After the 2011 season, Cleveland’s organization surprised a lot of people by placing the 21-year-old right-hander on the official 40-man roster. Salazar actually had only made 15 starts in the previous two years because of Tommy John surgery and still hadn’t made it past the Single-A Midwest League with Lake County.
Yet, nearly 18 months after being protected from possible Rule 5 poaching, Salazar is rewarding the Tribe with the hottest start of any pitcher in professional baseball. In fact, following his fourth straight magnificent performance for Double-A Akron on Monday, he announced his own promotion to Triple-A Columbus on Twitter. And now, it’s time to wonder if he might be the best home-grown Cleveland pitching prospect in years.
It’s hard to imagine, but to go all the way back to the beginning of Danny Salazar’s career with the Indians organization, one must go back to July 2006 when he was signed out of the Dominican Republic. That’s often the case for young up-and-coming prospects: Signed at 16 or 17, they then spend years toiling away in the summer leagues and lower-levels of the affiliated minors until finally catching their break.
Obviously, his stuff had some of the makings of a potential star: He could hit the 90s with his above-average fastball and has long had an up-and-coming changeup. Although his wiry 6-foot frame wasn’t that ideal or projectable, he still seemed like he could be a potential prospect in the making.
His numbers leading up to Tommy John surgery during the 2010 season weren’t all that encouraging, however. In his first full season in 2009, he posted a 5-7 record with a 4.41 ERA in 21 starts for Lake County. He only struck out 65 batters against 40 walks in 107.1 innings pitched. Per the usual line of thinking, a 5.5 K/9 and a 1.63 K/BB ratio just doesn’t scream elite prospect, even when it was a 19-year-old competing against many players two or three years older.
Then, he suffered the much-maligned right elbow sprain in May 2010 after a similar statistical start for the Captains. Three months later, he was under the knife, set to miss 9-12 months for the now-common UCL reconstruction.
In order to handle the rest of the Danny Salazar story and to discuss his potential future with the Indians organization, let’s handle it in some back-and-forth questions.
What has happened since his Tommy John surgery? According to multiple reports, post-surgery, Salazar actually has added some life on his fastball. Instead of just generally touching the mid-90s, he’s now hitting 98 and consistently reaching 94-96. This isn’t all that uncommon, as Jon actually referenced an article yesterday about relievers and their revitalization following a second UCL reconstruction.
Overall, the strikeout numbers are, well, striking: 187 K’s in 265.1 IP pre-surgery (6.3 K/9); 138 K’s in 128.0 IP post-surgery (9.7 K/9). These strikeout numbers now scream elite prospect. He still hasn’t pitched all that many innings for a 23-year-old now reaching Triple-A, but if these last 15 months are any indication, his ceiling is quite high.
For your fascination, here is the breakdown for his final four starts in Akron:
21.0 IP, 11 H, 1 R/ER, 5 BB, 38 K, 1 WP, .155 AVG, 65.2% strikes
What did prospect rankings say about him over the past few years? One of my favorite Indians sites is Tony Lastoria’s Indians Baseball Insider. I had the privilege of getting to know Tony during my years working for the Akron Aeros. Every offseason, Tony does an incredibly extensive rankings of the Cleveland minor league system. He knows his stuff better than practically anyone else not paid by the Dolans.
Before the 2012 season, Tony had Salazar ranked as the No. 38 prospect in the Indians system. Again, this is why he and many others were quite shocked by the team’s decision to roster him. He still hadn’t pitched much post-surgery and there wasn’t all that much optimism about him becoming elite. Then, following his efforts last year and the front office’s confidence, Tony moved Salazar all the way up to No. 5 this offseason. A huge jump, indeed.
But, what about TINSTAAPP? In sabermetric circles, there’s this ever-growing acronym of TINSTAAPP. It stands for “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.” Baseball Prospectus’ Gary Huckabay first coined the term. In essence, it epitomizes the unpredictability of elite pitching prospects. Unlike hitters, who often don’t have to deal with the risk of UCL reconstruction and usually are a bit more predictable in terms of projections, pitchers can be all over the place.
So yes, Salazar is now a 23-year-old soon set to make his Triple-A debut. He only has 128 innings pitched since May 2011 and only made 13 starts for the Akron Aeros over the past two seasons. He’s still incredibly new to all of this, doesn’t have that ideal of a pitching frame and it’s possible batters will adjust to his hard-throwing abilities. For now, there’s still a whole lot of unknowns about Danny Salazar’s major league future.
What has he said recently about his success? Stephanie Metzger at Indians Baseball Insider had the unfortunate task of writing about Salazar on Monday night. She was nearly done with her story, then had to switch gears at the last minute when the pitcher’s tweet hit the webs at 12:42 a.m. Her finished story is a great read for those interested in learning more about Salazar and his development post-surgery.
Notably, he still is operating on a pitch count from the team’s front office. Usually, that’s been 85 pitches or 5 innings. Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez called him a “very powerful pitcher.” Still left for him to work on is a consistent release point and spin on his secondary pitches, such as a new third pitch, his curveball. Salazar said he’s continuing to work on his approach against left-handed batters with his change.
When was the last time the Indians had a homegrown starter like this? I first wanted to point to Hector Rondon. The Venezuela native was signed in 2004 and was a starling for the Aeros back in 2009. He similarly underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, yet was not eventually protected by the team. He’s now a reliever posting a 5.06 ERA in nine appearances for the Chicago Cubs after being claimed in the Rule 5 draft.
But, since Rondon hasn’t actually lived up to his early billing in the major leagues, the most-recent homegrown starter with sustained MLB success that occurred mostly in Cleveland probably was Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona). None of the 6 players to make a start for the Indians in 2013 was initially selected by the team; 4 of 10 starters last season were homegrown players (Gomez, Tomlin, Huff, Hernandez).
Overall, the Indians haven’t been great at developing internal talent in the last 10 years. That’s something I’ve written about several times in the last few months. But starting pitching has been one of the biggest weaknesses. Hernandez pitched in 949.0 IP for the Indians over seven seasons, posting a 4.64 ERA. That’s not excellent, but it’s still a lot of innings. It’s a lot to assume Salazar could have such a sustained MLB career, yet it also shows the low expectations for any actual Cleveland-developed pitcher.
So, what’s next and should he be untouchable in potential trade talks? Since Salazar has been on the 40-man, it has long been assumed that his ceiling for 2013 was a potential Cleveland call-up by September. That remains the case, especially with his early success thus far in Double-A. He still needs a lot of minor league seasoning as he hasn’t pitched that most post-surgery. I wouldn’t be shocked if he remains in Columbus for the majority of the next 16 months.
But, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, Danny Salazar is a bonafide top-5 prospect in the Indians system. No one — outside of maybe those loyal Cleveland front office executives that made the decision to roster him — likely saw this coming. Yet, TINSTAAPP is still a widely accepted theory and there is no guarantee about what Salazar’s future might hold.
For now, his easiest route to the major leagues will likely be in the bullpen. That’s just the hard truth about being a 23-year-old making a Triple-A debut with relatively few innings under your belt. Potentially, he could compete for a starting job heading into 2014, but again, I’d argue that he needs even more time in Columbus.
Thus, is he worth dangling around in potential trade talks if Cleveland remains in playoff contention by June and July? Sure. The only prospect that always should be off the table is Francisco Lindor, who again, is a 19-year-old batting .362 in High-A. He’s on pace to be even better than Asdrubal Cabrera or Jason Kipnis and, again, batters are more projectable than pitchers. Trevor Bauer also likely is untouchable, too.
Many other major league franchises are probably just as fascinated by the sudden intrigue of Danny Salazar. While I’d certainly love to see him be the best homegrown prospect since Hernandez/Carmona, we’ll see if it actually occurs in Cleveland. A shocking top-5 prospect shouldn’t be untouchable and regarded as a sure thing. Yet it’s a lot of fun to see him develop.
Photo: Chuck Crow, The Plain Dealer