffalo to Cleveland, from the bullpen to the spot starts. Carmona finished fourth in the 2007 Cy Young voting that season, and Torii Hunter was quoted as saying after facing the young righty, "I can't wait until we face normal pitchers. This guy's sinker is practically unhittable." He seemed on the precipice to become the American League's next dominant pitcher. He even signed a four-year, fifteen million dollar contract, that could turn into a seven-year deal with the three club options at the end that would push it to a potential $40+ million dollar windfall.

Then it all went away.

Over the next two seasons, Carmona turned into a pumpkin. He went 13-19 with a 5.89 ERA. Likely the most telling struggle was his control. Carmona had only 137 K's and 140 walks. He also struggled with injuries. Somewhere along the way, Carmona began trying to nip corners, instead of just throwing strikes. This perfectionist attitude, along with more batters willing to keep their bats on their shoulders forced Carmona to adjust. He adjusted alright, if you consider his mechanics problems, missing the strike zone, multiple injuries and being sent to triple A adjusting.

The struggles have led several to question why the Indians would sign Carmona to a long-term deal. It's the type of hindsight that makes me sick to my stomach, to be honest. Carmona signed the deal in April of 2008, right after his ace-like year. Remember, this was prior to Cliff Lee's big season, and directly after Lee didn't even make the postseason roster. This was also the final year of CC Sabathia's deal. Dealing Sabathia at that moment were shrouded in thoughts of going to the world series. Sabathia wanted too much money, and Cleveland likely would have to keep the big lefty for the duration of the season as they made a run for the playoffs. At the time, it looked like Carmona would be the only guy at the top of the rotation after the season.

The Indians had long followed the plans of John Hart, who believed that good business was to avoid arbitration at all cost, and sign your future talent to long term deals. Remember, it was Hart that signed several players to multi-year contracts starting in 1992 that led to the Indians near-decade of dominance. Sure, we all talk about the deals given to Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, Carlos Baerga and Paul Sorrento, but rare do we talk of the deals that season to Jack Armstrong, Scott Scudder, Mark Whiten, Glenallen Hill and Dave Otto. It's a hit or miss process, and in all honesty, Carmona's deal had more prior support with regards to statistics than nearly all of those guys mentioned when they signed. Remember, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2007, and certainly would have garnered more votes had Sabathia played for another team.

The Indians followed the Hart philosophy with Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta and CC Sabathia (before he left) and Grady Sizemore. It's a sound investment. Does it always pay off? No, but I also believe that Carmona still has the ability and stuff to become an ace again, and there was no reason to believe any different prior to the start of 2008.

Now Carmona has most definitely found himself at a crossroads. After the 2007 season, many in and out of the organization saw Carmona as the ace-in-waiting. Whenever CC Sabathia would find his way to the Yankees in a mega-deal, Carmona was the heir-apparent. As a matter of fact, there was a small faction that believed Carmona was the better pitcher in 2007, with the better stuff.

Fast-forward two years, and if you are to believe the stories that are floating around, Mark Shapiro has been exploring the possibility of trading Carmona to free up money. The problem with that theory is that Cleveland NEEDS Fausto Carmona. Why? Without him, the Indians have a nearly zero chance to do anything but lose this season.

Sure, Jake Westbrook could rebound after two seasons of nothing to win the Indians 15 games. Sure, Aaron Laffey could finally put it all together and stay healthy. Sure, Justin Masterson could continue to develop into something more than a glorified relief pitcher. Sure, Jeremy Sowers could revisit the 2006 season, that saw him put up Fausto Carmona numbers. Sure, David Huff could win 11 games with something lower than a near-6.00 ERA. Sure, Carlos Carrasco could develop into something more than a quad A starter. Sure, maybe even Hector Rondon makes the bigs and makes some waves, since he's the one guy with the stuff to do it. The problem is that there are just so many question-marks, even IF Carmona steps up this season. If the Indians can manage to get half of their starting rotation to achieve at the highest level, and if Carmona can manage to regain some of that 2007 magic, than this season could be more interesting than originally thought.

This past offseason, Carmona pitched for Aguilas in the Dominican League. Mark Shapiro didn't want him to, worried that his former ace-in-waiting was setting himself up for arm trouble later in the season. Carmona talked his GM into letting him go, as both worked up a plan to work out the kinks in his mechanics. There was also some thought that if he could find success, he could walk into spring training in Goodyear, AZ riding a bit of a high, instead of a two year slide.

Carmona did just that, going 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA. He gave up five total runs, four earned, and 10 hits. The key to his success in the DR league is that he didn't walk a single batter, while striking out five in 13 1/3. Manny Acta was pleased with what he saw as well.
"Some of the adjustments that we wanted him to make when Spring Training starts, he did some of that during the winter. That enabled him to pound the strike zone. That stuff's still there. That night I saw him, he was pitching up to 93, with good sink, and he threw some good sliders. It's a matter of him understanding that he needs to get more of the plate and induce more contact, rather than trying to be too fine."
New pitching coach Tim Belcher will be at the forefront of bringing Fausto back from the land of 6.00+ ERA's. His philosophy is fairly simple,
"You have to be able to throw strikes and command the baseball there is no question about that. I am a big believer that 'firsts' are so important in the game. First pitch strikes, successful first inning, and first hitter of each inning. If we can accomplish some of those things and set those as goals to try and lead the league in those categories a lot of the stuff really takes care of itself after that. If you can have an overwhelming majority of the hitters you face start out with a strike or at least 1-1 and then you record the leadoff out with great regularity you are going to have a chance to be very successful. If you can get through the first inning when the opposing team has the lineup setup exactly how they want it 1-2-3 with the big bopper in the four spot, if you can survive that first inning you have a great chance of going on and having a successful game. There are obviously mechanical and psychological things involved with throwing strikes. In a lot of ways it might be a little bit more reflective of the youth with our pitching staff more than anything. You get a bunch of guys that are maybe in the big leagues maybe a tick earlier than they should be and they are not comfortable pounding the strike zone and going after some of these hitters in the American League, so they shy away from that. As they gain experience and confidence then they will move more in the middle of the plate."
Sound familiar?

Remember, Carmona's stuff was never really in question. Danny Wild of had a nice article on Carmona's path to the pros earlier this year. Carmona's 2002 manager Rouglas Odor (potential name of the year) described him as "...a strike-thrower, pounding that strike zone. It seemed like 95 percent of the time, he threw a strike." In 2003, Carmona was named the Indians Minor League pitcher of the year at Lake County. In 2004, Brad Komminsk, his Double-A manager at Akron thought "He was good, he dominated back then. His size and velocity and the way he attacked hitters, he always kept the ball down in the zone."

Carmona would lead the Indians organization in innings pitched in 2005 with 173 1/3 innings, and had 13 wins. The Indians would nearly ruin him in 2006, when they left him in Buffalo, then brought him up to spot start, relieve, close, get sent down, get called back up, and lose 10 games in a row. He was called a head case, a bust, but had certainly been mismanaged that season.

If Acta and Belcher can get Fausto to trust his mechanics and his stuff, and if Carmona can stay healthy, he can still be that ace. This may be his last chance, and the only realistic chance that the Cleveland Indians have at being anything but a laughingstock.

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons and Keith Allison:

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