Carrasco more than a throw-in piece for Mets

January 8th, 2021

The massive, franchise-changing deal the Mets made on Thursday will always have a simple name in team lore: "the Francisco Lindor trade."

If he signs a long-term extension to stay -- and, perhaps, even if he doesn't -- it will be remembered in Queens alongside "the Keith Hernandez trade," "the Gary Carter trade," "the Mike Piazza trade," and "the Johan Santana trade," where you remember it only for the All-Star that arrived, not really worrying at all about who else came or went with them.

But Lindor didn't arrive in New York by himself. It's not just "the Francisco Lindor trade." The Mets are getting veteran starter Carlos Carrasco, too, and he's hardly a throw-in here. He's been one of the better starters around for years now, and he's joining a Mets rotation that previously had exactly two reliable, healthy starters in Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman -- and Stroman didn't even pitch in 2020.

Lindor will get the focus, understandably and deservedly. He's the superstar. But let's not forget just how important Carrasco is going to be to the 2021 Mets, too.

It's been a long and winding road for Carrasco, dating back nearly two decades to when he signed with the Phillies as an international free agent in 2003.

Traded to Cleveland in 2009 as part of a deal for Cliff Lee, Carrasco spent the next five seasons bouncing back and forth between the rotation and bullpen and between Cleveland and the minors. He missed 2012 due to Tommy John surgery; he was designated for assignment in 2013 and went unclaimed; he won a rotation job in 2014 and lost it after four starts. At 27, he wasn't exactly delivering on the promise Cleveland had seen in him five years earlier.

After a summer spent in the bullpen, Carrasco returned to the rotation in mid-August of 2014, and the results were astounding: 10 starts, 69 innings, 78 strikeouts, 11 walks, 10 earned runs, a 1.30 ERA. When it was written about at the time, a change in velocity was noted -- that he'd ditched the wind-up for the stretch -- as well as his own quote that “everything I’m doing now is about the three months I spent in the bullpen.”

It was off to the races from there; over the five seasons from 2014 through '18, Carrasco picked up Cy Young votes twice, finishing fourth in 2017, and by Wins Above Replacement, which combines quality of innings with number of innings, he was one of the truly elite starters in the game.

Most P Wins Above Replacement, 2014-'18
31.7 WAR -- Max Scherzer
30.5 WAR -- Clayton Kershaw
30.3 WAR -- Corey Kluber
29.7 WAR -- Chris Sale
24.5 WAR -- Jacob deGrom
22.5 WAR -- Justin Verlander
21.0 WAR -- Carlos Carrasco
20.6 WAR -- David Price
20.3 WAR -- Stephen Strasburg
20.2 WAR -- Jake Arrieta

In 2019, his season was interrupted when he revealed he'd been diagnosed with leukemia, though his late-season return to the mound was one of the best moments of the baseball year and he won the Comeback Player of the Year award for his efforts.

Healthy again in 2020, he gave Cleveland a dozen starts with a 2.91 ERA, striking out 82 in 68 innings. If we look at those WAR leaderboards from 2014 through 2020, including the fact that he missed much of '19, he's tied for the 10th-best starting pitcher. He's added so much value over the years.

If it never seemed Carrasco got the attention he deserved, maybe that has more to say about the pitchers he shared the rotation with. Three times, a fellow Cleveland starter won the Cy Young pitching alongside Carrasco -- Corey Kluber in 2014 and '17; Shane Bieber in 2020. Another long-time Cleveland starter, Trevor Bauer, took up a lot of the oxygen in the room in Cleveland and then won his own Cy Young in 2020 for the Reds. Cleveland kept coming up with productive young starters in Mike Clevinger, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac; all the while, a pitcher who made his Cleveland debut when the rotation consisted of Carl Pavano, David Huff, and Jeremy Sowers was always just there.

Until, of course, he's not. The last time Cleveland went into a season without Carrasco in the organization, CC Sabathia was still there. But that's a Cleveland problem, and Mets fans might rightfully wonder how much a pitcher who's been throwing professionally for nearly 20 years has left in the tank. At 34 in March, what kind of pitcher is he now? Or might be for the remaining two seasons on his deal, at a team-friendly $12 million annually, before a team option for 2023?

A good place to start here is with his ability to miss bats, because despite a variety of aches and pains over the years, that piece has remained remarkably consistent. Carrasco struck out 29.6% of batters in his first full season in the rotation in 2015; he struck out 29.2% of batters in 2020. It never moved more than a point or two in either direction in the years in between. Among qualified starters in '20, it was the 13th-best mark, right behind Cincinnati's Luis Castillo.

His FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, was 3.59 in 2020; in his career as a starting pitcher, it is 3.42, ranging from 2.84 to 3.72 (setting aside 2019, for obvious reasons). While a pitcher can't be expected to stay healthy and perform forever, there's not yet any warning signs in his profile. Looking at Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, Carrasco is projected to be no worse than a league-average starter for the next four seasons, assuming reasonable health, and he's immediately projected by Steamer to be the second-best Mets starter, as well as one of the 20 best in the game.

2021 Mets SP projections
6.1 WAR -- deGrom
3.5 WAR -- Carrasco
2.1 WAR -- Stroman
1.9 WAR -- Syndergaard
1.1 WAR -- David Peterson
0.9 WAR -- Steven Matz

Projections are not predictions, it's important to note, and you might not prefer Carrasco by this much over Stroman, given that Stroman is four years younger. Then again, it's not hard to see why the numbers come out this way, either. Stroman didn't throw a pitch in 2020, and he's not a bat-misser; his best strikeout rate was 20.8% as a rookie in the 2014 season, which is well below Carrasco's worst as a starter (25% in 2016). Stroman may yet have that breakout season it seems he's been capable of, but for the moment, he doesn't have the track record Carrasco does.

Either way, it was always clear the Mets were going to need at least one more starter, if not two, and so you understand why fans have been so focused on adding Bauer, given the season he just had. Maybe they still will. But they also just added a solid mid-rotation veteran who has shown the capacity to be more than that at times. They've added a third starter -- pending the uncertainty of Syndergaard's health -- that they might feel comfortable starting a playoff game with. They might even have improved the bullpen, if this addition shifts Lugo back to the relief role he's better suited for.

“This is a big opportunity for me to play for the New York Mets now,” Carrasco said on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM. “Me and my family are really happy.”

He should be, because he gets to join Lindor in leaving a declining team for an improving one. Mets fans should be pretty happy about it, too.

Carrasco isn't going to have the impact, on or off the field, that Lindor will. He's the clear second banana here. But he's not just a contract tossed in to balance the books. He's a quality Major League starter, and has been so for many years now. While all eyes will be on Lindor making great plays on both sides of the ball in 2021, don't forget that every Carrasco start is one that the 2020 Mets had to give to Rick Porcello or Michael Wacha. It's a considerable upgrade.