How good of a starting prospect is Danny Salazar?

danny salazar

danny salazarThe Cleveland Indians must have seen something in Danny Salazar before everyone else — and their early belief has paid off in a big way.

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

  • B-rye

    Imagine him and Bauer anchoring an Indians rotation with those numbers.

    Could see 2014 looking something like this:

    Bauer
    Salazar
    Masterson
    McAllister
    Jimenez/Carrasco/Kazmir?

    #wishfulthinking

  • mgbode

    “Tony does an incredibly extensive rankings of the Cleveland minor
    league system. He knows his stuff better than practically anyone else”

    You could have stopped your sentence right there. Lastoria is fantastic.

  • Kildawg

    Bauer is obviously untouchable since the Indians were fortunate to get him at the cost of Choo’s expiring contract in that three team trade (looked more like 2 separate trades the Indians facilitated). Adding Salazar makes him virtually untouchable and Lindor is the future SS when Cabrera becomes FA post-arbitration.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Andrew Miller on line two Jacob!

  • Bourn, Michael Bourn

    As we learned from the Ubaldo trade, there is no such thing as an untouchable player. Pomeranz was about as untouchable as they come.

    Let’s say, for instance, that the Phillies want to jump ship after Halladay’s surgery and they decide to trade Cliff Lee. If you were Antonetti, would you not trade Lindor for him? Our starting rotation would finally have that ever elusive ace and we would instantly become world series contenders for the next two years.

  • mgbode

    I agree that Salazar shouldn’t be off the table in talks, but I don’t know that he’d be that enticing to alot of clubs. Considering we have been in on his medical progress, etc. he seems like the typical prospect that is worth more internally than externally.

  • mgbode

    no chance we trade Lindor for Lee. that trade is a losing proposition.

  • JacobWFNY

    That’s an interesting conundrum. I don’t know which way I lean.

    Cliff Lee — 8/30/78, top-5 pitcher in baseball, no clear signs of regression yet. Stats since 2008: 2.91 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 162 starts (T-17th most in MLB). Contract: $25M in 2014, $25M in 2015, either vested option for $27.5M in 2016 or $12.5M buyout.

    Francisco Lindor — 11/14/93, No. 1 prospect for Indians, top-25 in baseball. Only 157 pro games. Posting elite numbers in 30 games for High-A Carolina. Likely MLB arrival: September 2014 or later.

    Yes, Lee is a great pitcher. That hasn’t changed much at all since 2008. But if I’m in charge of a tight $70-90M salary cap, do I spend $25M on Lee for each of the next three seasons? I’d want to lean toward no. But yes, the Indians truly would become contenders.

  • mgbode

    as you noted, it’s a $77.5mil investment over the next 3 years for a team with a tight payroll budget, so likely not even an option to consider.

    add-in that he is 34yo (35 in Aug) and would be 38 at the end of his current deal. He has pitched 200+ IP in 7 of the last 8 seasons. That demonstrates amazing resiliency and stamina, but it also demonstrates a ton of strain on what is now an older arm.

    add-in the years and years of team-control on Lindor, and I don’t think it’d be considered even if the financial ramifications could be managed. IMO of course.

  • Harv 21

    so Jacob, the question is good and I’d like you to use your extensive organizational contacts to fetch us an answer: what did the Tribe see that prompted them to protect this particular kid, versus so many others, so soon after his surgery?

    Wondering whether his stuff immediately looked electric, or whether they absolutely knew a certain team was sniffing around him. With higher draft choices like Kipnis and Chisenhall actually making it to the bigs and others like Lindor tearing it up in the minors, maybe we are seeing concrete evidence that the the Tribe’s amateur talent evaluation has emerged from its horrific dark decade.

  • mgbode

    just pay no attention to Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, CC Lee, and any other highly touted recent Indians pitching prospect.

  • Bourn, Michael Bourn

    I agree that this deal won’t happen because of the money, but if Dolan gave him the green light, I bet Antonetti would do it.

    Lindor is a great prospect, but we are loaded at middle infield, so it wouldn’t gut our farm system. He is also an A ball prospect, as much as we’d like to believe he’s going to be an all star, there’s still a lot that can go wrong.

    Lee may be 38 at the end of the deal, but his style of pitching should allow him to have a long career. Plus, like Jacob said, he’s still pitching at the top of his game.

    From a pure value standpoint, I don’t think this would be a good deal for the Indians. However, how often can we say that we’re legitimate contenders? If we made this deal, we would have all of our key players under contract for next year except for Smith, Reynolds and Kazmir. If you can get 2-3 years of serious contention in exchange for Lindor, then I’d say go for it.

