The Indians have a problem. I won’t sit here and sugarcoat it. To me, it is a big problem. Right now 40% of their starting rotation cannot be counted on. It is one thing to not be able to pitch deep into games. It is another when said 40% can’t get out of the fifth inning on a regular basis. It is even worse when one of the two starters is being counted on to be the future of the front end.
Right now Danny Salazar is a mess. A lot of expectation was bestowed on the Tribe’s right-handed phenom after he burst onto the season with 11 starts at the end of 2013. We all know about his high-90’s fastball and the devastating change-up that come from the same arm action. What we didn’t know was how the kid would respond to being anointed the next big thing in the Indians rotation.
After lengthy bullpen work with pitching coach Mickey Callaway and conversations with both Callaway and manager Terry Francona after his last start in Detroit, Salazar was hoping to emerge as the guy we saw come up and be an instant impact a season ago. Instead, Danny did what Danny has done thus far – look great the first time through an order before losing it.
“The first three innings he was real aggressive,” said Francona. “He stuck some fastballs and off of that he threw some really powerful breaking balls.”
But then came the fourth.
Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler started the inning with back to back singles. Salazar came back to get Alex Gordon to pop out in front of a big K of Salvador Perez. That left two on and two out for the slumping Mike Moustakas, who entered the game hitting .133. As Salazar has done too many times thus far, he left a high change-up right in Moustakas’s wheelhouse and he tattooed it for a three-run homer. Moustakas crushed it like he knew it was coming. It was the fifth home run Salazar has allowed in his four starts, spanning just 18.1 inning pitched.
“With my change-up sometimes, I open up my glove too much,” Salazar said. “That’s the only thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes, I just try to, when I’m going to throw my fastball, I try to open my glove, too, just to try to confuse. I think sometimes I forget.”
A frustrated Salazar then gave up a single to Alcedes Escobar. With two out, Escobar stole second an advanced to third thanks to another errant throw by catcher Yan Gomes, who now has six errors on the season. Speedy center fielder Jarrod Dyson then laid down a bunt base hit past Salazar for the fourth two-out run of the inning. After giving up back to back one out doubles in the fifth to Hosmer and Butler, Danny’s night was over.
“I’m out there competing the whole game. I guess some pitches didn’t work,” Salazar said. “I’ve been feeling great — strong. I’m aggressive out there compared to last time I pitched. Today, I just felt like every pitch, I was totally focused on throwing it and on being aggressive.”
In his four starts, Salazar has only pitched past five innings once and that was in the home opener April 4th when he went five and two-thirds. His last three starts he has given up 14 earned runs on 19 hits in 12.2 innings of work. It is still early in the season, but you have to be concerned about the regression.
“It’s a short sample size,” Francona said. “We can’t forget last year when he was pitching, he was on a pretty strict limit for health reasons. So now he’s starting to get stretched out a little bit. It’s been a while since he’s done that. He’s never done it at the Major League level, so sometimes you have to be patient.”
“I don’t always want to put it on youth, because this is a kid we gave the ball to in the playoff game [last year]. But I do think, with health and experience, he’s going to learn how to do this better. I think right now he’s having a tough time and he’s getting tested a little bit.”
A 5-1 lead was more than enough for Royals ace James Shields, whom the Indians haven’t beaten in almost three years. He went six innings, allowing just two runs (one earned) on six hits. He struck out nine and walked one. Relievers Danny Duffy and and Aaron Crow held the Tribe scoreless over the last three innings in the 8-2 loss.
The postgame talk was all about Salazar. What can the Indians do to get him right? What can he do himself? Something has to change because as of right now, Danny is essentially a three-inning pitcher.
“Danny has the weapons to go through a lineup multiple times,” said Francona. “This is more about executing pitches.”
His teammates were more than willing to line up to have his back as well. “It’s growing pains,” Nick Swisher said. “This is his first real go-around. We have the utmost trust in him. He has plus stuff. When he figures it out, it’s going to be a lot of fun to be on this side. He’s a young cat. He’s going to figure it out.”
Salazar is going to have to figure it out if this team is going to compete in the AL Central. Between Danny and Carlos Carrasco, you truly don’t know what you are going to be getting from two of your five starters. Down in Columbus last night, Trevor Bauer did not have his best stuff but still allowed just one run in six and two-thirds in the Clippers 11-1 win over Gwinnett. He struck out six and walked three and in three AAA starts has an ERA of 0.96. The Indians have him in line on the same day as Salazar, possibly suggesting they could make a move at some point. Josh Tomlin is still lined up with Carrasco. He’s made three starts as well and has an ERA of 4.00 and has uncharacteristically walked nine in 18 innings.
Tonight the Tribe looks to get to their winning ways as they meet KC for game three of the four-game set. Justin Masterson (0-0. 4.98 ERA), who is still looking for his first win of the season, takes the ball for the Indians. He will be facing Royals lefty Jason Vargas (2-0, 1.24 ERA).
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)