During the first half of this season, Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar performed at an elite, All-Star level. It earned him a selection by manager Ned Yost to the Midsummer Classic. He did not pitch due to resting a sore elbow, but did take his rightful place in San Diego along side his fellow American League stars.
Since the All-Star break, however, Salazar has looked more like a guy who was pitching at Triple-A Columbus through the season’s first three months rather than a guy popping up in conversations as a possible A.L. Cy Young Award candidate.
Whether it has been the elbow issues, for which he spent the first half of August on the disabled list, or something mental, as has been speculated, Salazar has just not been the same pitcher. Before the annual mid-July showcase, the 26-year-old, in his fourth Major League season, was enjoying a breakout campaign. He was combining with Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco to form a Big 3 at the top of the rotation that made Cleveland a favorite to reach the World Series.
Now, as Salazar battles through injuries and mental issues, the rotation is a shell of what it was when it was largely considered the best in A.L. and a top five unit in all of baseball during the first three months of the campaign. Of the group, some thought Salazar to be best, having even gone ahead of Kluber, a one-time Cy Young trophy winner.
Salazar’s last four starts have been nothing short of disastrous – two before his stint on the DL and his two since taking a 17-day hiatus to try and get his elbow issues 100 percent behind him. In those outings, he has surrendered 19 earned runs in eleven innings. His ERA has jumped from a very good 2.75 to a pedestrian 3.90. He last resembled the pre- All-Star version of himself on July 19 with two runs allowed in a six and two-thirds innings outing. Even his two starts before that were not good, meaning six of his last seven have been sub-par.
The two performances before going on the shelf could almost be forgiven as it seemed he may have been pitching with a sore right elbow. It is the two appearances since that have been baffling, to say the least.
In his first game back, Salazar coughed up three runs in one inning to a porous White Sox offense. He threw 34 pitches, only 16 of which were strikes. He spent the next three innings in the bullpen, essentially throwing a simulated game – unusual for a regular season contest. Manager Terry Francona admitted the team may have erred in not sending Salazar on a minor league rehab assignment before reactivating him.
Salazar’s second start, this past Tuesday, was against an even worse Oakland A’s ball club. He again surrendered three runs in the first inning. He did manage to get through four innings and 80 pitches, but he gave up six earned runs. It was hardly the hoped-for result for the All-Star hurler.
On Sunday Salazar gets a third opportunity to get back on track. However, rather than facing one of the dredges of the league, he will see the Texas Rangers, one of the game’s better-hitting outfits. It will be a stern test for a pitcher who has failed recent exams.
The afternoon game will also be of major importance to the Indians as a whole. They need to get their number three starter back on track in a big way. Kluber has dominated his way into the discussion to win a second Cy Young Award this season. Carrasco has mostly been as strong as advertised. However, the rotation beyond those two has been hurting.
In the first half of the season and during Cleveland’s late-June 14-game winning streak, the starting five were great, from top to bottom. When the Indians started to struggle a little bit after that, it was because the rotation came unglued. Getting fully on track starts with Salazar.
If Salazar can become that trusted third starter again, the Tribe’s rotation would once more look very strong. It is a bit of a different view when three pitchers are going well and you have a really good feeling about, at least, being in a good position to win three out of every five games.
The reemergence of Salazar would also make Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin resembling the four and five starters that they are a little more palatable. With three strong pitchers headlining the rotation, having two pitchers who are more around an average level is better accepted. Bauer and Tomlin were pitching superbly during the first half of the season but both have slipped up a bit. Bauer has been up and down in his performances, while Tomlin has struggled. The organization and Indians fans could live with results befitting the last two rotation spots if the Big 3 was fully on track.
A big start Sunday for Salazar would go a long way. If he can control or even pitch reasonably well against one of the league’s best batting orders it would do a lot for Salazar regaining some of the confidence that he seems to have lost. It would also help Tribe faithful to regain their faith in Cleveland’s division title quest and any postseason run thereafter.
It would be nice, over the last month, to see Salazar regain his first-half form that saw him earn his first All-Star nod and talk of postseason awards. However, simply getting back the version the club saw last year or even in the second half of 2013 would work as well.
Last season, Salazar was 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA. Granted, it was not the dominant 10-3 with a 2.22 ERA he was at on June 29 this year. Still, the 2015 Salazar would be a welcome sight about now and slot it quite nicely behind a true number one in Kluber and a strong number two in Carrasco. Even the late-season call up work Salazar did as rookie in 2013 would be amazing right now. In ten starts, he was 2-3, but carried a very good 3.12 ERA. It was enough for Francona to have enough confidence in giving him the ball to start the one-game Wild Card against Tampa Bay.
Salazar does not necessarily need to get back to the guy who ran roughshod over the A.L. to start this 2016 campaign. He just needs to get back to being that quality pitcher that he has proven he can be over his career to this point. Just getting back to a level befitting a number three pitcher would be a huge step towards righting Salazar’s ship and the vessel carrying the Indians’ AL Central-winning hopes.
Photo: Ben Margot/Associated Press