So far this season, Danny Salazar has not pitched at the level most of us expected. Last year he was a revelation, a strikeout machine who injected a sense of energy into the rotation just when the Indians needed it most. Salazar made 10 starts down the stretch in 2013, with an impressive 3.12 ERA, a 3.16 FIP, and an ERA+ of 123. His strikeout rate was the highest in franchise history by a pitcher with 50+ innings. So remarkable was Salazar that the Indians entrusted him with the ball for their first playoff game since 2007. Danny had a lot of responsibility placed on his shoulders, and the hype only increased over the off-season as fans and the media couldn't wait to see more of him in 2014.
Salazar has now made 3 starts and has an 0-2 record and a 7.71 ERA, and has given up 4 home runs in just 14 innings of work. He's still a strikeout machine, but nothing else is working. It's still extremely early in the season and plenty of players start a year poorly and turn things around. Salazar may well do that, but his performance thus far gives us reason to worry.
All of this begs the question: Has it all been too much, too soon for Salazar?
For a young man with just 52 innings of regular season Major League work under his belt, there certainly were some lofty expectations thrust upon him. We were all very excited about his 2013 performance and understandably got our hopes up this year, but was it right to expect him to be a top of the rotation guy straight away? Jonah Keri and the Grantland crew embraced him as their "fantasy crush," with Keri calling Salazar "talented enough to make a Cy Young run, maybe even as soon as this year." Every fantasy draft I participated in saw Salazar drafted before Justin Masterson, and sometimes he was taken ahead of established starters like James Shields and Doug Fister. Did some of the hype over the winter find it's way into Salazar's head? It was pretty hard to avoid hearing his name and there's a possibility the off-field attention has affected Danny's on-field performance.
If the problem isn't mental then it could be something physical that's causing a problem with Salazar. How do the Indians go about fixing that? One option is to let Mickey Callaway, certified miracle worker (just ask Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir), continue working with Salazar to fix mechanical problems and/or anything else that might require correction. Salazar admitted that something isn't quite right after Thursday's loss to the Tigers: "Maybe I'm pulling a little bit. Maybe my arm is behind. I started thinking a little bit about those things." Another option is to have Salazar spend some time in the bullpen to work things out while making shorter appearances, but Carlos Carrasco seems the more likely candidate for that move (perhaps permanently), and having him pitch in shorter bursts may not be the best way to prepare him for getting through 6 or 7 innings effectively.
A more drastic move, one that might be more beneficial for Salazar and for the team: Send him to Triple-A. Hear me out before you send an angry mob after me! If Salazar were sent down, he could tinker with his delivery to his heart's content without the pressures of the MLB. At Triple-A, he could work exclusively on his off-speed pitches without having to worry about what the scoreboard says. We can all see that Salazar is supremely talented and possesses one of the most electric fastballs in baseball, but like a lot of young pitchers, he could benefit from some more work down on the farm. Think about Cliff Lee struggling in 2007 and being sent back to the Minors. Then think about Cliff Lee in 2008, winning the Cy Young.
Demoting Salazar to Columbus just causes another problem though, doesn't it? Who takes his spot in the rotation? Trevor Bauer has been pitching superbly this season and is on the verge of earning another look at the MLB level. He impressed everybody during his spot-start against the Padres earlier this month and has been tremendous for the Clippers so far, striking out 18 hitters over 12 innings, while allowing just 1 run. Bauer's recent work on his mechanics and delivery has worked wonders for him (and might work similarly for Salazar). Bauer seems ready to move into the rotation. Of course Carrasco might need to be relocated, in which case Bauer would be needed for his spot. That means Josh Tomlin would have to fill in for Salazar. The difference in potential between Salazar and Tomlin is huge, but would the difference in results right now be much different?
Like I said, it's still very early in the season and plenty of young pitchers struggle early before breaking out and going on to greatness (take a look at Clayton Kershaw's first 100 innings, for example), so no one is suggesting that Salazar can't be the pitcher we want him to be. He isn't that pitcher right now though, and the Indians hope to contend. April and May's games count in the standings and a starter who can't get through 5 innings is a problem. Management will need to decide whether to wait it out and hope Salazar turns things around quickly, or make a move to plan for a rotation without Salazar for the time being.
What would you do?