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Indians hope Danny Salazar’s return will add a ‘huge boost’ to starting rotation

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We all do, but how optimistic should we really be?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Chernoff, like anyone with a pulse connected to the Cleveland Indians in any way, wants Danny Salazar to return to the Indians and add a “huge boost to the starting rotation,” according to a recent post on Cleveland.com.

The full quote came in a discussion about the trade deadline, and how Salazar coming back is like a big acquisition that you can’t just go out and get on the trade market. Kind of like how the American League-champion Indians “acquired” Carlos Carrasco in the offseason since he missed the end of 2016 with a hand injury. Of course I can’t blame the Tribe’s general manager for wanting Salazar to be great when he returns — and I completely agree with his sentiment — but how optimistic should we really be?

You may know the upcoming date July 4 as a time to remember when America declared its independence from some Cricket-loving loonies, but it also marks the start of the Great Danny Salazar Decline. Prior to his July 4, 2016 start against the Detroit Tigers, Salazar had a 2.22 ERA and 3.10 FIP over 93.1 innings. His walks were still high, but boy could that boy strike a lot of batters out with, what was at the time, the best split-change in the league. But from last Fourth of July onward, things have gotten worse and worse. You could say baseball took Danny’s tea and threw it in the baseball harbor [note: delete this sentence before publishing, it’s really stupid].

First, he had to skip the All-Star game. Then he was shut down with an shoulder injury and later a forearm strain. In 93.1 innings between July 4 to now, Salazar’s ERA has ballooned to 6.36 ERA and his FIP to 4.72. His strikeouts are higher than ever in that time (28.9 percent) but has given up an absurd about of home runs and walks, 1.83 and 4.53 per nine innings, respectively.

Worse yet, there were comments from Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway last year that stopped just short of calling Salazar lazy in his return from various injuries and his preparation between games. But he came darn close:

I think it's going to depend on his routines and things like that. He's got to shore those things up and make sure he's doing everything he can to go out there and throw the ball over the plate and have success, in between outings.

Maybe he’s fixed whatever issues those were between then and now, but that’s not something great to hear from your pitching coach. And the results haven’t exactly pointed to a pitcher who has everything figured out.

In six days it will be the one-year anniversary of Salazar last throwing his last shutout as a starter. He did so on June 29, 2016 against the Atlanta Braves over seven innings. Since then he’s allowed at least one run in every start, and multiple runs... well, let’s call it several times. That excellent start against the Braves was also the last time he started a game without walking anyone.

And now Danny is on the verge of his fourth return from the disabled list since in the past year, one or two of which might have been “disabled list” trips just to get a guy out of there who couldn’t hit the strike zone to save his life. Going strictly by the injury reports, every part of Salazar’s arm has had something wrong with it in one way or another. Shoulder fatigue last June, elbow inflammation in August, forearm tightness in September, and shoulder soreness earlier this month. To me, that sounds like a guy (or a team) trying to poke and prod at every little thing they can to make things right, and it’s just not working.

All of this brings us back to Mike Chernoff’s comments made to the media Thursday:

Once we get Danny back, that's about as good an addition as you can make to a team. You can't go out and get a guy like that. We hope once Danny is back he adds a huge boost to our rotation. We also have some of the guys from Triple A who have been up. Mike Clevinger is here. So is Adam Plutko and Ryan Merritt pitched against the Twins over the weekend.

I’m sure at least a small percentage of that is just team-friendly spin speak. Even if Mike Chernoff has no desire to ever see Salazar in a starting rotation, he wouldn’t say as much publicly. The right thing to say, no matter what, is that the team hopes he can contribute in the starting rotation.

My two general feelings on the statement are this:

  1. I don’t think he means it as much as he probably would like to. Even if Salazar goes into the starting rotation right away, just to feel out the possibility of him being Danny of old again, he has a long way to go. He’s just a wild pitcher, and his only real hope of succeeding is to limit home runs after he walks half a dozen batters. With today’s home run-heavy environment, that’s not an easy task.
  2. It’s hilarious how Chernoff essentially said “Yeah, Adam Plutko is there, too,” acknowledging that the 25-year-old pitcher is around despite the fact that he hasn’t pitched at all this season. I’m aware this has nothing to do with Salazar, but the way he’s just slid it in there is funny and it deserves its own bullet point. Can we really be sure that Plutko is actually in the bullpen? He has supposedly been on the roster for more than a week now, but he hasn’t thrown a single pitch. If you see this post, Adam, blink twice if you’re locked somewhere and in danger. We’re here for you.

Call me pessimistic, but I just don’t have much faith in Salazar being better than Clevinger or Merritt as a starter. That’s not necessarily high praise for any of those three, but if the latter two can be anything remotely like a fourth or fifth starter, Salazar might be better used out of the bullpen, instead of dragging the bullpen into the game after four innings every start. Adam Plutko is there, too.

Salazar made 10 starts this season before his move to the bullpen in late May. In that time, he made it past the sixth inning only once, against the Seattle Mariners, despite an incredible 30.9 percent strikeout rate. As the team’s third starter, or the closest thing to it, he needs to be better for another run at a World Series. I would love to be proven wrong, but the Vegas odds of Salazar starting consistently over the next few months have to be pretty low.