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Salazar and Tribe’s Progress Tied to One Another’s Success

Salazar and Tribe’s Progress Tied to One Another’s Success

| On 19, Mar 2014

The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who will need to take his game to the next level.

No player has higher expectations and tighter restrictions in the Indians’ organization than Danny Salazar.

Salazar is the only significant addition to the Indians’ starting rotation in 2014 after the team lost both Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir to free agency. A year ago Salazar started the year at Double-A Akron, before making his big league debut on July 11 and pitching Cleveland’s first playoff game since 2007.

“It was a great year for me,” Salazar said. “I worked hard and started the season in Akron. I moved up and moved up quick.”

In just 10 big league starts, Salazar was 2-3, with a 3.12 ERA in 52 innings. His electric fastball that can reach 100 mph, dazzled at times and showed a glimpse of the 24-year old’s potential. Salazar’s defining moment in 2013 may have been striking out Miguel Cabrera three times in a game on Aug. 7 in just his second big league start. His effort demonstrated his potential, while Cabrera’s 440-foot home run in his fourth at-bat showed Salazar’s youth and inexperience.

Despite a high ceiling of potential, Salazar is still a work in progress as he enters 2014.

“I mean there’s no telling what he can do,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “You guys saw what he could do in those few starts he had. The sky is the limit with him. The biggest thing with him is that he maintains his routines and stays healthy.”

Staying healthy.

That’s one of the biggest keys to Salazar’s future success, both in 2014 and beyond. Salazar had Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow in the summer of 2010. After a lengthy rehab and pitching late in 2011, Salazar was expected to pitch without restriction in 2012. However, Salazar struggled with feeling in his ulnar nerve early in the 2012 season and had to be shut down for around a month. Once returning to action, he has been on a tight pitch count and innings limit. It’s something Salazar has made a conscious effort to strengthen his body as he matures and develops.

“I’ve been working on my shoulder, elbow and my whole body this off-season, just to get healthy for spring training,” Salazar said.

This winter Salazar strengthened his body by playing catch and long toss, in addition to running and completing a shoulder-strengthening program. The plan is for Salazar to pitch without restriction in 2014 and be a member of the Tribe’s rotation from the outset of the season. While the youngster is looking forward to his first full season in the big leagues, he’s entered spring training with the mindset that he still has something to prove.

“I know there’s a spot there, but I want to earn it,” Salazar said. “I’m not going to go there and just take it easy because I’m going to start in the big leagues. I want to earn my spot.”

The Indians remain cautious in their preparation with Salazar. He’s been slow to pitch in game action, appearing in just one Cactus League contest to date. He pitched in an intrasquad game prior to his exhibition game appearance on March 10 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He allowed two hits and a run in one and two-third innings. He pitched last Friday in a minor league game against the Cincinnati Reds Triple-A team, allowing a run on two hits and a walk while striking out six on 52 pitches. He is slated to pitch four innings today against Oakland in Cactus League play.

Indians manager Terry Francona remains steadfast that despite the slow start in spring training, Salazar will be ready to pitch in April in the Tribe’s rotation. Francona has remained adamant that the plan to Salazar’s development is to have him firing in the regular season. His debut in April could be slightly delayed, however. Francona has already said Salazar will pitch out of the fifth spot in the rotation. With an off day in the first week’s schedule, it is possible that Salazar will not pitch until Tuesday, April 8 against San Diego.

“We want him to pitch with a full tank,” Francona told the media after Salazar’s March 10 appearance.

While the Indians remain dedicated to Salazar pitching a full season at the big league level, they also appear to be still monitoring his innings and usage. He may not be on the tight pitch count he was in 2013, but his innings will be monitored. His slow progression this spring and skipping his first start is an example.

Just last week, Indians Assistant General Manager Mike Chernoff told DTTWLN that Salazar’s development and innings remain a fluid situation.

“The innings limit thing is fluid and it is something we as an organization keep internal,” Chernoff said. “I think we are hopeful that Danny can have a completely healthy season, where he transitions himself into being, we’ll call it a ‘normal, unrestricted pitcher.’ I think a lot of that is more than just setting a certain number of innings, it’s a touch and feel thing with how he’s doing and how he’s feeling throughout the season.”

By all indications it appears Salazar will make regular starts in the rotation and pitch without restriction. He may, however, be pulled an inning early in a game that isn’t close or have a start pushed back at times when an off day allows it. The organization seems passionate about having Salazar at his peak in August and September when the Indians are hopefully contending for the American League Central Division and a playoff spot.

To complicate things, while Salazar continues to develop and be monitored, the Indians rotation is counting on him to be the addition to replace some of the innings vacated by Jimenez and Kazmir. Considering Salazar’s dominating stuff and potential, the Indians believe he can be a pitcher that slots in at the top of the rotation behind ace, Justin Masterson. Salazar is a little nervous about his expectations, yet he remains focused on just the here-and-now, his progression in 2014.

“Yes, a little bit,” Salazar said in regards to replacing one of the veterans in the rotation. “I’m just trying to keep calm. I’m just trying to make the team, go to spring training and work hard to earn my spot.”

As the Indians approach Opening Day 2014, expectations for Salazar and the Tribe could not be much higher. Each are expected to surpass 2013 accomplishments. How long Salazar can continue to pitch with restrictions, yet help assert the Indians as true contenders remains to be seen. At some point, the restrictions will have to be removed if Salazar and the Tribe are to reach their full potential. In the meantime, Salazar just remains focused on the present and what he can control.

“I’m just going to try and stay healthy and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer