There will be no handouts for Danny Salazar in 2015. If the organization’s once coveted pitching prospect wants a spot in the Tribe’s five man rotation, he will have to earn it in spring training.
Signed at age 16 in 2006 out of the Dominican Republic, Salazar didn’t do much to separate himself in the low minors, but his career took off after recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2010. He was dominant for the High-A Carolina Mudcats in 2012 with a 2.68 ERA and then splashed onto the scene in 2013, posting a 3.12 ERA in his first 10 big league starts.
When the Indians clinched the 2013 AL wild card, Terry Francona tabbed him the starter for the win or go home game versus Tampa Bay. While Salazar lasted just four innings in the loss, many thought the experience of pitching on baseball’s biggest stage would pay dividends next season and beyond. Expectations were very high to say the least for Salazar entering 2014.
Salazar won the fourth spot in the rotation behind Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister, and got off to a nice start with a win in his first 2014 start. But things quickly went south as he failed to make it to the fifth inning in his next three starts, losing all three. It was no secret that Salazar wasn’t the same guy who Francona sent to the mound for the Tribe’s first postseason game since 2007. He could still throw as hard as anybody, with his fastball topping out at 99mph on the radar gun, but his control wasn’t there. Walks were piling up and he was giving up way more hits. Sitting at 1-4 (5.53 ERA) through eight starts, the Indians optioned Salazar to Triple-A Columbus on May 22 to figure it out.
As bummed as we were to see Salazar struggle, the move turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Indians, who promoted 22-year-old Kyle Crockett to take his spot. We all know Crockett’s 2014 story. The rookie southpaw was lights out in the bullpen all season, going 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 43 appearances.
Salazar spent most of the summer in Columbus working with pitching coach Tony Arnold. After getting shelled in his first few starts, Salazar’s walks and pitch counts went down and he was hitting his spots more consistently. Cleveland recalled him from Columbus on July 22, where he was 4-6 (3.71 ERA) in 11 starts.
In his first three starts after being recalled, Salazar went 3-0 and allowed just four runs over 18 innings of work, lowering his ERA from 5.53 to 4.45.
Salazar had arguably his best game as a pro in a 9-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers on September 3, tossing a complete game eight-hit shutout, fanning nine and walking none. This was the Salazar of 2013 that we hoped to see right out of camp.
Fast forward to 2015 spring training and Salazar finds himself competing with Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister, T.J. House, and Bruce Chen for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, behind Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. Gavin Floyd was expected to take the fourth spot but news out of camp is that he will miss significant time after re-injuring the right elbow stress fracture that ended his 2014 season.
“I’m fighting for a spot,” Salazar told Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com at spring training. “There are a couple of guys fighting. I believe it’s going to be a good fight.”
Salazar pitched two innings in his spring training debut last Friday against Kansas City. He allowed two runs on three hits, including a two-run home run to Alex Rios in the first inning on an 0-2 pitch.
“He made a couple of mistakes along the way, but I thought he threw the ball really well,” manager Terry Francona said after the game. “In the season, we can nit-pick. But in spring training, for the first time out, I thought the ball came out of his hand really well.”
While Salazar has the most upside of the bunch, T.J. House was the most consistent last season and would seem to have a slight edge over Salazar right now for the fourth spot. Veteran lefty Chen, who is with the club on a non-roster invitation to spring training, could bump Salazar, too.
One thing working against Salazar this spring is an incident he was involved in on January 22nd at the Cleveland Hustler Club that led to him being the subject of a sexual-assault investigation. Prospectors have since decided to not file charges and Salazar issued apologies to the team and his family.
“I really don’t want to talk about that right now,” said Salazar addressing the issue for the first time. “I apologized for the distraction. I apologized to my family, my teammates and the front office. But I really don’t want to talk about it now.”
If Salazar can put the distraction behind him and turn in a solid spring training, we see him locking up the fourth or fifth spot. If not, he could very well start the season in Columbus with the new Clippers pitching coach, Carl Willis.
The sky really is the limit for this kid. The question is, how bad does he want it?
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer