For the first three months of the 2016 season, Indians right-hander Danny Salazar pitched like a bonafide Cy Young contender. He went 10-3 with a 2.36 ERA in his first 16 starts and 99 innings while holding opponents to a .195/.285/.312 batting line. Total domination.
That performance earned Salazar a spot on the AL All-Star team, though he was unavailable to pitch in the game due to what was called "mild elbow discomfort." Arm problems have been a continuous problem in the second half, and Friday night Salazar left his start after four innings with forearm discomfort. MLB.com's Jordan Bastian has the details:
"After the fourth, he came off and he said he was feeling some tightness," Francona said. "So, obviously, we kind of checked him out. It's a little different. It's muscular, which, if it's going to hurt, that's good. We'll certainly keep an eye on him tonight and then when he shows up [Saturday], we'll see how he feels and then we'll go from there. That's really all we have right now."
This is fourth time Salazar has had some sort of arm problem this season, and they've all come fairly recently. He skipped a start with shoulder fatigue in June, had the elbow discomfort at the All-Star break, and spent 15 days on the disabled list with elbow inflammation last month. Now Salazar has forearm tightness.
Not surprisingly, Salazar's performance has suffered as the injuries have mounted. He has an unsightly 7.75 ERA in his last nine starts and 38 1/3 innings, during which opponents are hitting .321/.391/.525 against him. Salazar has turned every hitter he's faced into Matt Carpenter (.280/.390/.527) with a higher batting average. Yikes.
Forearm tightness is a common precursor to Tommy John surgery, and the fact Salazar had elbow discomfort and inflammation earlier this year surely doesn't make anyone feel better. It's worth noting Salazar has had Tommy John surgery before, back in the minors. He had his elbow rebuilt in August 2010 and returned a year later.
The Indians will no doubt take it easier with their young right-hander. They want him to not only be healthy for the postseason, but for years to come. Salazar is under team control through 2020, after all. Cleveland has a comfortable six-game lead in the AL Central and will surely play it safe with Salazar. No reason not to.
Now, that said, all the injuries and the recent poor performance create some question about Salazar's availability for the postseason. As it stands right now, the Indians figure to tab Cy Young favorite Corey Kluber for Game 1 of the ALDS, with Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer following in some order.
What happens after those three is where it gets a little dicey. The Indians have four options for their Game 4 starter at the moment.
- Danny Salazar: Hurt and ineffective in the second half.
- Josh Tomlin: Recently demoted to the bullpen due to extreme home run issues.
- Mike Clevinger: A rookie with a 5.30 ERA in 37.1 innings overall, including a 6.23 ERA in four starts.
- Cody Anderson: Has a 6.97 ERA in 51 2/3 innings as an up-and-down depth arm in 2016.
Clearly the Indians want a health and effective Salazar in the postseason. Who wouldn't? He can be a difference maker when right. But, if Salazar's arm keeps giving him problems, it seems likely Tomlin or Clevinger would get the nod for the final postseason rotation spot.
The Indians could be aggressive and use Kluber on short rest in the ALDS. Kluber could start Game 1, then come back for a potential Game 4 on three days' rest. The Game 2 starter would then be able to start Game 5 on normal rest thanks to build-in off-days. The ALDS and World Series schedules are a bit more unforgiving, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
For now the Indians will hope Salazar's elbow and forearm respond to treatment and allow him to pitch at some point before the end of the regular season. And if he's unable to go in the postseason, they'll have to shift gears and trust Clevinger or Tomlin in a potential Game 4.