Ezequiel Carrera has made quite an impression since being recalled from Triple-A Columbus last week. The 25-year-old outfielder went 5-for-12 with a home run, a steal, and a trio of runs scored in his first three games with the Indians. FanGraphs has him on pace for an absurd 21.6 wins above replacement over a full season, and while that obviously isn’t sustainable Carrera already looks like a huge improvement over his recently DFA’d predecessor, Johnny Damon.
Of course, that’s only a three-game sample size, and it’s a very different story from what we saw last year. Carrera appeared in 68 games for the Tribe in 2011 and didn’t have much of a presence at the plate: he struggled to a .243/.301/.312 triple-slash (71 wRC+) and went 226 plate appearances without a home run. He showed good speed and decent plate discipline, but he just didn’t hit the ball hard enough to be successful.
So what should we expect from Carrera from here on out? Does he have the stuff to hold his own at the bottom of the order and maybe earn a starting job for 2013? Or is he an all-speed, no-hit guy in the mold of Aaron Cunningham?
The best place to start in answering a question like this is with his minor-league stats. Carrera played 97 games with the Clippers before his call-up, in which he hit a solid .294/.345/.419 (17 percent better than the average International League hitter, according to wRC+) and was on pace for 10 home runs, 70 RBI, 109 runs scored, and 43 steals over 162 games.
Looking beyond the back-of-the-baseball card numbers, there are both good and bad signs to take away from Carrera’s 2012 numbers. On the plus side, his power is up. It might be underwhelming for a 25-year-old in the minors, but his .124 ISO in Columbus was his highest since 2008, and his .419 slugging percentage was the best of his career. But swinging harder came at the expense of his patience; after seeing his walk rate shoot up above 10 percent with the Clippers in 2011, he’s earned free passes at a rate of less than 1 in 15 plate appearances this year.
How would his Triple-A performance translate to The Show? Plugging those numbers into Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator, Carrera’s performance in Columbus translates to a .266/.309/.370 triple-slash at Progressive Field. Let him play out a full season in the majors and he’d hit 8 home runs with 57 RBI, 89 runs scored, and 37 stolen bases. These are just basic projections (Carrera significantly underperformed his MLEs last year) and it’s unclear exactly how his more aggressive approach will hold up against MLB pitching, but that seems like a reasonable expectation.
Looking at these numbers, one thing is particularly striking: if Carrera can play at a level anywhere near his MLE projections he will be a huge upgrade over Johnny Damon in left field. Carrera’s predecessor was hitting .222/.281/.329 (70 wRC+), so it shouldn’t be too hard for him to top that. Plus Damon is no longer a speed demon on the basepaths and was a true liability on defense, so Carrera’s got him there too.
But just how good would he be? Give Carrera top marks for baserunning and call him a good-not-great defender in left field (from what I’ve seen of his glove both in the majors and the minors, I’d say that rating is conservative) and plug his projected numbers into the Simple WAR Calculator and he comes out at 2.0 wins above replacement over 162 games—or, a league-average MLB player. Move him to center field (as the Indians would be wise to do since Michael Brantley looks far better in left than he does in center) and that goes up to a solid 2.9 WAR. Assuming he continues to improve as he ages, we could be looking at a guy who’ll provide over three wins a year in his prime.
It’s dangerous to read too much into minor league stats, and as Tribe fans should know very well by now, many young players don’t end up blossoming the way they are supposed to. But if Carrera can continue to hit the ball with at least a marginal amount of power, he’ll hold his own in the lineup and be a true asset on the basepaths and in the field. The Indians were wise to give him a chance to show what he can do, and he may just be a big part of this team down the road.