In yesterday’s installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview, I struggled to remember the somnambulistic 2013 Chicago White Sox. Thankfully, after their acquisition of the ‘dirtbag’ Adam Eaton, the Sox should at least this year have a memorable identity, even if a winning record likely once again evades them. Today then, my attention stays within the AL Central, but onto a team which actually generated some buzz in 2013 – the Cleveland Indians – who exceeded expectations by reaching the AL Wild Card game. Having seen key rotation members Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir (yes, it does still seem strange to mention Kazmir as a ‘key’) leave via free agency, the Tribe will need their young starter of that postseason loss – Danny Salazar – to build on the scintillating promise of his 2013 cameo if they are to return to October baseball. It should be a fun ride.
If it weren’t for two measly innings last year, Danny Salazar would be rookie eligible in 2014, and thus my favorite for AL ROY over flashier names such as Masahiro Tanaka, Taijuan Walker, or Kevin Gausman. As it is, Cleveland fans will have to settle for a pitcher who in his second major-league start struck out Miguel Cabrera three times – a feat only achieved on three occasions since 2008 (David Price and Ervin Santana are the other two pitchers who can boast of this accomplishment if you were wondering). Sure, Miggy crushed a retaliatory two run homer in his fourth plate appearance – you can’t expect to make the AL MVP look foolish every time up – but the manner in which the then-23 year old bested the league’s best hitter the first three times up should have the rest of the AL on notice for 2014. He’s that good.
As Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs wrote about the young righty, “It’s hard not to get super excited about him.” Not that Salazar was always causing observers to drool so much they woke up from their fantasies with a saturated pillow; it’s not as if Salazar has travelled the road to the majors usually associated with the young phenom. In fact, it took rehabilitation from a Tommy John surgery for the Dominican native’s transformation to take place.
Prior to the procedure in 2010, Salazar – who had first been signed in 2006, but only advanced to Class A ball in 2009 – routinely struggled to find the strike zone, his fastball sitting in a more than respectable, but not obscene, 91-94 mph range. Forced to not only re-strengthen his arm, but reconfigure his delivery as part of the surgery’s rehab process, Salazar emerged from his injury cocoon a different pitcher, his fastball velocity an easy 94-98mph, with triple digit potential. It wasn’t long before he began carving up the minors; Salazar compiled a 2.54 ERA with 205 strikeouts and 51 walks in 180 2/3 innings across 2012 and 2013, covering stops at Class A Advanced Carolina, Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. Having refined his changeup into a simile-inducing force, and already boasting a solid slider, Salazar was more than ready for his close-up by the second half of 2013.
And boy, was he eye-catching. Called up to face the Toronto Blue Jays on July 11th, Salazar took a no-hitter into the sixth-inning of his debut, striking out seven. In his next start on Aug 7th came the famous Miguel Cabrera battle – Salazar pitched into the eighth, striking out 10 (6 swinging). And so started a 10 game stretch in which Salazar dominated, his per-nine averages of 11.3 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 7.6 H/9 and 1.2 HR/9 putting most relievers to shame. By the end of the regular season, with just 52 major league innings under his belt and sporting a 3.12 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP, aside from being must-watch MLB.tv, Salazar was also Clevaland’s best hope; unable to use Ubaldo Jimenez or Justin Masterson, Indians manager Terry Francona turned to his rookie to start the most important game of Cleveland’s season – the AL Wild-Card game against Tamba Bay. Somehow tagged by Delmon Young in the third however, he allowed three runs on four hits over four innings as Cleveland failed to score; as quickly as it had begun, Salazar’s first experience of the postseason was over.
Having lost both the aforementioned Jimenez to Baltimore, and fellow rotation contributor Scott Kazmir to Oakland, Cleveland will need Salazar to bring it for a full season if they’re to build upon last years Wild-Card berth and advance deeper into October. Fortunately for Tribe fans, their not-so-secret-anymore weapon only figures to get better as he acquires more experience. After throwing his plus plus fastball 64.08 percent of the time last season (generating a ridiculous 13.3% SwStk% with the offering; good for first among starters with more than 50 IP – ahead of names such as Yu Darvish and Matt Harvey), Salazar could still stand to further polish his approach rather than simply rely on his admittedly awesome ‘grip it and rip it’ method; his splitter, slider and sinker accounted for just 19.38, 12.54 and 3.99 percent of his total pitches last year, but will need to be incorporated in his approach more in order for Salazar to last deeper into games – the only real knock on him last year being his 5.2 IP per outing. By varying his repertoire more too, he should be able to fight off the adjustments of opposing batters who were embarrassed by his heater last year, and ensure that his first year success carries over into his sophomore season.
For both otherwise-cursed Cleveland fans’ sake, and entertainment purposes, let’s hope it does. A full season of Salazar’s 2013 primer would be fun as hell – even if it won’t scoop him ROY honors.