Who will be the Indians' most valuable fantasy starter, and will that starter be a viable mixed-league option?
That doesn't necessarily mean he's the right answer.
Carmona is the name you know, the most experienced Indians starter and the only one with two mixed-league-worthy fantasy seasons on his résumé (2007 and 2010). Last season, he finished 59th among starting pitchers on the Player Rater, 86th among all pitchers, and in a standard ESPN mixed league, remember that 90 pitchers -- 10 teams at nine per team -- are active at any given time.
But Carmona also presents a steep downside to his fantasy owners, regardless of his past successes. He rarely ever strikes anyone out, his 5.50 career strikeouts per nine innings 17th-worst among active pitchers. He has trouble against left-handers -- .291/.363/.430 lifetime rates against them -- his lack of an out pitch against them making him extremely susceptible to matchups. And he has a history of inconsistent command, leading to miserable 2008 and 2009 seasons that ranked him among the least valuable pitchers in all of fantasy.
It's factors like that that open this question up for debate, and while your first instinct might be to pick Carmona and your second to avoid Indians pitchers altogether, there's an intriguing third option you need to consider:
Carlos Carrasco will be the Indians' most valuable starter in 2011.
Those who were actually paying attention to the Indians in the final month of last season -- that line would sound perfect read by Harry Doyle -- might not be so shocked by such a statement. After all, Carrasco was the team's second-most valuable starting pitcher in September, turning in a 3.83 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7.66 K's per nine and six quality starts in seven appearances. That's picking from terribly small sample sizes, however, and even then it was Carmona who outperformed the rookie; Carmona had a 1.99 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 6.86 K's per nine and four quality starts in six tries.
It's what Carrasco brings to the table on a long-term basis that sets him apart. Remember, this is a pitcher who was once considered one of the better prospects in baseball, ranking 41st, 54th and 52nd in Baseball America's top 100 from 2007-09, and one who was regarded as one of the jewels of the July 2009 Cliff Lee trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. Carrasco might no longer profile as a future staff ace -- a path he seemed headed toward during his early Phillies minor league days -- but as he has climbed competitive levels, he has made the adjustments necessary to remain an eventual middle-of-the-rotation type.
Among those adjustments were improved command of both his curveball and changeup, and a soaring ground-ball rate that nearly put him in the class of ground-ball machine Carmona. In fact, compare Carmona's and Carrasco's own peripheral 2010 statistics -- with Carrasco's Triple-A numbers lumped in here -- and you might find yourself much more impressed by the rookie's.
Carmona: 5.31 K/9, 3.08 BB/9, 1.72 K/BB, 55.6 GB%, 30.8 FB%, 13.6 LD%
Carrasco: 7.89 K/9, 2.77 BB/9, 2.85 K/BB, 52.8 GB%, 27.3 FB%, 19.9 LD%
Carrasco also has another substantial advantage: the lack of a steep platoon split. Between the majors and minors in 2010, Carrasco limited left-handers to .219/.289/.356 rates, compared to .288/.345/.474 for righties. In effect, he's a "reverse-platoon" pitcher, if that differential is troublesome at all (it shouldn't be).
That's not to say that Triple-A performance instantly translates to big league success, and it's possible that Carrasco, who turns 24 on March 21, might endure some rocky stretches as he fully adapts to the big leagues. On a team like the Indians, however -- on which lower-upside arms like Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Aaron Laffey, Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot and Josh Tomlin are his competition -- the team can afford to be patient with the young right-hander through any struggles.
If Carrasco does make a quick transition, however, why can't he make it onto the mixed-league radar? After all, Carmona did it just this past season, and Carrasco brings more strikeout potential and greater command to the table. It might seem crazy to talk "top-50 starter" upside with such a pitcher, but that might yet be Carrasco's upside. And he'll come at a fraction of the cost of one.
So ask yourself this: Would you rather have to spend a final-round pick in a mixed league, a mid-to-late round selection in an AL-only format or a bid in the $7-9 range in the latter format on a pitcher with Carmona's limited upside, or wait until the final rounds or toss a $1-3 bid in Carrasco's direction in AL-only? Mixed-league owners, meanwhile, might even be able to sneak Carrasco through the draft, as long as they're prepared to pounce the moment he opens eyes.
That's the appeal of picking Carrasco; no one knows who he is yet, so he'll cost practically nothing. Considering the fact that he might match or exceed Carmona's fantasy production, that's a much smarter investment.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.