In 2006, the same year the Cleveland Indians drafted pitching prospects (now MLB duds) David Huff and Josh Tomlin, the Indians signed a 16-year-old undrafted free agent by the name of Danny Salazar. Given the team’s lofty expectations of first-rounder David Huff, and the fact that Salazar was an extremely raw young right-handed pitching prospect, Salazar received very little outside attention during the early portion of his career. On Thursday, the now 23-year-old made his first start with the same team that took a chance on him as a youngster from the Dominican Republic more than seven years ago.
A year after being signed by the Indians in 2006, Salazar was sent to the Dominican Summer League where he performed admirably, going 5-3 with a 1.96 E.R.A. in 14 starts. The following year, Salazar pitched in the Gulf Coast League, again posting stellar numbers (4-2, 2.87 E.R.A. in 11 starts). In 2009, he officially made his way up to A-ball. He struggled, though, going 5-7 in 21 appearances with a 4.44 E.R.A. 2009 marked the first season in which Salazar logged over 100 innings (107.1), and it seemed to take a toll on the young right-hander’s arm. Elbow issues forced Salazar to undergo Tommy John surgery following an injury-shortened 2010 season, and, in 2011, Salazar was only able to log 14.2 innings while he continued his post-surgery recovery.
In 2012, Salazar fully emerged as one of the team’s top young arms while splitting time between the Single-A Carolina Mudcats and the Double-A Akron Aeros. Combined, Salazar put together a very solid season going 5-2 with a 2.36 E.R.A. in 22 starts. Prior to the 2013 season, Baseball America ranked Salazar as the sixth-best prospect in the Indians organization. He has only enhanced his stock since then, going 2-3 in seven starts with a 2.67 E.R.A. for Akron before being promoted to Triple-A Columbus in May. He proved his worth there, as well, posting a 3-2 record in 10 starts for the Clippers while maintaining a 3.40 E.R.A.
Thursday, Salazar picked up a win (despite the efforts of Chris Perez to blow it) in his first major league start. He went six strong innings, allowing one run on just two hits while striking out seven and walking one. The 6-foot-0 rookie did not allow a hit until the sixth inning. He displayed excellent command of the strike zone (64 of his 89 pitches were strikes) and maintained his stellar velocity (mid-90′s) throughout the game. Salazar also showcased his solid change-up, as well as a developing breaking ball, while mixing up his pitches beautifully against the opposing Blue Jays.
The successful outing is very encouraging for the Indians, as the pitching staff has been a major area of concern for the team throughout the season. As Zach McAllister begins making his way back from the disabled list, though, Salazar could soon find himself on the outside looking in for a starting rotation spot. One alternative that could prove to be the better move would be moving Salazar to the bullpen to help solidify the biggest weakness of the ballclub. Salazar’s potential as a starter may be limited anyway, given his injury history. The organization has been reluctant to let him pitch deep into ball games, as he was consistently held to maximum pitch counts right around the 85-pitch/5-inning mark while pitching for Akron and Columbus.
The Indians’ recent track record of developing homegrown pitching prospects (see the aforementioned David Huff) has been poor, to say the least. Until Thursday’s start by Salazar, no Indians pitcher who had made a start this season had been originally drafted or signed by the club. Various media outlets have reported that the Indians are considering Salazar as a movable piece for the upcoming trade deadline. If he can continue to produce outings like this, though, the team may have trouble letting go of another possible homegrown gem. God knows that we’ve let enough of them go in the past. I say that we hang on to one for a change.