  • JacobWFNY

    Would disagree, mgbode. Similar case with Hector Rondon. Cubs poached him in Rule 5 since the Indians decided not to protect him.

    Lots of these guys with intriguing peripheral numbers are usually on the minds of other teams. Especially once they’re 18+ months removed from any major operation.

  • http://twitter.com/TonyIBI Tony Lastoria

    This question was brought to my attention so I am popping in to reply. At the end of 2011 it was the sudden jump in his velocity that excited the Indians. He pitched in Instructional League and was electric routinely touching 98 in short outings, and because of his solid prospect standing before the injury and because teams had scouts in Instructional League who saw exactly what the Indians saw, they took the aggressive approach and rostered him. I know talking to a few scouts out there at the time when I was in Instructs they were impressed with him and the “bullpen” option came up, and I think the Indians wanted to ensure no one tried to stuff him on a roster. Back when they rostered him it was a questionable decision, but as was proven a year later when Rondon was left unprotected and had not pitched in almost three years, teams are willing to gamble on a big arm. In time they have been proven to be right to roster him when they did.

  • Harv 21

    those guys were at the end of that fallow decade. We’re still waiting on the star, at any position – the CC, Albert, Manny … hell, I’ll take a Nagy and Brian Giles

  • http://twitter.com/PEngle39 Phil Smith

    hahahahahaha

    If you think anyone in this system, middle infield or not, is remotely close to Lindor, then you’re high.

    Gut our system? Outside of Lindor and Bauer, who else do they have? Yes, Salazar is coming on strong but who else? Those are the only two prospects of significance.

    There is a 0% chance Lindor is traded. You don’t trade a 19 year old top 5 super star prospect in the entire major leagues for an overpaid 38 year old pitcher.

    The Indians staff hasn’t missed one of Lindor’s games in 4 years…going all the way back to his junior year in high school. He’s their baby….

  • Harv 21

    Thanks, Tony, that answers it.

    I was pretty sure Rondon was our next middle-of-the-rotation guy. Of course I also thought that about Jeanmar Gomez a few years ago. Makes you appreciate how hard it is for pitchers to succeed at this level and sustain that success.

  • mgbode

    fair enough, but I was talking more about getting anything of value to use this season for him. it seems (based on injury history, etc.) that he may be groomed to be Perez’s successor at closer? I think it would take a team believing he was a good bet at becoming a starter to make any deal of signficance. perhaps I underestimate that end.

  • nj0

    While I agree that Lindor is clearly the star of our system, I think you’re selling some other guys short. Dorssys Paulino is an 18-year-old SS that is projected to be a high ceiling guy. Tyler Nanquin is coming along quite nicely. Luigi Rodriguez and Mitch Brown to name two more prospects.

    None of these guys have the hype that Lindor has, but they all are prospects of significance.

  • KW

    Watched him at the Aeros game on Wednesday. He looked unhittable through 2-3 innings, but got fatigued after 5. He’s gotta last longer than that.

  • http://twitter.com/PEngle39 Phil Smith

    Oh, I follow the Indians farm system very closely.

    I consider Lindor and Bauer significant prospects; a chance to be all star caliber players. Salazar is borderline, so is Paulino since won’t stick at SS, though his struggles in low A are a tad bit worrisome. Jose Ramirez will also be very good, as well, he’s coming on harder than anyone in the organization. He’s been compared to Jose Altuve but I’m not sure he has that kind of power.

    Naquin will be a solid regular but not a star. Luigi is a non-prospect; strikes out too much. Mitch Brown has been horrendous this year; he makes Bauer look like Greg Maddox.

    Anthony Santander is a 16 year in Lake County that could be a very nice prospect, so could Luis Lugo, as LHP in extended spring training right now; he will probably play in SS Mahoning Valley.

  • Bourn, Michael Bourn

    Gosh where do I start?

    I never said anyone was close to Lindor, I said that our farm system is loaded with middle infielders. A lot of teams would be thrilled to have Paulino, Ramirez and Rodriguez as their top SS prospects, so I’d say trading Lindor would not gut our system at all.

    We also have this guy name Asdrubal Cabrera who is an all star shortstop who we may resign.

    What percent chance did Pomeranz have of getting traded in 2011? I’m sure you would’ve said a 0% chance as well right?

    I also missed the part where Cliff Lee aged 4 years, maybe we shouldn’t trade for him after all.

    Whether you like it or not, Cliff Lee is an Ace in the prime of his career, we have an open window for the next two years while Cabrera Perez and Masterson are still under contract. This deal would really put the tribe in a great position to compete.