The Cleveland Indians have lost star pitcher Danny Salazar for the remainder of the regular season, and in all likelihood, a good chunk of the postseason. Sure, by the most optimistic estimates he could return for the ALDS or ALCS, but would Terry Francona just hand the ball over to a guy who struggled for months at a time and is coming off yet another stint on the disabled list, or what would be the disabled list without expanded rosters?
If the answer is no, as it probably is, the Indians are essentially left to fight for a World Series without their third starter. Can they do it?
Remember how bright and whimsical the offseason and spring training were? The Indians were coming into the season with four aces! Four aces! Okay, maybe two aces a really good pitcher in Danny Salazar and a potential time bomb in Trevor Bauer, but they entered the offseason with four really good pitchers and they entered the regular season with the same four. The Indians front office kept their starting rotation depth for the very problem they have faced in recent months, a problem they will now have to deal with right up until the playoffs begin: injuries happen.
In the case of Salazar, it’s an injury that has been lingering for months now. It forced him to miss his first All-Star appearance and, presumably, it played a big part in him looking like a Little League pitcher in a Major League Pitcher’s body for a month.
The starting rotation is worse off, but it’s still not bad
Even with Salazar’s second-half struggles, the pitching staff is going to be worse, as a whole, without him. Let’s not try and pretend that it’s not. But can it still be good enough to win the World Series?
Salazar looked almost like himself against the Texas Rangers and Miami Marlins in two of his recent starts, combining to throw 10.3 innings with three earned runs and 21 strikeouts. Then the dreaded Minnesota Twins start happened on September 9 that resulted in him being pulled after four innings and put the Indians where they are now.
Still, even with Salazar looking bad for so long, the Indians rotation has survived. Corey Kluber is still a bonafide ace, as I write this Carlos Carrasco looks...
okay (welp, not so great)... against the Chicago White Sox, and Trevor Bauer has had enough good starts this season that I am willing to call him a solid No. 3 at this point. Even with Carrasco looking bad last night and partially ruining my point, his recent track record still points to a pitcher who has it figured out, one that can at least turn in a quality start if needed.
The tricky part will be when/if the Indians make it to the ALCS and they really need to start utilizing a fourth starting pitcher. They can get through the five-game ALDS without one, but the seven-game series for a chance to play in the World Series requires another arm. There is no way around it.
If Salazar is not ready to go or the Indians are not ready to trust him with a start in October, they will need another arm. And if that arm ends up being Mike Clevinger, I am still not worried. We know his struggles this season, with his ERA is hanging on at 5.01 with a 4.52 FIP, but he has been increasingly getting better throughout the season. Even in his first handful of bad starts, there was a lot to love with his breaking stuff and a slider that he has slowly started to rely on more.
Clevinger’s biggest issue, early on in those rough starts, was hitting the outside edge of the zone, particularly against right-handed batters. His heatmap shows a pitcher that could not find the corner, and instead had everything dropping out of the zone, or missing outside entirely.
It resulted in a lot of walks (seven over his first three starts), and a lot of heartache. Since he started playing more frequently, beginning with a start against the Twins on August 4, Clevinger has been able to find the edge more and with a more consistent slider. Clevinger’s curveball, especially, has been tremendous in his recent appearances.
This post was not meant to hype up Clevinger as the replacement for Salazar, as much as I think he can be, but he’s one of the big reasons I’m not too worried about the injury. As for the other big reason...
The Indians are more than just a great starting rotation
The same could not be said for last year’s Tribe team, but this year’s Indians are more than just a good crop of starting pitchers. The bullpen has been one of the league’s best since acquiring Andrew Miller (2nd in AL with a 3.22 ERA, 2nd in in AL with a 3.46 FIP), and the offense. Oh my, the offense.
Indians batters have gone through some collective slumps this season, but nothing that makes them unwatchable for more than a week at a time, at most. As a group, they rank third in wRC+ among AL teams behind only the Boston Red Sox and the Seattle Mariners (wait, what?). Only the Red Sox have scored more runs than the Indians.
We have seen the Indians win shootouts, and we have seen the Indians win low-scoring affairs. Unfortunately, through some parts of the regular season, the offense and pitching staff were not in sync. One would slump while the other surged, causing a bunch of barn burners or 1-0 losses. When both sides of the baseball coin work together, the Indians are one of the league’s best teams — with or without Danny Salazar.
Having Danny Salazar obviously makes a postseason run easier, and more likely, but his absence is far from the end of the world. Luckily, whatever the Indians do or not do over the next month is completely irrelevant once the playoffs start. It’s a crapshoot, an all-out melee that the Indians have to find a way to come out on top of.