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Can Salazar Crack the 2014 Cleveland Rotation?

Can Salazar Crack the 2014 Cleveland Rotation?

| On 13, Oct 2013

After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?

The 2013 baseball season will undoubtedly be one that Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar never forgets.

After all, it is not too often that a professional baseball player starts his season in Double-A and finishes it starting center stage in the biggest baseball game for the Indians in six years.

For the 23-year-old rookie, it was a monumental rise through the Indians system this season.

The emergence of Salazar gives general manager Chris Antonetti some extra flexibility when trying to construct next year’s team, especially in light of two different starting pitchers looking at raises this offseason via free agency.

Manager Terry Francona already has Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, and Corey Kluber as three-fifths of the rotation moving forward. Left-hander Scott Kazmir, coming off of a 10-9, 4.04 ERA season in his return to the big leagues in 2013, could also come back to the club if the price is right. The biggest question mark, Ubaldo Jimenez, may still be on the Indians radar as well after a comeback season for the ages, where his strong effort on the mound (13-9, 3.30) filled the frequent voids in the starting rotation while each of the other four rotation members missed time with injuries. His status is a bit hazy, and if he does in fact reach free agency through a declined mutual option as expected, it is believed he will command a large multi-year contract.

Salazar could immediately plug into the rotation to replace Kazmir or Jimenez in the event that one or both elect to sign elsewhere in the offseason.

The Indians right-handed youngster started 2013 with the Akron Aeros of the Double-A Eastern League. In seven starts, he posted a 2-3 record on the mound with a 2.67 ERA. He averaged less than five innings per start, but showed good control on the mound, walking ten batters in 33 2/3 innings. More impressive was his total of 51 strikeouts in that time, giving him his second-highest number of strikeouts per nine innings (13.6) of any of his stops throughout the Indians farm system.

After a little over one month at Akron, he was promoted to Triple-A, joining the Columbus Clippers. He made 14 appearances for the Clippers, including 13 starts, and had a 4-2 record with one save. His ERA remained consistent at 2.73. He threw 59 1/3 innings for Columbus, striking out 78 and walking 14. His ability to keep runners off of the base paths was a key to his success there, as his 0.978 WHIP was the second-lowest of his minor league career.

He made his Indians debut on July 11th in an afternoon spot start against the Toronto Blue Jays and gave Cleveland fans a taste of what he could do on the mound. He faced one over the minimum through the first five innings of the game, walking Rajai Davis to lead off the third inning. His no-hitter attempt in his Major League debut ended with a Josh Thole single to left to lead off the sixth inning and he allowed the tying run to cross on a single by Jose Bautista later that inning. The Indians reclaimed the lead on a two-run single by Lonnie Chisenhall in the bottom of the inning and Cleveland went on to win the game, 4-2, giving Salazar his first big league win.

Salazar struck out seven batters and walked one in that first start. He struck out batters in each of the first five innings, including striking out the side in the second. All seven strikeouts were swinging. He was sent back down to Columbus after the start.

Three weeks later, Salazar was recalled for a key game against the Detroit Tigers on August 7th. He threw a career-high 103 pitches and pitched deep into the eighth inning, his longest Major League start of the season. He struck out ten batters, including six swinging. He struck out the side in order in the third inning and led off the fourth with another strikeout swinging. Miguel Cabrera, who alone was responsible for three of the strikeouts, ended his night in the top of the eighth after sending a two-out, two-run home run over the fence in center field to tie the game.

Salazar was charged with four earned runs on seven hits in the game and walked just one. The Indians would go on to lose the game, 6-5, in 14 innings.

Salazar was on a pitch count throughout the rest of the season after that start. He was pulled by the 80 pitch mark in each of his next six outings, regardless of what inning he had reached. In just two of those starts did he make it beyond the fourth inning.

The pitch count increased for his final two starts of the season, as he pitched into the sixth inning of each. He was pulled after 82 pitches in a loss to Kansas City on September 18th and after 89 pitches in a win against Chicago in his final start of the regular season.

