Persistent Carrasco earning his Buc
Once acquired for dollar, Pirates reliever in big league plans
BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was one of the odder requests that general manager Neal Huntington had ever received while conducting negotiations with a player.
He had already convinced D.J. Carrasco that Pittsburgh offered the best opportunity to pitch in a meaningful role. In fact, Carrasco was ready to turn down multiple Major League contract offers for the Pirates' offer of a Minor League one.
First, though, Carrasco needed the Pirates to make good on one promise that they hadn't 11 years before.
"Neal," Carrasco said, while the two were on the phone this winter. "I want my 25-cent check."
Finding a fit
The Pirates' 25-cent debt makes little sense unless you take Carrasco's story from the beginning.
The 32-year-old right-hander, who has established himself as a capable Major League reliever, enjoyed little hype on his way up through four Minor League systems. Not that Carrasco helped his own cause, though.
For years, he fought his own fate. Carrasco had no desire to ever be a pitcher. Rather, he had an insatiable itch to hit. When the Orioles took him in the 26th round of the 1997 First-Year Player Draft, Carrasco agreed to sign only after he was promised a chance to prove that he could make it with his bat.
The request was a legitimate one considering Carrasco had been a standout hitter in high school. But it wasn't until he showed up at Instructional League that Carrasco found out the Orioles never had any intention to groom him as a position player. His name was listed with the rest of the participating pitchers. That, Baltimore said, would be the best fit.
"I was kind of bitter," Carrasco said, looking back on his time with the O's. "I kept bugging them and bugging them [to hit], so that's probably why I got released."
That happened the following summer.
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He hooked on with the Indians days later, but only after Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro made Carrasco promise that he wouldn't start lobbying to hit again. Shapiro told Carrasco that he already had a reputation.
Reluctantly, Carrasco agreed. He needed to find his way back into baseball somehow, and this, he figured, might be the only way.
Carrasco made 13 appearances for the Indians' short season club in Watertown (N.Y.), and as he did so, his pitching coach suggested Carrasco make a drastic mechanical change. Carrasco's delivery had always been a bit unorthodox -- he released the ball from a sidearm slot -- and the Indians wanted him to adopt an over-the-head motion instead. It worked to an extent, as Carrasco showed good control. But he never could complement that with decent velocity.
"I wasn't dumb," Carrasco said. "I was a right-hander topping out at 86 [mph] and throwing at 84. I was throwing knuckleballs every day in the outfield because I figured that was the only way I was ever going to get to the big leagues. It wasn't going to be with the fastball."
At the same time, Carrasco watched hitters swing at pitches over their head or in the dirt and truly believed he could be better than that. So, despite his earlier vow, Carrasco approached manager Ted Kubiak with a few weeks left in the 1998 season and told him he wanted to come back the following year as a hitter.
Shapiro found out and laughed. Carrasco asked for his release.
"I've always been so confident in my abilities as a hitter that I knew I could do it somewhere," Carrasco said. "Everyone who knew me thought I was crazy. But I was just so confident. When I dreamed of myself in the big leagues, it was always as a hitter. It was never as a pitcher."
He returned to Arizona, worked out at a local junior college and started phoning independent league clubs. Carrasco then showcased himself, both as a hitter and pitcher, at a nearby workout the White Sox held. Independent league scouts were in attendance.
The White Sox offered him a contract on the spot -- to pitch. Carrasco said no thanks. The Johnstown (Pa.) Johnnies then stepped in and agreed to sign him as a position player to play independent ball for the 1999 season.
Finally, Carrasco thought, he could do what he wanted.
Change of plans
But not long after, the phone rang, and on the other end was someone from the Pirates' front office.
Pittsburgh had purchased Carrasco's contract from the Johnnies. That was the good news. The bad? The Pirates intended to have Carrasco pitch. Of course, he argued, telling the Bucs that he preferred to stay in independent ball and hit.
But Carrasco was told that wasn't an option. The Pirates had the ability to suspend his rights -- which would mean he could not play anywhere for the next five years -- if he didn't report to camp. Finally, he was forced to give up the fight.
"I realized that I can't shake it," Carrasco said. "I had tried everything I could, and God was telling me that I wasn't going to hit. So I decided I would go with it now."
Then came the kicker. In that same phone conversation, Carrasco learned that for the transaction to go through, the Pirates had to compensate the Johnnies. Pittsburgh did so by paying them one dollar for Carrasco's rights.
