Salazar out to prove he belongs in rotation

January 31st, 2018

The Indians are heading into Spring Training with two rotation jobs up for grabs and four candidates: Mike Clevinger, , Josh Tomlin and . This week, will examine their respective situations and chances of winning the job. Today: Salazar.

CLEVELAND -- Danny Salazar has been touted as an ace-in-the-making for several seasons now, but the power that exits in his right arm has yet to fully coordinate with his potential. So, once again, the pitcher will report to Spring Training with uncertainty surrounding his job status.

When Salazar stood in front of his locker at Progressive Field earlier this month, when most of Cleveland's players were in town for the team's annual Tribe Fest, he smirked when the question he knew was coming was asked. What are his thoughts on the upcoming spring competition for the pair of rotation vacancies?

"It's going to be fun," Salazar replied.

If it were not for the history of injury setbacks and the statistical roller-coaster ride of the past few years, Salazar would seem like a lock for a starting job. His fastball is of the high-octane variety and his split-change is one of the most effective pitches in baseball. Every year, Salazar seemingly is mentioned among the pitchers poised to break out as a top-of-the-rotation talent.

Cleveland already has two pitchers who fit that description in and , who finished first and fourth, respectively, in American League Cy Young Award voting last year. also took a step forward in 2017, so he is penciled in to the club's impressive rotation. Behind that trio, Salazar, Clevinger and Tomlin are the top options for two jobs, with lefty Merritt next in line.

Clevinger laser focused on cracking rotation

Salazar, who has also had his name floated in trade rumors throughout this offseason, is looking forward to once again earning his place on the staff.

"Everybody proved here what they can do," Salazar said. "We're going to be playing anyway -- in the rotation or the 'pen. We just have to go out there and compete. There's going to be a competition, but I just think we just need to be smart and do what we need to do."

That, in a sense, is one thing Salazar took away from last season.

"When I'm feeling good, I know I'm going to do my job," he said. "If I'm healthy, with only minor soreness in my arm, which is normal in a pitcher, I know I can go out there and do my job."

That has been the main obstacle for Salazar over the past two seasons.

Indians' depth chart

In 2016, the right-hander was on a tear out of the chute, going 10-3 with a 2.22 ERA in his first 15 starts en route to a place on the AL All-Star team. Since the start of July of '16, Salazar has posted a 5.40 ERA with a 1.48 WHIP in 147 innings with multiple stints on the disabled list. Two years ago, there were bouts with shoulder, elbow and forearm soreness. Last season, the shoulder and elbow caused him trouble again.

For a brief stretch in '17, though, Salazar was brilliant. He returned to the mound on July 22, following nearly two months on the shelf, and showed why so many evaluators believe there is an ace in there. Over five starts, Salazar had a 1.39 ERA with 46 strikeout against nine walks in 32 1/3 innings, in which he surrendered just 18 hits and held hitters to a .446 OPS.

Then, Salazar gave up six runs on 12 hits in 4 2/3 innings in Kansas City. And then, he wound up back on the disabled list.

When the smoke cleared on Salazar's season, which concluded with him in the bullpen for the AL Division Series against the Yankees, he had the second-highest strikeout rate (12.7 per nine innings) in the Majors, among pitchers with at least 100 innings. But health woes limited him to 103 innings (down from 137 1/3 in '16 and 185 in '15). In 23 games, including 19 starts, Salazar had a 4.28 ERA last season.

"Sometimes your body is weird," Salazar said. "I can feel 100 percent today, and then tomorrow you don't know how you're going to feel. Those are the things I need to get better at, just like maybe paying attention to the routine I'm doing here, what helps me the most, and then continue doing that."

Salazar began that process this offseason, bouncing between Cleveland and his home in Tampa, Fla., for his winter workouts. He planned on getting to the team's complex in Goodyear, Ariz., well ahead of the Feb. 14 report date for pitchers and catchers, preparing for the competition ahead.

For Salazar, this winter was a chance to put everything else in the past.

"It's a time to reset everything," he said. "It's a time to forget about everything. The year is done, just learn from your mistakes and move forward."