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Cleveland Indians: Can Michael Brantley offset the loss of Carlos Carrasco?

Losing one top player and gaining another one means the Indians are in limbo. What effect, if any, will this have?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday was a bittersweet day for Cleveland Indians fans. The news came down that Michael Brantley would be rejoining the team in Minnesota, and just hours later Carlos Carrasco tweaked his hamstring and ended up on the disabled list for more than a month. The team has been decent offensively but could certainly use an extra spark, so Brantley’s return is well needed. But to lose your second best pitcher and dark horse Cy Young candidate is a punch not many teams can handle.

The Tribe must continue its campaign to a championship, and it must be wondered with these moves: Are the Indians better, worse off, or is everything just holding the same?

Brantley, if he comes back like he was most of last year and all of 2014, is the unavowed best player on the team and an MVP candidate. But while Carrasco isn’t considered the best pitcher on the team since the staff is headlined by a Cy Young winning cyborg, it could be, and has been argued that he has better stuff and at this point may be the better pitcher. It’s not a wide margin or anything, they’re both excellent, but Carrasco does throw harder, is a bit younger and has secondary stuff that while not as good as Kluber, is very excellent anyway.

Statisically, specifically in terms of WAR over the last two years, the numbers lean in Brantley’s favor

Statisically, specifically in terms of WAR over the last two years, the numbers lean in Brantley’s favor. The MVP vote-garnering 2014 netted him 6.1 fWAR to go with another 3.8 last season, for 9.9 total. Carrasco has only totaled seven between 2014 and 2015, though he was shortchanged in 2014 because he was in the bullpen until midway through the season. If you felt like prorating that out to 200ish innings, he’d be worth about 5.5 fWAR, and that is right in line with Brantley for the last two years. But he wasn’t, and that time in the bullpen was what was important to Carrasco becoming the Cookie Monster, so the numbers are what they are.

While Carrasco has been excellent to this point this year, striking out 23.5 percent of batters with a 5.9 percent walk rate and a 66 ERA- (100 is league average, each point below is a percent better than that), he’s been victimized by the home run. He’s given up a home run on 20 percent of fly balls and it’s pushed his FIP to 4.32. It’s not a pretty peripheral, but it’s really the home run rate that is unsustainable.

Last year Carrasco’s FIP was 2.84 and 2.44 the year before that, so if anything he was underperforming to this point in 2016. He looked like he was just starting to get it going too. He threw that gem in Tampa then battled through control and fluctuating strike zone issues in Seattle to get the team a win there, and was on point into the third in Detroit. This injury is surely a crimp in what was looking to become an excellent season. But we’ll have to see since an injury to the plant leg like this shouldn’t appear to be a real issue.

If history is to be believed, though, neither should Brantley’s shoulder. FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris did a study on the impact Brantley’s shoulder injury had on his September, and also what this kind of injury and subsequent surgery can have on the following season’s production. In short, among the players who played the next year following shoulder tears, only one, Travis Lee, had any real dropoff in production and even he was at least league average. So it’s no stretch to expect Brantley to continue to lace doubles to both gaps, have a game a week where he goes 3-for-4, and maybe pop a dozen or so homers on his way to a 135 wRC+ and some MVP votes.

The real question is, what is more important, a top of the rotation pitcher or a middle of the order hitter? If WAR is to be believed, neither really, both have similar impact. The pitcher on his best day can just go out and win a whole game for you, giving the bullpen and, if he’s good enough, the defenders the day off. But that can only happen once a week or so. A hitter impacts every game, getting four chances to affect the score and some old school types argue his presence in the batting order helps everyone else there, too. In Brantley’s case, his being in the batting order might mean Rajai Davis not leading off, and indeed not even playing that much. Even against lefties Brantley would start over Jose Ramirez and even if I love that kid, that’s just a better outfield no matter how you slice it.

The other issue is this means Trevor Bauer is in the rotation. Tribe fans were hoping he’d have time to get Carrasco’d in the ‘pen and turn into their third or fourth ace, but real life got in the way. So it depends on him. If Bauer is lights out, and the absence of Carrasco is barely felt then naturally the Indians are better off. But if he starts earning runs in places Carrasco would have gotten outs, it doesn’t matter how many doubles Brantley knocks when every fifth day turns into a loss.

The player that Brantley is replacing is important too, though. Jose Ramirez and Rajai Davis have been platooning in left for the most part and have at least comported themselves well. Ramirez has logged a 100 wRC+ so far this year while Davis has been at 133 along with being second in the league in stolen bases. Brantley should be expected to perform better than Davis has if healthy, his 135 wRC+ last year sapped by a bad September and he is better than a streaky Davis.

So if Bauer is more worse than Carrasco than Brantley is better than the guy he’s replacing -- which is a confusing way of looking at things but makes sense trust me -- then it’s a net loss. Bauer has been below average his whole career by FIP-, 107 and 106 the last two years, but just barely if that’s any consolation. I don't think Brantley will outmatch his fill-ins more than Bauer will underperform Carrasco, but that's because I'm at times an optimistic idiot. But he just has to be pretty good for it all to work out.

The Tribe has done well enough with Brantley gone and had likely hoped to step on the gas pedal now he’s back, but by the butterfly effect, we must now count on the young, enigmatic arm of Trevor Bauer to brave these unexpectedly choppy waters. As long as Brantley bounces back to the man we know and love, or at least a rough version of that, this should be a smooth couple of weeks, and they can at least hold serve. Everything counts on everything else. Then June will arrive, and suddenly there’s going to be a monster showing up in the rotation again.