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Danny Salazar: Future Relief Ace?

Cleveland is at least considering moving a very talented arm. Could he be the dominant relief force the Cardinals need?

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Seriously, will this interminable offseason never end?

I think that I am, all things considered, a fairly patient person in terms of baseball fandom. I’m not always the most patient in other areas of life — though I have certainly become more patient as I’ve gotten older — but I rarely lose my patience or perspective when it comes to observing and following baseball. Sure, there are times I’ll get frustrated or upset in the moment, but that’s usually an emotional response, not a reactionary attitude in general.


Okay, now that that’s out of my system, I have to quickly pour one out for a pair of my favourite off-the-beaten-path relief options this offseason; both of the Japanese relievers I really liked this year are off the market. The Diamondbacks signed Yoshihisa Hirano, the forkball specialist, a couple weeks ago; just last week, the Padres inked Kazuhisa Makita, a super fun submariner about whom I tweeted all the way back in September. Sadly, neither guy will be a Cardinal this year, which I find vaguely frustrating. Hirano more than Makita; where Makita would seem to be a fun experiment, Hirano is just a legitimately good pitcher, I believe, who could have offered a lot of upside to the Cards for a very reasonable cost. But, hey, sure, let’s sign American retreads playing in Japan, rather than the actual good pitchers in said Japanese league. Or let’s do something stupid on the free agent market and sign a ticking time bomb to a $40 million+ deal.

Alright, now that that other bit of emotionally-motivated pouting is out of my system, let’s get to the actual subject of today’s post, which will keep us solidly in bullpen-building fantasy land.

The Cleveland Indians are at least sort of shopping Danny Salazar this offseason, it would seem, with the Cubs having checked in on the talented right-hander already. The Indians, it has been reported, are mostly looking for left-handed hitting in return, although I would guess that’s at least partially a narrative created by the fact everyone wants the Cubs to trade Kyle Schwarber except the Cubs.

Now, it doesn’t look like the Indians are shopping Salazar too very hard; more of a put the name out there and see if anyone bites sort of situation. And that makes sense; he is under club control for two more seasons — though at arbitration prices, meaning he’s beginning to actually make some money — and the Indians are one of the better teams in baseball, so it isn’t as if they have to make huge renovations to the roster. (Particularly when considering the complete lack of in-division competition they have this upcoming season, at least on paper.)

Here’s the story on Salazar: he made his major league debut in 2013 as a precociously talented 23 year old, and immediately made a huge impression. The home run rate was a little high that partial season, but in ten starts covering 52 innings, Salazar struck out just shy of 31% of the batters he faced, posted a 23.7% K-BB%, and put up a 3.12 ERA and 3.16 FIP, good for 1.2 wins in a little over a third of a season. It looked like Danny Salazar was going to be one of the more exciting starters in baseball to follow over the next few years.

And in those next few years, which are now, of course, the last few years, Danny Salazar has of the more frustrating starters in baseball to follow.

Salazar has seen his performance bounce around a bit, although in general he’s been good when healthy. The problem is that qualifier ‘when healthy’. In 2014, he threw a little over 170 innings split between Triple A and the majors. In 2015, he made 30 starts and tossed 185 innings. He was worth a little over three wins in those innings, having seen his strikeout rate park at a still very good but not otherworldly 25.8%, while he maintained a very strong walk rate. Still vulnerable to the long ball, though.

Even in that 2015 campaign, when one really couldn’t have asked any more out of him, Salazar spent a brief period of time on the DL. In 2016, he was limited to 137 innings by injuries. This past season, he threw just 103 innings, missing time with both elbow and shoulder soreness. Which, you know, isn’t a great sign.

The good news, however, is that Salazar’s strikeout rate jumped to an absurd 33% — and remember, that’s almost exclusively as a starter, as 19 of his 23 appearances came in a starting capacity — and he was worth 2.2 wins in just over 100 innings. The bad news (well, beside the injuries, of course), were a walk rate that rose to 10% and a continuing dingeritis problem, as he allowed almost one and a quarter home runs per nine innings.

So what we have here is a pitcher with absolutely wicked stuff in the form of a 94-96 mph fastball that has crested as high as 100 with serious riding life, along with one of the best changeups in baseball. It’s a split-grip job, and just disappears at its best, with the forkball/splitter downward tumble. He also features a pretty good curveball that will flash a 60 but isn’t all that consistent, but is certainly more than just a show pitch. We also have a pitcher who has had increasingly more trouble staying healthy over the past couple years, a pitcher whose walk rate has gone up, a pitcher who has consistently struggled with the home run ball, and a pitcher who just missed a substantial chunk of the 2017 season with not one, but two incidents of arm soreness.

In other words, one of the more frustrating, tantalising pitchers in all baseball.