As Carrasco tells it, at the time, when your contract was purchased from an independent league team, the player received 25 percent of the purchase price. With only one dollar changing hands, Carrasco was therefore in line to receive a quarter.
|"They paid a dollar for me. I had to stand out."|
|-- D.J. Carrasco|
He spent the next four seasons in the Pirates' system, but never did get the money. That's why he has now asked Huntington to make good on the organization's debt now 11 years later.
"I don't think he's going to let me forget it," Huntington said, laughing. "It's a good story, and we're happy to fulfill his request. We've submitted the check request."
Carrasco plans to frame the check and display it on a wall in his Texas home.
A circuitous journey
Carrasco will make much more than a quarter this year, with his contract calling for a $950,000 guaranteed salary if he makes the club. And as things stand now, that's as close to a given as there can be without an official announcement.
"We were up front with him coming in that he pretty much had to be awful in Spring Training not to make our club coming," Huntington said. "Thus far, he's been far from it. D.J. has shown us so far that he has the continued ability to get Major League hitters out and to pitch in a variety of roles."
Things have come full circle for Carrasco since that dollar bill changed hands and the right-hander pitched in the Pirates' farm system from 1999-2002. He has made stops with Kansas City, Arizona and the White Sox since, though it hasn't always been a smooth journey in between.
On the positive side, it was with the Pirates that Carrasco found his ideal arm slot. He asked if he could go back to three-quarters release point like he had used before the Indians altered his mechanics, and pitching coach Blaine Beatty, then coaching in the Pirates' Minor League system, let him go at it.
"He said, 'Dude, we paid a dollar for you. Do whatever you want,'" Carrasco recalled. "Beatty said, 'It's your career. You don't want to have any regrets.'"
By dropping his arm slot, Carrasco saw his velocity increase to 92-93 mph. He also started working on a submarine-type delivery -- which he still surprises hitters with from time to time today.
"They paid a dollar for me," Carrasco explained. "I had to stand out."
On the other side of things, though, Carrasco could never get noticed in Pittsburgh's farm system. He pitched at the Class A level for four years, sometimes moving up to Double-A, but always eventually moving back down. It had little to do with results, as Carrasco's numbers show. It was much more a reflection of the minimal investment the organization had in him.
By the end of the 2002 season, which he spent entirely in Class Lynchburg (Va.), Carrasco had made up his mind to quit.
"I had given up so much of my life for this," Carrasco said. "I figured if I went back to A-ball at the age of 25 that I was over. I was never going to make it doing that."
He agreed to finish out the season only after some prodding from friends. He then caught a break and was added to the Arizona Fall League late as a member of the taxi squad. He was a standout in the League, and parlayed that success into an opportunity to play winter ball in Mexico. Carrasco did it primarily for the money.
It was there, while Carrasco was thinking about what he would do now that his professional baseball career was over, that the Royals selected him in the Rule 5 Draft. Despite Carrasco's 1.61 ERA in 55 Class A games that season, the Pirates had left him off the 40-man roster.
Carrasco managed to spend all of 2003 up with the Royals, and has since appeared in 181 Major League games.
"I would have been done," Carrasco said with no hesitation when asked what would have happened if the Royals had not acquired him. "I had gone down the politicking road so much. There has definitely been divine intervention."
The next chapter
Invited to camp as a non-roster player, Carrasco has allowed just two hits in six scoreless innings so far this spring. Though he hasn't been added to the 40-man roster just yet, it's coming.
Carrasco's role, however, isn't so well defined just yet. He still has a desire to start, something Carrasco has done 23 different times in the Majors. The Pirates don't have that particular need right now with ample starting depth, but there's always the chance Carrasco could be called on to spot start later in the year.
He could be used as the long reliever in the bullpen, though Carrasco's hope is that he can be used more in leverage situations. The Pirates haven't ruled that possibility out either.
"He's fearless," Huntington said. "He mixes and matches, throws the ball over the plate and makes hitters play. All of his pitches have action. He's been everything we've anticipated him being."
Last year, Carrasco logged 93 1/3 innings in 49 appearances (one start) with the White Sox. Of those 48 relief appearances, all but 14 were longer than one inning.
"The guy can wear many hats for you," pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said. "Those guys are like the sixth man in basketball. Those guys are great to have."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.