Move to Bullpen Could Benefit Salazar, Indians

During the first half of the 2016 season, it seemed Danny Salazar was headed toward being an important fixture in the Cleveland Indians rotation for some years to come.

That first half, marred only by what seemed to be a minor forearm injury during the final weekend before the All-Star break, was one to behold for Salazar. He went into the break with a 10-3 record and 2.75 ERA. His breakout performance earned him a spot on the American League All-Star squad. He was a big reason the Indians were in first place and dreaming of big things ahead.

Those 2016 Indians did reach big things once play resumed after the Midsummer Classic. However, they did a lot of it without the All-Star hurler. By the time the team was playing in that year’s World Series, Salazar was reduced to a reliever, mostly in a spectator’s role.

The second half of Salazar’s 2016 campaign became something of a disaster. The arm injury lingered, partly in his head and partly physical according to some reports. Salazar battled ineffectiveness and a crisis of confidence. He was eventually shut down in September and missed the ALDS and ALCS altogether. He returned in time to pitch on a minimal basis in that Fall Classic.

As the 2017 season got underway, one of the biggest question marks was Salazar. Could he be the guy who was an All-Star and first-half Cy Young candidate in 2016 or would he be the guy who fell off the rails to close the 2016 campaign?

It turned out to be somewhere in the middle. Salazar’s 2017 season was filled with ups and downs and multiple trips to the bullpen. He showed flashes of his potential greatness, but would then be slowed by off and on shoulder issues. For the season, he was 5-6 with a 4.28 ERA. He had stretches in which he was superb and stretches in which watching him was maddening.

The 27-year-old struck out an eye-popping 12.67 batters per nine innings, but he also walked 3.3 hitters per nine frames. When all was going well, he was mostly limiting the walks, keeping himself out of trouble with base runners, and keeping his pitch count down.

April and May were roller coaster rides. He was up and down and rarely in between. He was sent to the bullpen, but it was brief due to other starters getting injured. He had an okay 4.34 ERA in April and then a ghastly 6.94 ERA in May.

After the debacle that was the season’s second month, the Indians moved Salazar to the bullpen. He made two relief appearances before succumbing to a shoulder injury. He went on the disabled list and followed that stint with some time in the minors. The time on the farm was to get Salazar’s arm feeling sound and also to try to boost his confidence that seemed to have been shot during the second half of 2016.

He came back in late July and had his best stretch of pitching in a long time. In his first five starts after being activated, Salazar gave up five earned runs total. He gave up two in one game and one or less in the other four. His ERA went from 5.40 to 3.92. He was entering the discussion to be the Tribe’s third or fourth starter in the postseason even though Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger were both pitching great in July and August.

Then disaster struck again. Salazar had a horrible start on August 20, giving up six runs in four and two-thirds innings and was again shut down because of his shoulder. He had another bad start when he came back in September. The Indians ended the year with him as a reliever and spare starter. He showed enough in four late-season games to earn a spot on the postseason roster as a reliever as the Indians planned to use him as a “weapon” along with fellow starter-turned-reliever Clevinger. Due to Cleveland’s early playoff ouster, Salazar as a weapon and a reliever were never on full display in October.

Perhaps the Tribe should give the idea more time. Salazar as a reliever could be the way to go as the club looks toward 2018.

Cleveland is loaded with great starting pitching. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber leads an impressive rotation that also includes Cy Young Candidate Carlos Carrasco, who finsihed fourth in this year’s voting. Bauer, a 17-game winner this past year, is as a good a No. 3 starter as there is in the game. The Indians can feel comfortable with Clevinger, Josh Tomlin, and Ryan Merritt rounding out the bottom two spots of the rotation.

Salazar probably slots in as the fourth starter at this point, which is why his skills could be better used in relief. It appears there will be at least one major job opening in the ‘pen, if not more, on next season’s staff.

Right-handed setup man Bryan Shaw is likely to find greener pastures via free agency. Trade deadline acquisition Joe Smith is a free agent and could also be elsewhere come April. That leaves closer Cody Allen and All-Star lefty Andrew Miller in the bullpen followed by question marks. The rest of the relievers on hand are more middle-relievers than late-inning relievers.

Salazar has the pure stuff to be a very good late-inning reliever or even a closer. He is great in stretches, but seems to falter when over-pitched. It may be that his arm and shoulder injuries the past couple of years have made throwing 100 pitches per outing a burden. He could be better off pitching one or two frames at a time.

With the high strike out rate, Salazar has the stuff to make batters swing and miss. His style of pitching can be painful if done over and over. A strkeout artist can thrive in ninth inning or in a tight spot, coming on in relieve with runners on base.

There are rumors floating about that Salazar could be traded this offseason. If the Indians are going to improve an offense that may lose Jay Bruce and Carlos Santana, it may have to be through trade and Salazar is a prime candidate when it comes to that.

If Salazar is not moved to another team, the Indians should strongly consider moving him to the bullpen. Allen and Miller are both free agents after the 2018 season, barring a long term deal for either. If Salazar can become a strong reliever, he could eventually slide into the closer’s role or a setup role, should the Indians find themselves needing to fill one of those spots in a couple years.

Less than two years ago, it seemed Salazar had a bright future as a great starting pitcher. Now the spotlight could be better shined on his swing-and-a-miss arm as a reliever.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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