A big portion of the focus for teams the past few years has been the emergence of the fireman role in the bullpen. The bullpen ace. The oh-shit reliever. Call it whatever you want. Essentially, we’re talking about the Andrew Miller role, as mythical as that might actually be in practice. The Astros have Chris Devenski, the Indians have Miller himself, the Yankees had Dellin Betances until his 2017 struggles, the Dodgers had Andrew Morrow this past season helping to get the game into the hands of the inimitable Kenley Jansen. We are in a golden age of relief arms right now, and whether in the fireman role or as a simple closer, there are relievers in the game right now who are doing things we’re really never seen before. Look at the level of performance the Royals got from Wade Davis when he was one of the prime setup guys for Greg Holland.

The question for teams, of course, is how to find those relief arms before they become the hyper-valuable bullpen aces that clubs spend enormous amounts of resources on. Signing Wade Davis to a huge contract will probably improve your club, but bring a ton of risk onboard as well. Finding the next Wade Davis is what you really want to do.

To that end, I’m sure pretty much every baseball team has stat people running queries and scraping data, looking for those statistical profiles that point toward relief dominance. They probably have scouts notating a specific kind of pitcher in their reports, as well, looking for incomplete specimens that might be polished into the next two-inning terminator.

Well, I have my own method for trying to identify the next bullpen conversion candidate who might dominate in short outings . What I do is I go over the FanGraphs dot com, I click the mouse cursor into the little name search box, and then I type in ‘Danny Salazar’. I think my approach is pretty sound, and it can be replicated, too! Go ahead, try it for yourself. Go to FanGraphs, type in Danny Salazar’s name, and see what happens.

It took you to Danny Salazar’s page, didn’t it? See, told you. Now you know the secret of finding dominant relievers too.

Kidding aside, if there’s one starter in baseball right now who seems like he very well could be that next Andrew Miller or Wade Davis, my money is on Salazar, whose injury issues have limited him more and more, but whose repertoire is so pyrotechnic that he would seem almost unhittable in condensed form.

If the Cardinals really wanted to build themselves a potentially dominating relief corps, they could do a whole lot worse than to contact the Indians about a potential trade here. (Luckily, the Indians are one of the five teams John Mozeliak is contractually allowed to make trades with.) Salazar seems to struggle to throw much over 120 total innings in a season the last couple years, so move him to the ‘pen with the goal of getting him 80-100 innings’ worth of work. Tyler Lyons and Salazar, both serving as 2-7 out hammers, could be an absolute dominating force pitching anywhere between the sixth and eighth innings. And yes, I realise the closer position has been the focus of the rhetoric this offseason, but sticking the club’s third best reliever (say, Luke Gregerson maybe), in the closer role would be much, much more beneficial as part of a plan like this than committing big resources to just the ninth inning, I believe.

The question, of course, is what sort of deal it would take to get the Indians to part with Salazar. He’s been frustrating, and they have some other needs on the roster that moving him could help to fill, but he has never been so bad that they’re really in a position of needing to move him. Now, Cleveland’s payroll situation is always going to be a little limiting, so they need to be efficient, and so flipping a second-year arbitration pitcher for a cost-controlled asset is very much up their alley, and considering their biggest question marks are in the outfield and first base, the Cardinals might match up well in terms of a trade.

Sadly, if the Indians are really serious about it being left-handed hitting, then the Cards are maybe not such a good match. After all, the Redbirds are desperately thin on lefties as it is, at least of the impact bat variety, and the wave of near-ready minor league talent they possess is almost entirely of the right-swinging type as well.

Side note: you know, as I’m thinking about this, it occurs to me that literally the perfect trade target for the Indians, in the whole of baseball, is basically Matt Carpenter. I’m not advocating trading Carp; I’m just saying, if I’m the Indians, I’m bugging the Cardinals about Carpenter the way the Cardinals are bugging the Blue Jays about Donaldson.

However, so long as the left-handed thing isn’t an absolute mandate, the Cardinals could, in theory, offer the kind of team-controlled offensive player Cleveland needs. Right off the top, Randal Grichuk would seem to be an excellent candidate. Frustrating as Randal may be (he’s kind of the offensive version of Salazar, actually, come to think of it), the baserunning and defensive value, along with the power, probably give him a floor of close to league average over the course of a full season. And for a player just hitting arbitration for the first time this offseason, that’s pretty attractive.

If the Indians wanted to dip down lower, to take on a little more risk in exchange for extra years of club control, Harrison Bader, Adolis Garcia, or Yairo Munoz could all be options. Munoz isn’t an outfielder, so there’s less of an immediate fit, but he has a substantial ceiling and will be in Triple A to start 2018, so he’s close to contributing as well.

I’m not sure I would trade more than one solid top 10-15 prospect for two seasons of an oft-injured but incredibly talented pitcher like Salazar, given the risk of breakdown, and maybe that just isn’t enough to convince Cleveland to part with him. But if we’re looking for ways to add value to this Cardinal roster without having to pay market value for a Proven Closer who will almost certainly underperform whatever he’s being paid, and assuming Toronto just keeps on saying no every time Mozeliak accosts them via phone, email, or telegram, then here’s maybe a chance to get the next big relief thing before he gets there.

via Ace Kuroda (for some reason, CSN’s pitch tracker thing classifies Salazar’s changeup as a cutter a bunch of the time, which is weird):