Tribe expects Salazar to flourish in '14 rotation
After dazzling debut, hard-throwing righty enters season without pitch, innings limits
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Baseball is a way of life in the Dominican Republic, but the small town of Cabrera, located on the northern coast of the Caribbean island, is better known for its beautiful beaches than its big leaguers.
That changed with Danny Salazar's ascent to the Indians' rotation last summer.
On days the young pitcher was scheduled to take the hill, fans back home in Cabrera would set up a big screen in a local park, so people could gather and watch the game. When he returned home over the winter, following Cleveland's one-game taste of the postseason, Salazar was welcomed with a parade in his honor.
"They had me up on a car," Salazar said with a smile. "That was amazing. It was bigger than I could've even imagined."
Right now, it's the city of Cleveland doing the imagining.
Salazar's right arm provides hope that losing key starters such as Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir will not be as devastating to the Tribe's quest to build on last season as it appears on the surface. The kid's poise on the mound provides promise and has the Indians daydreaming about an ace in the making.
When Cleveland clinched a spot in the American League Wild Card Game last fall, Salazar was announced as the starting pitcher while the champagne was still flowing. The fact that he was young on years and experience did not matter. The Indians believed in Salazar then, and the organization is pinning a great deal of hope on him now.
"It's going to be exciting to see what he can do," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "He can probably be one of the better pitchers in baseball."
Callaway, who held coaching roles within Cleveland's Minor League system prior to joining the big league staff last season, has worked with Salazar since the pitcher was at Class A Lake County. Back then, the right-hander struggled to command the strike zone and his stock dropped dramatically when he needed Tommy John surgery to fix his throwing elbow in 2010.
Salazar could have fallen off Cleveland's radar entirely, but he used his rehab stint to not only strengthen his arm, but to reshape his delivery mechanics. As the pitcher gained a comfort level with his revised approach, and the Indians gradually increased his workload, Salazar began to see a noticeable improvement in pitch velocity.
Those fastballs that used to sit in the 91-94 mph range were now popping into the catcher's glove at 94-98 mph.
"He always had a live arm," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "But that velocity has continued to build over time. It doesn't just happen. Danny's worked really hard to make that happen, both with his throwing program and his diligence with his routines, and his work with our strength and conditioning staffs and our traininers. It's a byproduct of his work."
Indians manager Terry Francona likes to tell a story about heading to the Dominican Republic with Callaway to visit with Jimenez prior to last season. Jimenez was playing catch with a young pitcher who was unknown to the manager. The kid was firing bullets that hung low to the ground during a long-toss session.
"Who is that?" asked an impressed Francona.
"That's Danny Salazar," Callaway replied. "You're going to want to get to know him."
Even Callaway couldn't predict what followed.
"I was hoping maybe he can come up and contribute a spot start here or there," Callaway said. "But to come up and do what he did, I was surprised at that."
What Salazar did was carry a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his Major League debut against Toronto on July 11. When the 24-year-old returned to the Majors on Aug. 7, he struck out 10 in an outing against the Tigers. Miguel Cabrera, the reigning two-time AL Most Valuable Player, struck out three times before officially welcoming Salazar to The Show with a first-pitch home run in his fourth at-bat.
"After the game, [Cabrera] was like, 'Wow,'" Indians catcher Yan Gomes said. "When you're impressing a guy like Miguel Cabrera, you know you've got something good going."
In 10 regular-season outings for the Tribe, Salazar posted a 3.12 ERA and piled up 65 strikeouts against 15 walks in 52 innings. His average fastball soared at 96.2 mph, which was tied with Miami's Nathan Eovaldi for the fastest in baseball among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings. Salazar's rate of 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings set a single-season club record among Indians with at least three starts in a season.
Over the past two years, Salazar has fashioned a 2.54 ERA with 205 strikeouts and 51 walks in 180 2/3 innings, covering stops at Class A Advanced Carolina, Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus.
Salazar's big league sample size is small, to be sure. That said, Cleveland carefully added to the righty's innings load each year since his surgery with the goal of putting him in the position he is in now. The kid gloves are off, and the Indians feel Salazar will benefit from no longer worrying about pitch counts or innings limits.
"I'm not going to be looking at the scoreboard to see how many pitches I've got," Salazar said.
The pitcher downplays the impact that had on him in recent seasons, but Francona knows it could not have been easy.
"I think that was really hard for him," Francona said. "I thought he handled it really well, but I know there were a lot of games he saw me coming down there, and you could see him like, 'God, I'm pitching so well.' He understood it, but I dont think he liked it. I didn't either, but we owed it to him and the organization to keep an eye on that."
Callaway said the most important thing for Salazar this season will be to learn the ins and outs of the Major League routine, which will help him navigate his way through a full season. Antonetti added that making at least 30 starts is the plan for Salazar, who will likely be slotted second or third in the rotation behind staff leader Justin Masterson.
The Indians are hoping Salazar's hometown parade is just the beginning.
"Imagine what it will be when we win the World Series," Antonetti said.