The Cubs’ June 26 acquisition of right-handed reliever Matt Carasiti from the Colorado Rockies barely made any headlines. Picked up in exchange for lefty Zac Rosscup, a long-time Cubs depth arm who had been recently designated for assignment, Carasiti was not the impact bullpen arm the Cubs would soon acquire in Justin Wilson. But, though he has not yet made an impact on the Cubs’ major league roster this season, there are some aspects of Carasiti’s game that make him look like a potential bullpen arm for years to come. Though few may have noticed his acquisition, as September call-ups roll around, it is worth considering if Carasiti could join the Cubs’ bullpen soon.
So how did the Cubs’ manage to spin Rosscup, a reliever who had consistently failed to break through at the major league level, into an arm that has potential? To answer that, we must first acknowledge the ugly part of Carasiti’s trajectory: In his first go around in the major leagues last season, the righty struggled mightily with a 9.19 ERA, 4.45 FIP and 6.39 DRA in 15 2/3 innings. On top of that, throughout his minor league career, Carasiti has often had some control problems, which were exacerbated in his big league debut as his BB% ballooned up to 13.3 percent. Even in his successful return to AAA Albuquerque in 2017, Carasiti’s BB% was still high, at 9.8.
It seems reasonable to figure that between Carasiti’s struggle in his major league stint and his frequently high walk numbers, the Rockies were discouraged enough to give up on the former sixth-round pick in exchange for Rosscup. But a longer look at Carasiti’s body of work shows a pitcher who could have a significant amount of value.
Initially kicking his minor league career off as a starter in 2012 and 2013, Carasiti’s performance was underwhelming, pitching to a 4.37 ERA, 5.64 FIP and 6.75 DRA line in 14 rookie ball starts in 2012 and a 7.94/5.02/11.64 line in 20 low A-ball starts in 2013. But, upon his move to the bullpen in 2014, Carasiti’s numbers took a positive turn. That year, he pitched to a 3.08/3.76/2.73 line in 76 innings of relief. After another solid year in 2015, Carasiti truly broke out in 2016 as the Rockies AA closer with a 2.31/3.44/1.77 line to go along with 29 saves. During that year, Carasiti rode this wave from AA to the majors, where he had his debut struggles.
Failing to break camp with the Rockies in 2017, Carasiti headed back to AAA where he continued to pitch quite well as the Albuquerque Isotopes’ closer with a 2.37/2.61/2.73 line in just over 30 innings before getting shipped to the Iowa Cubs in late June.
Aside from these solid slashlines, what made Carasiti particularly appealing to the Cubs? One factor would be his groundball rate. At every level since his pro debut, Carasiti has never posted a groundball rate below 40%, which aligns with the Cubs’ organizational philosophy of acquiring groundball-focused pitchers and relying on infield defense to carry the burden of preventing runs. During his first half of 2017 in Albuquerque, prior to his trade to the Cubs, Carasiti was posting a 51.4% groundball rate.
Yet, on top of his good groundball numbers, before the trade, Carasiti took a big jump forward in terms of striking opposing batters out. In 2016, Carasiti’s K rate took a healthy leap up from 23.2% in high A-ball to 28.7% in AA. It steadily increased into 2017 as well, up to 32.3% in Albuquerque, which came out to a very solid 12.76 K/9 rate.
Carasiti, who works with a fastball in the mid-90’s, a changeup, and a slider, appears to have the tools to fan opposing batters. In 2080 Baseball’s write up of Carasiti from last offseason, it noted his “tremendous arm speed with some funk in back and small crossfire action.” But, the write-up also specified, “the name of the game for Carasiti, like for most max-effort arms with big stuff, is going to be limiting the walks.”
That’s right on target. The uptick in strikeouts for Carasiti has also seen his BB rate increase simultaneously. What made Carasiti’s 2016 AA breakout particularly special was his ability to maintain a near 30 percent K rate while also keeping his BB rate under 5 (at just 4.7 percent). As noted earlier, that sharp control dropped off in his 2016 major league debut and still has not quite come back down to earth.
With all that in mind, let’s check in on how Carasiti has fared since heading to Iowa. In 17 1/3 innings pitched with the I-Cubs, Carasiti has saved seven games. Though his 4.67 ERA is less impressive than it was with Albuquerque, his peripherals are still pretty solid. He owns a 3.20 FIP and even better 2.70 DRA to go alongside another good 30.7 percent K rate and 11.94 K/9. Having results this solid are particularly impressive considering he is allowing a .349 opposing BABIP. Nonetheless, Carasiti’s 10.7 percent BB rate is still too high and needs to be refined before the Cubs would feel he could make a truly valuable impact at a major league level.
Now that September is just about here, the question of whether Carasiti can contribute to the 2017 Cubs’ stretch run is a worthwhile one. As of today, though I don’t find it likely, it would not astonish me to see Carasiti get a call back to the big leagues, if for no other reason than to eat up some innings in blowouts so that Joe Maddon doesn’t find himself relying on guys like Pedro Strop or Carl Edwards Jr. in garbage time during the season’s final month. It would be a nice way to reward a pitcher who has had a good season in the minors and who deserves the chance to regain some confidence that was possibly damaged in his poor stint last year.
But if he is going to just be a depth arm, a couple factors work against the idea of a Carasiti call-up. First off, Carasiti is not on the 40-man roster and would require someone being designated for assignment or moved to the 60-day disabled list before he could be added. Though there are candidates to be DFA’d or moved to the DL, even then, Carasiti may not be the first man added to the roster, following breakout seasons from reliever Dylan Maples and starter Jen-Ho Tseng. If either or both of those fellow I-Cubs get added to the roster, Carasiti’s chances to crack the 40-man in 2017 dwindle. On top of that, the Cubs already have a solid amount of pitching depth on the 40-man roster in the form of Jack Leathersich, Rob Zastryzny, Eddie Butler, Pierce Johnson, and Seth Frankoff, all of whom have seen time in Chicago earlier this season.
So while it may be an uphill battle for Carasiti to get the call back to the show in 2017, he has demonstrated tools every step of the way in his minor league career that indicate he could certainly become a helpful bullpen piece, potentially as soon as 2018. But, even if that does not happen, the fact that the front office was able to acquire an arm with solid potential for a pitcher who they were ready to release demonstrates the type of steady foresight the Cubs’ brass will use to continue to keep the team in contention for years to come.
Lead photo courtesy Ron Chenoy—USA Today Sports