July 11, 2013
The Situation: Where others have tried and failed, 23-year-old Dominican pitcher Danny Salazar will attempt to step into the Indians rotation as a rookie and stake his claim at the highest level. The promotion might be seen as a surprise to some, but Salazar has been shoving it in the upper minors and has the mental fortitude to make the jump.
Background: Salazar was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 and started his slow climb up the professional ranks, logging 25 starts at the complex level before making the jump to full-season ball in 2009. The production was hit and miss. The electricity of the arm showed up but he was more often than not unable to harness it or find consistent utility of his secondary offerings. His career veered off course in 2010, when his elbow decided to have a sad and require Tommy John surgery, which basically ruined the better part of two seasons and cost the young arm valuable developmental time. Salazar returned healthy and his powerful fastball was not only lively but under more control than ever before, and the secondary offerings, especially the slider, were flashing above-average potential. Building on a strong recovery season, 2012 was the big step forward for the 6’0’’ righty, as he pitched his way to the Double-A level and put himself firmly on the prospect map, ranking sixth on the Baseball Prospectus Indians’ Top 10 list after the season. Another developmental step forward in 2013 has put Salazar on major-league soil, and the continued refinement of his command and improvement to his changeup can take a lot of the credit for the rapid rise.
The Scouting: Salazar isn’t an imposing figure on the mound—standing a shade under 6’—but he’s not frail, as the frame is solid and strong. The highlight of the skill set is the arm strength, a plus-plus attribute that has slowly allowed the fastball dream to materialize into a legit on-the-field weapon. Able to touch elite velocity in bursts, Salazar has learned to command the offering, and not just when it comes to pitch location. As is often the case, arm strength heroes have a tendency to lack feel for the heat, opting for a more grip-it-and-rip approach that forces so many high-octane velo arms into the bullpen. But Salazar has learned how to pace the pitch, how to dial it up and dial it down, depending on the situation. This is the true definition of command as it pertains to a pitch: the ability to harness it and control the velocity, movement, and location. While he still has room to improve, the 93-97 mph offering is a very big weapon, and a 7-grade pitch that could open the door for success at the highest level, regardless of the role.
The secondary stuff will flash and flash big, but consistency has been the issue. Reports on the slider last season were money, as it played well off the fastball and had excellent tilt. It looked like a future plus offering, a bat misser effective against both lefties and righties. The changeup was given a solid-average future at the time, as he could turn one over and change the timing of the swing, but it was never consistent enough to eliminate the doubts about Salazar’s future role, one most scouts I spoke with assumed would be in the bullpen. But the pitch took a step forward in 2013, perhaps at the expense of the slider, which will still flash the fire but isn’t the consistent plus offering it was often projected to be. The arsenal is complete enough to start, but questions still remain about the durability factor, as Salazar has logged over 100 innings once in his career, and that was back in 2009, the season before his elbow attempted suicide. Diminutive righties with an injury history will always get the bullpen label, and if they happen to be Dominican the ones that have a chance to start will always receive the Pedro comps. It’s not fair on either front because each player is unique, but the odds are against Salazar carving out a sustainable career in a major-league rotation. The makeup is very good and the stuff better than people might realize, so just because it doesn’t seem likely, don’t discount a pitcher who can combine pitchability with plus stuff, because those are the players who find success at the highest levels. —Jason Parks
Fantasy Impact: If you're looking for a very short-term boost of strikeouts clouded by risk, Salazar just might be your guy. With the Indians calling him to make what is likely just a spot start on Thursday, he has a chance to move himself ahead of Trevor Bauer on the depth chart for the rest of the season. And with both injury risks and performance risks clogging the rotation behind Justin Masterson, Salazar could find himself right back in Cleveland before long.
This season has been a continued step forward for Salazar, who appears to be making up for lost time. Because of both injury and poor performance, it took Salazar three years to make the small step from Low-A to High-A, but he has raced up the ladder since returning in 2012. And while in the long term his injury history poses a big red flag, in redraft leagues, we can look past that. The one thing which it may be tough to look past are his fly-ball tendencies. This season, he has a 35.5 percent groundball rate, yet has only allowed four homers in 76 innings. Those types of numbers are hard to keep up at the major-league level.
In AL-only formats, he's worth considering on Thursday against the Blue Jays if you could use a strikeout injection—though the risks may be substantial given the Blue Jays' tendencies to hit fly balls very far. As far as FAAB goes, it's going to be tough to warrant a bid of more than a dollar or two on him because he'll be back in the minor leagues before you even get him on your roster, but he does make a nice reserve until he makes it back. Outside of AL-only formats, he's a nice name to store in the back of your mind in case he gets a full-time gig, but he's not someone you want to pick up at the moment. —Bret Sayre