GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Don't be fooled by the grin Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco wears every morning in camp.
Don't let the playful punches he exchanges with his teammates give you the wrong idea. Forget about the jokes. Remember that he's still in his early 20s.
Make no mistake, Carrasco feels great -- but he's not just happy to be here this time around. The young Venezuelan believes he deserves to be among Cleveland's big leaguers, and he's not the only one. If Carrasco pitches the way Indians manager Manny Acta believes he can this spring, the right-hander will join Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson and Mitch Talbot in the starting rotation.
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"It's too early for me to think about if I am or I am not in the rotation, so I'm going to keep working like I always have," Carrasco said. "We are all here to win. The manager makes the decision where I go, and it's out of my hands."
Josh Tomlin, David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez and Anthony Reyes are also in the mix for a spot in the rotation. But it is Carrasco who could emerge as the sleeper of the entire pitching staff.
"I think [Carrasco's] going to be an exciting guy to watch," Acta said. "He's been terrific so far in camp, and he's only 23 years old. I think Carlos has the potential to be one of the finer arms in the American League."
Carrasco has come a long way, and he knows it. Acquired with infielder Jason Donald, catcher Lou Marson and right-handed pitcher Jason Knapp from Philadelphia in the trade for Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco at the Trade Deadline in 2009, Carrasco said he felt the expectations that come with being a key player in a deal that sends away a club's ace.
He was anxious. He was a relatively unknown commodity.
He got over it.
"Last year was the very first time I had to fight for a job, and it affected me," Carrasco said. "I sensed pressure. I tried to do more than I could. I made mistakes. I'm so much calmer this year, but I've never let my intensity go."
Despite the nerves, Carrasco still managed to impress the organization with flashes of talent last spring. His inconsistency, however, proved to be his downfall. He started the season at Triple-A Columbus, and went 10-6 with a 3.65 ERA in 150 1/3 innings.
"Last year, when Carlos came to camp he wasn't even competing. But the way he threw the ball at the end of camp in the last couple of weeks, he opened our eyes," Acta said. "I think it all started in the middle of camp last year."
In retrospect, Carrasco calls his experience in the Minor Leagues a blessing. He said he learned how to pitch, and learned how to be a professional. He learned how to be an Indian.
He admits he still tinkers with mechanics at times. But then he asked, "Who doesn't?"
This year's Carrasco is comfortable enough to joke about his shortcomings. He's also confident enough to know he will overcome them.
"As a player, I'm much better than I was last year, and I'm more comfortable -- but I think that's natural," Carrasco said. "You can say I am more established, but my goal is the same as last year: work on my mechanics and get better. I feel like am able to be more focused on the job I have to do. I'm not worried about the other stuff.
"Just to have the opportunity to pitch in Triple-A was good for me. Knowing a team believes in you allowed me to do what I was supposed to do. It makes a big difference. Changing organizations was a big adjustment. You don't know where you fit in, but now I do."
Carrasco went 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA in seven starts after his big league promotion last September. He struck out 38 and walked 14 in 44 2/3 innings.
"We are very excited with the progress that Carlos has made," Acta said. "I think those seven outings in September were huge for his confidence and for us to know that we have a guy like him, and the stuff is there."