CLEVELAND -- Danny Salazar was a revelation when he arrived unexpectedly in 2013 and took on the important assignment of starting the American League Wild Card Game. He was an All-Star in '16 on the might of a monster first half.
But dormancy has offset the dominance, and right now the label that most aptly applies to Salazar is "non-tender candidate." The Indians have until 8 p.m. ET on Friday to decide what to do with the oft-injured Salazar after a 2018 season in which he didn't throw a single pitch at any level.
On a team with six remaining arbitration-eligible players -- including Trevor Bauer, Francisco Lindor, Neil Ramirez, Cody Anderson and Nicholas Goody -- Salazar's situation is the most compelling plot point of the upcoming non-tender deadline. This is a moment when idealistic appetence sometimes necessarily take a back seat to the cold, hard realities of finance. And the Indians' lack of financial wiggle room with their current roster makes a gamble on Salazar's health possibly less manageable than it might be in other markets.
Spoiler alert: Bauer and Lindor will be tendered contracts in advance of the deadline, and the next step in the Tribe's process with those players is the Jan. 11 deadline for the exchange of arbitration figures. Bauer made $6.525 million in 2018, and he will command a significant raise, likely pushing him into eight figures. Lindor could conceivably challenge Kristopher Bryant's record $10.85 million salary for a first-time arbitration-eligible player.
Those are big investments for a club whose payroll projection for 2019 is, as a function of in-house raises, not far south of the franchise-record payroll of '18, despite the prominent free-agent departures of Michael Brantley, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, among others.
The money's tight enough that the Indians are not only exploring the trade markets for their most expensive starting pitchers (Bauer included), but also carefully considering arbitration costs. Like Lindor and Bauer, Anderson (who spent the vast majority of the past two seasons rehabbing after Tommy John surgery) and Goody (who spent the bulk of 2018 dealing with elbow issues that led to arthroscopic surgery in August) are expected to be tendered contracts. Their likely price tags are modest, and they represent important pitching depth for next year. The Indians already came to terms with the arbitration-eligible Leonys Martin on a one-year, $3 million deal.
That leaves Salazar and Ramirez on the bubble.
There was a time in mid-2018 when Ramirez emerged as a key cog in a Tribe bullpen that was in desperate need of such help. He didn't allow a run in 12 1/3 innings in June, and opponents hit just .098 off him. But Ramirez's effectiveness faded in the second half (6.10 ERA) and his role diminished. Ramirez is expected to get a raise in arbitration from the $750,000 he made last season, and the Indians might decide to allocate those finances elsewhere.
As for Salazar, he earned $5 million in a lost 2018 season. After missing time with arm injuries in both 2016 and '17, he experienced right shoulder soreness in his winter workouts and never made it back to the mound. He had surgery to clean up the inflammation in the shoulder in July.
Can the Indians afford to go down the $5 million road with Salazar again, given his injury history? Would he hold up better in a bullpen role? Are the trade talks involving Kluber, Carrasco or Bauer gaining enough momentum that Salazar is too important of a depth piece to disregard?
These are tough questions for the Indians to answer, but their entire offseason outlook has revolved around an inflexible financial picture, and the Salazar decision -- to tender or not to tender -- is an important layer of complexity in that conversation. We'll find out Friday which direction they go.