Carlos Carrasco is the most pivotal member of the Cleveland Indians in 2015

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A year ago today we were debating whether Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin should be the Indians’ fifth starter.  Carrasco got the nod, too much public derision, which he immediately justified by stinking up the joint in his first four starts.  The only reason he wasn’t sent to the minors at that point was that he was out of options, so he went into the purgatory of long relief. 

An odd thing happened there. Carrasco started to get people out.  It slipped under the radar because he was mostly pitching in games that were lost causes, but his ERA in May was 2.92.  Then in June it was 1.26.  More importantly, he was throwing strikes.  He began to pitch in games that mattered, and the results remained excellent.

It looked like the Indians had found a role where Carrasco could thrive, but after Justin Masterson got traded and Tomlin and Zach McAllister faded, they basically ran out of starting pitchers, leaving no choice but to give Carrasco another shot.  He was spectacular.  In ten starts, he posted a 1.30 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 78-11.  It appeared that, at long last, Carlos Carrasco had learned how to pitch.

Thus the Indians find themselves in a unique situation wherein a team with legitimate World Series aspirations has a number two starter with nineteen career victories.  Given that everyone following him in the rotation has even more meager credentials, it is safe to say that the hopes of the Indians ride largely on Carrasco’s right arm.  The Indians appeared to double down on their faith in Carrasco over the weekend by giving him a long-term contract extension.

Sep 12, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco (59) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Holy Grail for teams seeking to make the playoffs is to somehow finish twenty games above .500.  With two wild card teams, that record will virtually guarantee a postseason berth of some sort.  Even for the best teams, however, the last two spots in the rotation are often a revolving door of journeymen pitchers and whoever is hot in Triple-A.  Thus it is with the Indians, who will use T.J. House, who a year ago wasn’t even a prospect; and McAllister, who is only there because Gavin Floyd got hurt and Danny Salazar couldn’t throw strikes.

McAllister and House may pitch well, or Salazar may find his command in Columbus in time to contribute.  Either way, most teams go into a season hoping to win half the games started by their number four and five starters, and it seems unrealistic for the Indians to expect more.  Too much can go wrong over the course of 162 games to hope for much more.  If that happens, the top three pitchers must win sixty per cent of their starts in order to reach twenty games above .500.

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This is a high bar to reach, because every pitcher is bound to lose half a dozen games every year simply because the other pitcher is hot or the bullpen lets him down or something fluky happens, so a pitcher simply cannot afford to have many poor outings where he doesn’t give his team a chance to win.  For example, last year Corey Kluber had perhaps the best season of any Indians pitcher in decades, yet the team only won 65 percent of his starts.  So it is essential that Carrasco hits the ground running and makes quality starts throughout the year.

Short of adding another top-flight starter through a trade, it is hard to imagine the Indians reaching their lofty goals this season if he doesn’t, making him the guy I will be watching more carefully over the first few weeks of the season.

Next: Players showing they want to be in Cleveland

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