Then & Now is a weekly feature at Indians Prospect Insider during the offseason that takes a look at a prospect’s past and present while also offering a possible glimpse into the prospect’s future.
Heading into the 2012 season, there was very little to be excited about in regard to the Cleveland Indians farm system and its pitching prospects. After trading away Drew Pomeranz and Alex White months earlier, it’s safe to say that the system had pretty much been depleted.
The lack of pitching depth was evident for the Major League club during the 2012 season. The Indians had plenty of woes this past season, but there was arguably no bigger woe than the pitching staff.
The Tribe’s team ERA in 2012 was 4.78, which ranked dead last in the American League. The starting rotation struggled mightily, and the departures of White and Pomeranz from the farm system proved to be a problem. There were no longer any impact arms in the upper levels, so it was nearly impossible to expect that any Major League promotions could offer a long-term solution.
The starting pitching situation has not changed too much as the road to the 2013 season begins. Impact arms are still few and far between at the upper levels of the system, but there could be reason, particularly one reason, for fans to be somewhat encouraged.
Last season, the number of impact arms at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus was none, but for this coming year, the number is at least one.
Danny Salazar was signed as a free agent by the Cleveland Indians in July 2006 out of the Dominican Republic. Just 16 years old at the time, Salazar quickly left an impression the next year in the Dominican Summer League. Salazar started 14 contests that season and posted a 1.96 ERA in 64 1/3 innings pitched.
The next season, in the Gulf Coast League, Salazar continued to impress against the tougher competition and posted a 2.87 ERA in 53 1/3 innings of work while striking out 7.3 batters per nine innings. Considering he was only 18 years old and armed with a low-90s fastball, it was easy to see why the six foot, 180 pound Salazar might be an intriguing prospect moving forward.
However, the following season, Salazar seemed to take a step back when he joined the rotation at Single-A Lake County. It’s not that his numbers were bad, it’s just that his numbers suddenly started to look rather ordinary.
Salazar pitched the most innings in his professional career that season (107 1/3) while posting a 4.44 ERA. Aside from the ERA, Salazar’s strikeout totals suffered in the new league as he struck out just 5.5 batters per nine innings during that 2009 campaign. Though, considering that Salazar’s fastball topped out at 94 miles per hour back then, the dropping strikeout rate probably should have been expected.
Plus, come the next season, dropping strikeout totals were the least of Salazar’s worries. In May of 2010, the right-hander suffered a right elbow sprain. Then, in August of that year, he opted to have Tommy John surgery.
Recently, there have been more and more success stories regarding Tommy John surgery, but let’s face it, in the words of Forrest Gump, it’s often “like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Thankfully, in the case of Salazar so far, things could not have gone any better. In 2011, he made his return to the mound and posted a 3.07 ERA in 14 2/3 innings with Lake County and the AZL Indians. Salazar also pitched in Instructs that fall where he posted a 1.32 ERA in 13 2/3 innings pitched, and he posted strong numbers in the Panama League that winter (1.74 ERA in 41 1/3 innings pitched).
Obviously, Salazar’s performances impressed some important people within the Indians front office as the team made the decision to add him to the 40-man roster last winter. At first, the decision seemed somewhat puzzling, but under further examination, it made perfect sense.
Salazar was just the latest example of a pitcher who seemed to benefit dramatically from Tommy John surgery. Prior to the surgery, his fastball topped out at 94, yet he routinely hit that number during Instructs in 2011, and he had it as high as 98 miles per hour. The drastic increase could not be ignored. Salazar had always shown signs of being a productive pitcher, but now he was showing signs of being a productive power pitcher.
Salazar began the 2012 season by making two starts for High-A Carolina where he got beat up pretty badly. He was then shut down until May 17. From that period on, he was a different pitcher.
In 87 2/3 innings between Carolina and Akron, Salazar posted a 2.36 ERA with 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Salazar also played a key role in Akron’s run to the Eastern League Championship. With Akron trailing 2-0 in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs, Salazar pitched 5 1/3 innings in Game Three while allowing just two earned runs to go along with eight strikeouts.
Salazar was also impressive in Game Two of the Eastern League Championship Series. While he allowed four earned runs in six innings, he displayed his power stuff and struck out nine batters during the contest as well.
Despite, all the positive strides made, Salazar’s future is far from a sure thing. At just six feet and 180 pounds, there are still questions that persist in regard to Salazar’s frame.
Can he hold up for a whole season? Can he handle the workload of a Major League starting pitcher? Given his history of injuries, these are two questions that are certainly going to dog Salazar as his career progresses.
Nonetheless, instead of focusing on the negatives, consider the positives. Without question, Salazar has the best arm in the upper levels of the Indians system. Plus, while he’s been injured in the past, he’s also overcome those injuries, which is a testament to his work ethic.
2013 will be a crucial year for Salazar. Perhaps, if all goes well, we could see him in Cleveland come September. This may be too much wishful thinking, but it’s time for luck to be on the Indians’ side. Plus, with a 98 mile per hour fastball, Salazar hopefully won’t need much luck. I’m banking on the latter.