Young Carlos Carrasco Charts Steady Progress In Phillies' System

INDIANAPOLIS—As June blossomed, Lehigh Valley righthander Carlos Carrasco—the top pitching prospect in the Phillies system—was the International League leader in one category: losses, with six.

But around the circuit, word is that the 6-foot-3, 215-pound native of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, will be a mainstay in Philadelphia's rotation for years to come, maybe as early as this season.

"He has a very good fastball," Pawtucket righthander Enrique Gonzalez said. "And Carlos Maldonado tells me he has a good second pitch, a changeup."

Gonzalez spent last winter in Venezuela playing for La Guaira while Carrasco pitched for Caracas. Maldonado, Gonzalez's Pawtucket batterymate, served as Carrasco's catcher.

Indianapolis skipper Frank Kremblas agrees with the assessment. "His breaking ball is good," said Kremblas, Carrasco's manager in Venezuela. "His changeup is a straight change, but it acts like a split—has a lot of movement on it. But it's his fastball, first of all. It's 95 to 98 (mph) and he keeps his velocity the whole time."

The darkly handsome Carrasco has been considered one of the Phillies' best prospects since signing for $300,000 in November 2003. "He was playing amateur baseball in the little leagues," said baseball journalist Ismael Granadillo, who handled public relations for Team Venezuela at this year's World Baseball Classic. "Scouts told me that they were looking at him for two years before they had the chance to sign him."

Carrasco debuted at age 17 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2004. He progressed slowly, though, going a dismal 1-10, 8.31 the following year when pushed to make 17 starts for low Class A Lakewood and short-season Batavia. "My command wasn't good," he said, "and I had no curveball."

Curve In The Road

Developing a curveball in 2006, Carrasco rebounded with a 12-6, 2.26 season at Lakewood in a career-high 26 starts. The new breaking pitch also contributed to his striking out at least a batter per inning for the first time in his career.

Carrasco came out blazing in 2007 for high Class A Clearwater, where his 6-2, 2.84 effort in 14 games earned him a promotion to Double-A Reading at age 20. He won six of ten decisions and pitched a rain-shortened, six-inning no-hitter against Altoona on Aug. 21.

But a 4.86 ERA and 46 walks in 70 innings kept him back in Double-A for the outset of the 2008 season. Splitting the year between Reading and Lehigh Valley, Carrasco started for the World Team at the Futures Game in New York.

"That was so great," he said with a smile. "It was the last year for old Yankee Stadium, and they've got all the monuments, the World Series, the—how do you say that?—the history. When they told me, 'You've got the first inning,' I started laughing. I said, 'Are you joking, or are you serious?' And they said, 'No, you're starting!' I felt so happy. That day I'll never forget in my life."

Carrasco got credit for the win at the Futures Game and finished the year with a combined 9-9, 3.69 slate for Reading and Lehigh Valley. After the season, the Phillies gave him the go-ahead for winter ball.

Limited to 80 pitches per game, Carrasco produced eye-popping results with Caracas. His blazing fastball led to 45 strikeouts in 47 innings, a 2.11 ERA and just 11 walks and two home runs.

"Carrasco pitched in a way we haven't seen in a long time in Venezuela," Granadillo said. "He did whatever he wanted. Johan Santana didn't even pitch that way."

After two quality starts in three tries to begin the season, Carrasco appeared to backslide. In his next four starts, beginning April 26 against Pawtucket, he allowed 24 runs in 16 1/3 innings. Even including two good outings, on May 29 and June 4 when he allowed just four runs in 13 1/3 innings, Carrasco headed into late June having gone 2-6, 6.71 in his past 10 starts.

Control wasn't the problem, considering Carrasco's 20 walks and 72 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings overall. But still he had gone 2-7, 5.57, and had given up 81 hits.

"I would think you'd have to look a little deeper," Kremblas said. "They might be working on something, where they say, 'We want you to work on your breaking ball and your changeup, so you're going to throw this many an inning, at least.' "

Good Advice

Granadillo blamed the lethargic start on Carrasco's 2008 workload. "He just talked about it with some friends here," he noted, "and he said pitching in Venezuela affected him. He was tired in December, and he wasn't used to throwing so many innings (198) in a year."

According to Carrasco, a combination of things led to his unimpressive early showing. "I'm trying to work on pitches here," he said. "I feel most comfortable with my fastball. Sometimes, when I can't find my fastball, I start throwing my second pitch, a changeup."

Fastball command, as well as consistent mid-90s velocity, had made the difference in Carrasco's two positive starts alluded to above.

"I threw my fastball wherever I wanted," he said, "and I used my changeup on any count—even on 3-and-2. And now my curve is coming back."

Carrasco is the youngest player on Lehigh Valley's roster and it's easy to forget he's only 22. "I was so young (when I signed). Today I know a lot more about baseball," he said. "I'm still learning right now."

Along with IronPigs pitching coach Rod Nichols, 33-year-old veteran righthander Rodrigo Lopez is working with Carrasco this year. Lopez, a native of Mexico, spent seven years in the big leagues with the Padres, Orioles and Rockies.
"Every day I throw in the bullpen, Lopez tells me what I have to do," Carrasco said. "I feel more comfortable throwing my pitches. I feel like I'm more ready right now, and most important, I feel so great."

Gonzalez, Kremblas and Granadillo all agree that Carrasco will be pitching in Philadelphia before long. "He's obviously going to be in the big leagues and be a good pitcher for a long time," Kremblas said. "He works hard, and he's intelligent—very intelligent. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes it some time this year."

In fact, Carrasco came to spring training with a chance to make the big club, but he posted a 6.86 ERA and allowed five home runs in six appearances. So for now, he will bide his time in Lehigh Valley, doing whatever it takes to improve his craft.

"Some guys ask me about pitching in the Phillies rotation," Carrasco said. "I tell them, 'I don't know. I don't worry about it.' I'm doing my job here. If Philadelphia calls me, I'll do my job there, too."

Pete Cava is a freelance writer based in  Indianapolis