Inbox: Will Salazar return to the rotation?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian fields Indians fans' questions

March 20th, 2018

The first issue here is 's timeline for return. The Indians have taken a very conservative approach to Salazar's comeback from right shoulder inflammation -- an issue that flared up in January -- so it is hard to project when the righty might be a viable option for the MLB rotation. The good thing here is that he has been honest with the Indians about how he has felt rather than pushing through discomfort.

When Salazar is built up again for a starting role, the next step would be a Minor League rehab stint. That is the only scenario in which the hard-throwing righty would be at Triple-A. Remember, Salazar, 28, is out of options. So, once he is healthy and ready to be activated, he must join Cleveland's big league roster. It's impossible to predict what else might be going on with the MLB rotation when that time comes.

If everyone is healthy and pitching well -- the perfect-world scenario that every team dreams about -- I could see Cleveland continuing to allow Salazar to take his time on a rehab assignment. Then, the debate about starting vs. relieving might come into play. Earlier this spring, manager Terry Francona said Salazar could be "lights out" as a reliever, but he noted that the pitcher also performs better with a routine schedule. That's difficult to do in the bullpen.

So, this would likely come down to what is going on in the rotation when Salazar needs to be activated. Is one of the other pitchers struggling? Is there someone else banged up and need of a trip to the DL? Would one of the other starters be better suited for a move to the bullpen to clear room for Salazar? Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin have worked out of the 'pen in the past.

Right now, the only certainty is Salazar starting the season on the shelf. The other answers will come later on.

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The Indians are pretty excited about catching prospects (No. 1 on the Tribe's Top 30 prospects list, per MLB Pipeline) and (No, 20), too. And, given the recent release of veteran , who was in camp as a non-roster invitee, Mejia and Haase look like the next-man-up candidates in the event of an injury to either or .

Indians first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr., who doubles as the team's catching instructor, has been impressed by the defensive strides made by both Mejia and Haase. Here are some of Francona's recent comments on the catchers' skills behind the plate:

On Mejia...

"Sandy's been working with a lot on his transfer," Francona said. "He's got a really strong arm. He's been trying to clean up his transfer a little bit. But, like most young catchers, experience is the biggest thing. Running a game, learning how to guide a pitcher through a tough inning, and things like that. He's got all the physical tools that you'd ever want."

On Haase...

"[Sandy] really enjoys him," Francona said. "He thinks that, although he doesn't have like Perez and Gomes arm strength, he's got plenty of arm. But, he's so receptive at the plate. He's getting better at receiving. He's fine back there and he cares about running the game and all the things you're looking for in a catcher. He does a really good job."

They will be splitting up the catching duties at Columbus. I wouldn't expect it to be a traditional starter-backup type of innings distribution. Plus, Cleveland plans on having Mejia get some action in the outfield early on this season. Given the presence of Perez and Gomes, and how highly the Indians value Mejia's offensive abilities, the team is exploring ways to potentially expedite the prospect's path to the Majors.

Will the way the free-agent period played out this offseason have any effect on the likelihood that or will sign an extension?

-- Andy L., Aurora, Colo.

As tough as this offseason was for many free agents, the relief market was mostly exempt from the issues. A lot of setup-type relievers earned multi-year contracts over the winter. Former Tribe reliever , for example, netted a three-year, $27 million contract with the Rockies. That means Shaw has the same average salary as the one Miller ($9 million) will have this year with Cleveland. So, given the current market for impact relievers, it still seems likely that Miller and Allen will hit free agency next offseason.

When looking at the players on the roster bubble without Minor League options or opportunity (, and , for example), do you see the Indians being able to deal for any value in return?

-- Dan C., San Diego

Sure. If those players don't make the active roster, and don't wind up on the disabled list to start the season, they would need to be exposed to waivers before a potential trip to the Minor Leagues. The issue with trying to trade players in that situation is that the other 29 teams know they will be up for grabs via waivers, so it's difficult to net a great return in those kind of deals. The Indians would likely see what interest there might be among teams who are lower in the waiver-priority list.

Do you think the Indians will explore trading Gomes or Perez to the Brewers after the injury? It seems like a good opportunity to clear up some playing time for Mejia.

-- Mitchell M., Lima, Ohio

That doesn't seem realistic, no. While Mejia is polished as a hitter, the Indians still feel he has work to do on the defensive side of things. With a veteran pitching staff serving as the backbone of a team with its sights set on winning the World Series, Cleveland loves its MLB tandem of Perez and Gomes. Mejia will likely be up with the Indians at some point this year, but it won't be on Opening Day unless something unexpected happens.

Allen will once again get the bulk of the opportunities as Cleveland's closer, with Miller serving as the high-leverage weapon. That said, there could be times where they swap roles, depending on the situation or if Francona feels the workload needs to be eased for one of the relievers. For the setup role, expect Francona to do a lot of mixing and matching. will handle mostly left-handed batters. Francona loves for righties. The manager calls Dan Otero his "wild card," meaning he can come in at any point for any situation. Zach McAllister will likely get more high-leverage chances now that Shaw is no longer in the fold. What you won't see if Francona designating specific pitchers for specific innings.

Right now, provides the Indians with some experienced depth. One of the reasons they acquired him from the Red Sox earlier this spring was due to his having a pair of Minor League options. The team feels Taylor still has some development left, but he's been in the big leagues, so that gives the club a nice layer of depth behind the Major League bullpen.