2014 Key Players: Danny Salazar
In the weeks leading up to Opening Day, I’m going to explore several Indians whose performance will be key to the Indians' success in 2014.
Last year’s list was highlighted by Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, knowing the importance those two pitchers would have on stabilizing a rotation that was full of question marks. A year later, the names and faces are different but question marks are still abound in the Indians rotation. With Jimenez off to Baltimore, Danny Salazar will step into his rotation void and spot on the 2014 Cleveland Indians Key Players list.
Salazar burst onto the scene last year during the stretch run, pitching 52 dazzling innings after being called up from Triple-A. He gave the team a much needed jolt as injuries to Corey Kluber and Masterson took their toll on the rotation late in the season. Showing control and poise well beyond his years, Salazar gave the Indians a taste of what he could do with a full season of work during the month of September. With the Indians chasing a Wild Card berth and Justin Masterson on the disabled list, Salazar pitched 25 innings with a 2.52 ERA and a 33:6 strikeout to walk ratio.
This year Salazar will get the chance to showcase that talent in a full season of work. With Scott Kazmir and Jimenez gone, the Indians’ rotation following Masterson will feature three pitchers - Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Salazar - that have yet to pitch a full season in the majors. Salazar has the highest upside of those three pitchers, and as such, is the one most capable of complimenting Masterson at the top of the rotation.
However, for a pitcher who was on a strict pitch count for most of last season it’s a big jump to expect 200 innings in 2014. Nevertheless, the Indians are hoping for something close to that. Take a look at Salazar’s 2014 projections and you’ll see the general consensus on that possibility:
Steamer: 163 IP, 9.84 K/9, 3.20 BB/9, 0.94 HR/9, 3.2 WAR
ZiPS: 153 IP, 9.53 K/9, 3.24 BB/9, 0.88 HR/9, 2.1 WAR
Oliver: 96 IP, 9.09 K/9, 2.81 BB/9, 0.94 HR/9, 1.8 WAR
PECOTA: 120 IP, 8.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 0.7 WAR
It’s safe to say that most projections don’t expect Salazar to be a mainstay in the Indians’ rotation for the duration of the year. If the Indians can get only 100-120 innings of Salazar this year, they’re going to be hurting.
The depth after the Indians top four starters consists of Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Shaun Marcum, Aaron Harang, and Trevor Bauer. If they don’t make the team out of camp, Marcum and Harang may not stay in the organization. Carrasco, Tomlin, and Bauer all come with their own question marks. Remember, this is a team that used eight starters in the first month of the season last year. They need each of their top four starters to pitch 150+ innings this year and of those four, it’s Salazar who on the surface seems the least likely to do so.
The durability question marks are one thing, but there’s no doubt about the talent. Salazar’s arsenal consists of a four-seam fastball that averages 97 MPH (nearly top of all starters), as well as a split change and slider. The fastball and split change are already dominant pitches. With great movement and speed that can top 100 MPH, Salazar’s fastball generated swing and misses 14% of the time in his cameo last season. In a full season that number would put him at the top of the leaderboard for all MLB starters. He usually works the pitch high in the zone and with its speed hitters struggle to catch up to it.
Salazar does a masterful job of fooling hitters with the split change. He gets terrific vertical break on the pitch, crossing up hitters who believe another fastball is en route. Unlike a lot of young pitchers with great movement in their off speed stuff, Salazar seems to be able to consistently control his splitter in the bottom of the zone. Last year, he struck out 24 batters alone with the split change and walked only one. As good as his fastball is, you can make the case that this is Salazar’s best pitch.
The one thing he does need to develop is a solid third pitch.
In contrast to his fastball and split change, Salazar’s slider isn’t very effective. Too often the pitch doesn’t have that biting movement of a normal slider and ends up elevated in the zone. Another problem is that speed wise it’s almost indistinguishable from the split change. He needs to work on doing a better job in differentiating the speed of the two pitches. Ideally he would work in the upper 80’s with the slider and in the lower 80’s with the split change. Right now both pitches average about 85-86 MPH giving hitters only two speeds to worry about, the mid 90’s fastball and the mid 80’s off speed pitch.
Truthfully, needing to refine a third pitch isn’t atypical for a starter of Salazar’s age and experience level. What makes him so special is that his fastball and split change both stack up against some of the best in baseball. His control of both pitches, along with the pure speed behind the fastball and the movement of the split change mean that he can get outs even without the slider working. He certainly has the ability to rack up a 10 K/9 ratio over a full season, and that should excite all Indians fans. With further development of his slider, Salazar could become a legitimate ace.
For right now, the Indians are just hoping Salazar stays healthy through the season. That’s the most important thing for everyone right now. I can see them trying to limit his innings whenever possible and keep the wear and tear off for what will hopefully be a long season. The fan in all of us salivates over 200 innings of what Salazar showed us last September. That’s a single season performance that would probably look a lot like Anibal Sanchez’ in Detroit last season. Realistically, I think we need to set our hopes for 160 innings (he threw 145 last year in total) with an ERA around 3.50.
That’s still an extremely valuable pitcher, and one that would basically replace what Jimenez gave the Indians in 2013. Salazar’s right arm holds the answer to a lot of the questions about the Indians rotation in 2014. A strong season from him will help the rest of the group settle into their respective roles and ensure that the rotation’s depth isn’t overextended. However, if he regresses or proves that he’s not able to withstand the workload, every other starter will come under a larger microscope.
Still, as anyone who watched Danny Salazar pitch last year would likely agree with, if the hopes of the Indians rotation fall on Salazar’s shoulders – it’s going to be an exciting year.
In fact, he needs to be the fourth or fifth starter on this team. Not because that's how you'd rank his stuff, but because that's the safe way to go in regards to his ability to go out there every five days. Basically, as others note, he has some significant durability issues. This is due to a combination of factors: his smallish size, the fact that he relies on a 96-99 mph fastball, and his past injury history (including the TJ but mostly issues with his shoulder).
As I've said before, I would not be at all surprised to see him land on the DL a couple times (at least) this year, and maybe have to have a few rehab assignments in the minors.
So, IMO we'll be lucky to get 140 major-league innings from him this year, and I think that the Oliver and Pecota projections are about right. Again, that's why I think you have to put him in there as a fourth or fifth starter.
That's also why I think that for the Tribe to be successful this year, one or both (depending on the ability of Harang or Marcum to pitch well) of Carrasco and Bauer will need to come through big time.
That all said, I am very intrigued with Salazar. I have no idea what to expect from him this year. I do believe that if he stays healthy and avoids any soreness or minor issues, that he could have a very good year. But I'm just not sold on durability yet. And it has less to do with the arm injury a few years ago and more to do with his body. He's very athletic and in great shape....but I wonder if his smaller size can handle the rigors of pitching 180-200 innings consistently over the course of 5-7 seasons.
One comment about the Tribe pitching generally. I know everyone wants to assume we will see 700 innings plus from our top four starters (whomever those turn out to be), but lets not kid ourselves. We will probably see 650 innings at best from those four, despite our youth. Depth will always be an issue with pitching. And with the Tribe.
Hopefully, Masterson can absorb a lot more innings than he did last season. For Salazar and the others to develop into the pitchers we all hope they can become, we should all hope he succeeds in doing just that this season. It's crucial in my estimation.