All-Star Version of Salazar Would Be Big Help to Tribe’s Struggling Rotation

What was supposed to be a major strength for the Cleveland Indians this season has so far been a bit of a weakness through the first six weeks of this season. That weak spot has been a starting pitching rotation that many hailed as being among the league’s best before a single meaningful pitch was thrown in 2017.

The only one of the starting five who has met or exceeded expectations thus far is Carlos Carrasco, who has been dominant. That has been needed as ace Corey Kluber has struggled with back problems and is currently on the disabled list. The other three starters in the rotation have simply failed to live up to what the back of their baseball cards say they can be.

One guy in that group stands out more than the others, however. That is Danny Salazar. It is hard to project Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, as they are back-of-the-rotation guys and have been up and down throughout their careers, with neither having had much consistency the past few years. Salazar, though, should be an All-Star caliber hurler. He has the stuff to be elite and was an All-Star just last season. However, he has not resembled one of the game’s best since 2016’s mid-summer classic in San Diego.

A return to an All-Star level for the 27-year-old would be a major boost to Cleveland’s rotation that is currently not living up to its potential of being among the game’s best.

Salazar is 2-3 with a 5.20 ERA through seven games this season. Those are certainly not All-Star numbers. What is disappointing is that his stuff, at times, has been electric. He is among the league’s best, averaging 13.1 strike outs per nine innings. However, 4.5 walks per nine do not help his cause, nor do they help his pitch count.

Salazar has always been effectively wild. However, when he had his best full season in 2015, he only issued 2.6 free passes per nine frames in going 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA.

He followed that season up by looking as though he had hit the button for great success in last year’s first half. After a July 4 start against Central Division rival Detroit, Salazar sat at 10-3 with a 2.36 ERA. There was little question he had earned the right to join baseball’s best at Petco Park.

Salazar’s season began to unravel at that point. His last start in the first half was an outing against the Yankees. He surrendered six runs in five and two-thirds stanzas. After that contest he complained of right forearm soreness and did not pitch in the All-Star Game.

He came off the break looking initially good. He gave up two earned runs in six and two-thirds innings against the Royals. That was July 19 and the final time last year he looked like an All-Star pitcher. He labored through his next six starts, fretting that his forearm was not right. Whether it was truly injured or was a mental hurdle for him to get through was something of a mystery. Either way, he was 1-3 with a 7.44 ERA after the All-Star break – a steep drop from the way his season began.

Salazar has yet to get back to the point he was at during 2016’s first half. Right now, the Indians would take the 2015 version of Salazar, which was simply good, not great.

In April, it seemed Salazar might be working back to being that guy who was so good to start last season. After a rough outing in Texas to start the 2017 campaign, Salazar had back-to-back outings in which he tossed 12 innings and allowed only three earned runs. However, the last four starts have had highly mixed results. He has been all over the place, bottoming out on Wednesday night in Toronto. Handed leads of 3-2 and 7-3, he could not hold them. He gave up five earned runs in two and two-thirds frames.

It has been a grind for him to find the stuff, at least consistently, that made him a guy the Indians could truly depend on in 2015 and the start of 2016. That version of Salazar, though, is just what the Tribe could use right now.

With Kluber on the shelf, Carrasco has stepped up in a big way. He is pitching like an ace. Carrasco, when healthy, has been very good the last few years, so this is not a major shock. No one, however, has filled the void of not having a second dominant starter. It was hard to expect Bauer or Tomlin to be that guy, as neither has been that dominant starter to this point in their careers. Salazar has been that dominant guy before.

Salazar has the ability and the arm to be the ace of a pitching staff. He pitched that way for three months a year ago. He was good the season before that. The ability is there. Whether it is something mental or physical, there does seem to be a hurdle for Salazar to overcome toward being that dominant pitcher again for Cleveland. The Indians could sure use him getting there.

While the Tribe began this weekend in a first place tie atop the AL Central, the club could really take off with a consistently strong Salazar. The team was at its best last year when he was shining bright. In June, the Tribe enjoyed its franchise-best 14-game winning streak largely due to the rotation humming along. Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar were combining to be a three-headed pitching monster that no other club could really boast.

Kluber will be healthy, hopefully soon, to pair with a dominant Carrasco for a fine one-two punch atop the starting five. The rotation would truly be scary for opposing lineups with Salazar regaining his status as a third ace-like pitcher.

Can he get there? Time will tell. He has the skill, he just needs to put it back together and throw his electric stuff for strikes far more consistently than he has been since the latter half of July 2016.

Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

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