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An ode to Danny Salazar

Prematurely mourning the flamethrower.

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago Cubs at Cleveland Indians Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been sitting on a post about Danny Salazar for months. Basically since I started writing here at Let’s Go Tribe. I was still optimistic he’d spend some time in Cleveland and the article would be timely.

Ah, to be as young and naive as I was in April again.

Needless to say, this is not the piece I wrote then. That one was about Salazar’s pitch selection and how he might improve. The last dying embers of hope refuse to die and the draft lives on in my Google Drive, but the news that Salazar went under the knife Monday for exploratory surgery was a splash of cold water.

If the time when it seemed like Salazar was nearing return seems far away (last September), the last time he threw a last big league pitch seems like decades ago. But, of course, looking ahead from spring rraining, most people inside and outside the organization were looking forward to seeing Salazar’s electric fastball and devastating change again.

Then his shoulder got sore. It was a story we’ve all heard before with Salazar, and injuries kept piling up and pushing back his potential return. When he received a platelet-rich plasma shot in May, most hope disappeared. Instead of, “Will he pitch in Cleveland this year?” the question became “Will he ever pitch again?”

Now, Shane Bieber is in Cleveland getting compared to Bob Feller and Early Wynn and Corey Kluber, and we’re left searching the sad recesses of our mind for comparisons for Salazar. Unfortunately, baseball is a cruel mistress, and there are many names to call upon.

In recent years the case of Mark Prior comes to mind, as Prior was an 18-game winner in 2003 for the Cubs before a series of injuries, culminating in reconstructive shoulder surgery, ended his career. Before Prior it was Mark Fidrych, whose electric stuff endeared him to Detroit and the rest of the world. “The Bird” won the 1976 Rookie of the Year award after posting a 19-9 record with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games, but then hurt his knee the following spring training and tore his rotator cuff a few weeks into his return from the knee injury, forever limiting his ability. The proto-Prior and -Fydrich, however, was Smoky Joe Wood, who won 57 games in 1911 and 1912 for the Red Sox, earning praise from the likes of Ty Cobb as one of the best pitchers ever. Wood had suffered from a natural inclination for injury prior to his dominating years, and a slip and fall broke his thumb in 1913, followed by a bout of appendicitis, marking the beginning of the end. A shoulder injury ended a comeback attempt in Cleveland in 1916, and Wood faded into the shadows of baseball history.

Wood is not the only sad story of promise unfulfilled in Cleveland, however. Some fans surely remember the hope Joe Charboneau represented in 1980, as his Rookie of the Year campaign put him on track to lead the Tribe out of the desert and to its first winning season since 1959. Alas, a balky back sapped Super Joe of his powers and the Indians would continue their losing ways, breaking .500 only once, in 1986, before the 1994 season. And, of course, Herb Score will always linger in Indians history as a great case of what might have been. Seemingly the second coming of Bob Feller, Score had an electric fastball that could pick up right where his legendary counterpart left off. Posting a record of 38-20 in the 1955-56 seasons, Score was poised for greatness before a line drive hit him in the eye in 1957. He never blamed the hit for derailing his career, but his 17-26 record after the fact meant he would have to find his greatness in the radio booth instead.

Now, potentially, we have Danny Salazar to add to the list. We can remember his 2013 debut, which was so good it earned him a start in the Wild Card Game. We can recall his 2015 season, in which he had an ERA+ of 125 and was worth 3.4 bWAR in 185 innings. Or we can reminisce about how good he was in 2016 — 11-6, 117 ERA+, 2.6 bWAR — before injury reared its ugly head and kept him from pitching in the postseason again.

Although this post has taken on the funereal quality of an obituary, the possibility of a return to the mound for Salazar remains. Despite being a fixture in discussions of the Indians rotation since 2013, he’s only 28 years old. Likewise, although there is an abundance of cautionary tales about highly regarded players whose careers were derailed by injury, there are many instances of exactly the opposite, too.

Take, for instance, Jonny Venters, who worked his way to the major leagues with Tampa Bay this April after three (!) Tommy John surgeries. At 33 years old, Venters is proof-positive that the white flag cannot yet be waved over Salazar’s career.

Which is the kind of optimism I need in the wake of another surgery for Salazar. It’s enough to keep the memory of his incredible pitching fresh and enough to convince me to keep my unpublished article out of the trash, too.