He finished the year with 65 strikeouts and 15 walks in 52 innings over ten starts. He struck out seven batters or more in six of those starts. In his start on September 13th against the Chicago White Sox, he struck out nine of the eleven batters he retired while allowing none of the six runners to reach base to cross home plate.

With Masterson unable to start while returning from his oblique injury and Jimenez used in the final game of the regular season to clinch the top American League Wild Card spot, Salazar was selected by Francona over several more established pitchers, McAllister and Kluber, to make the start in the play-in game at Progressive Field against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Salazar struck out three straight Rays batters (Wil Myers, James Loney, and Evan Longoria) in the first and second innings, but allowed a leadoff home run on a first pitch fastball to Delmon Young in the third. The Rays tacked on two more runs on a two-out double in the fourth by Desmond Jennings and the Indians offense did nothing to help out the rookie, as the Indians went on to lose 4-0. Salazar allowed three runs on four hits, walked two, and struck out four in four-plus innings and took the loss.

His final record of 2-3 was deceiving due to his pitch count limit, which prevented him from earning several other decisions. His 3.12 ERA and 1.14 WHIP were far more telling numbers of his efforts in his first few months as a Major Leaguer.

He was an equal opportunity strikeout artist on the mound. Right-handed batters struck out 30 times in 97 plate appearances (30.9%), while left-handed batters accumulated 35 strikeouts in 114 plate appearances (30.7%). Lefties walked 7 more times in 17 more plate appearances, but also batted 21 points lower (.216) than righties did (.237). Six of his seven home runs allowed on the season came to right-handed batters, not including Young’s postseason blast.

He finished 2013 with a total of 145 innings pitched combined between the three levels, his highest total as a professional baseball player. His previous high was 107 1/3, set with Lake County back in 2009 as a 19-year-old. He pitched just 87 2/3 innings in 2012 between Carolina and Akron as he continued his return from Tommy John surgery, which had limited him to just 14 2/3 innings in 2011 after his 2010 surgery.

The Indians brought the right-hander back slowly. Based on the results since, it is easy to see why. Salazar, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 as a 16-year-old, has seen his average fastball velocity jump from 96-97 miles per hour prior to the injury to 98-99 afterwards. Hitting triple digits on the radar gun has not been unheard of from Salazar since.

Salazar operates on the mound primarily with a combination of a fastball, changeup, and slider. He will also throw a two-seamer to complement his arsenal.

His fastball was his most utilized pitch throughout the season. He threw 551 of them, accounting for 67.2% of his total pitches. That total was the eighth-highest of all AL pitchers who threw at least 50 innings on the season. His average velocity of 95.9 miles per hour on his fastball was the eighth-highest amongst those same pitchers.

While his changeup was hit the best of the main three pitches (.246), he also struck out 24 batters in 58 plate appearances (41.4%) with the pitch.

Of AL pitchers with 50 innings pitched or more, he had the sixth-highest percentage of pitches swung at outside of the strike zone (35.8%), trailing names like Koji Uehara (39.2%), Mariano Rivera (37.9%), and Hisashi Iwakuma (36.5%) this season. He was eleventh in the same group of pitchers and second amongst rookies with a strikeout rate of 30.8%.

If the Indians are able to bring back both of Jimenez and Kazmir this offseason, Salazar will likely head into the 2014 Spring Training fighting with Kluber or McAllister for a rotation spot or find himself back in Columbus to start the season. Salazar, however, allows the Indians to consider multiple options for the starting rotation and for the roster moving forward.

Having too many Major League-caliber starting pitchers is rarely a problem, but is certainly a good problem to have. The emergence of Salazar in 2013 has created just such a problem for Antonetti and Company as they look to improve the 92-70 Indians for another postseason push in 2014. Salazar’s presence could allow the Indians to spend money otherwise earmarked for Jimenez or Kazmir on an extension for Masterson or on other necessary upgrades to the roster.

Regardless, it is hard to imagine any scenario in which Salazar is not making an immediate and significant impact on the 2014 version of the Cleveland Indians.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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