Weighing the World Series impact Danny Salazar and Kyle Schwarber could have
- The Indians are getting back one of their best pitchers and the Cubs one of their best hitters, but Chicago will likely be more affected by the change.
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Baseball is no stranger to October surprises, and this year’s World Series promises two big ones. On Monday, the Indians announced that starter Danny Salazar—previously thought to be lost for the season due to a right forearm strain that sidelined him in September—had been added to their roster for the Fall Classic. On Tuesday, the Cubs announced they were going to do the same with slugger Kyle Schwarber, who tore the ACL in his left knee back in April and has been on the disabled list ever since.
The additions of Salazar and Schwarber give each of Cleveland and Chicago another potential impact player in time for the World Series. But which of the two could make the biggest difference in the quest for a title?
Salazar has the potential to fill the biggest hole for the Indians, who have been thin in the rotation throughout the postseason but have survived that shortcoming thanks to a lockdown bullpen that manager Terry Francona has gone to early and often. With both Salazar and Carlos Carrasco (broken finger) sidelined, Francona has followed staff ace Corey Kluber with Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and rookie Ryan Merritt—a group further diminished by Bauer’s drone-mangled pinky finger on his right hand. While that trio held its own against the Red Sox and Blue Jays, none of the three approaches what Salazar can do. The 26-year-old righty struck out 161 batters in 137 1/3 innings this year, and while his control can be an issue (he walked 4.1 per nine on the season), his stuff—a fastball that sits at 94.7 mph and a changeup against which batters hit just .150 on the year—is excellent.
All of that would seem to make Salazar an easy choice to start Game 2 behind Kluber. Unfortunately for Cleveland, it’s not that simple. While Salazar made it through a three-inning simulated game on Sunday at Progressive Field without any issues, his long stint on the shelf leaves him unable to contribute much more than that in a game. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said that Salazar would likely be limited to 65 or 70 pitches in live game action; against a patient Cubs lineup that drew an MLB-high 656 walks on the season, that would likely be no more than four innings.
As of now, Salazar’s role on the team is an open question. The pitch limit likely will keep him from starting ahead of Tomlin and Bauer (assuming the latter’s injury is healed), and Merritt’s excellent ALCS Game 5 start against Toronto has probably earned him a turn if needed in the World Series. But Salazar could fill the role of a long reliever if any of those three are forced from a game early. He could also give the Indians yet another short-inning option, particularly given his velocity; Callaway told reporters that Salazar topped out at 97 mph in his simulated game.
Schwarber’s role on the Cubs is far clearer. The burly 23-year-old started the season as Chicago’s regular leftfielder before tearing his ACL while trying to make a catch against the Diamondbacks in the first week of the season. While his injury and subsequent surgery were supposed to be season-ending—he was expected to be ready for spring training in 2017—his recovery went faster than expected, leading the Cubs to send him to the Arizona Fall League last week to take some hacks. The results were mixed: Schwarber hit some balls hard in his brief stay with the Mesa Solar Sox, but his surgically repaired knee is still clearly an issue when he runs, as can be seen in this video tweeted out by Eric Logenhagen of FanGraphs.
Granted, Schwarber has never been particularly fleet of foot, and his defense is so poor that, even if he were fully healthy, manager Joe Maddon shouldn’t be penciling him into an outfield spot anyway. Instead, Schwarber will likely function as Chicago's designated hitter for the games in Cleveland and as a bench bat at Wrigley Field.
In that role, Schwarber could easily shine. After being promoted to the majors in June 2015, one year after he had been the fourth pick in the draft out of Indiana University, Schwarber hit .246/.355/.487 with 16 home runs in 273 plate appearances, and he then clubbed five homers in nine postseason games. In the World Series, Schwarber will also give the Cubs some lefty thump against an Indians team that, with the exception of Merritt and über-reliever Andrew Miller, is comprised entirely of righties.
Schwarber, who bumped lefty reliever Rob Zastryzny off the roster, will make the Cubs' bench crowded and take away the tiny amount of playing time that reserve outfielders Chris Coghlan and Jorge Soler—both little-used and unproductive so far this October—could have seen in AL games. Schwarber’s presence will also force Maddon to get creative with rookie Willson Contreras. The 24-year-old has alternated starts with veteran David Ross behind the plate throughout the playoffs, but Ross will be in the lineup for Game 1 because of his status as Jon Lester’s personal catcher. Contreras has produced when he’s played, hitting .400/.429/.550 across 21 plate appearances, but with both DH and catcher blocked off, Maddon will have to use Contreras in the outfield and sacrifice some defense for offense—perhaps by shifting Ben Zobrist from leftfield to right and benching Jason Heyward, a superior defender whose season-long slump shows no signs of abating.
Either way, having Schwarber gives the Cubs another top-flight option for an offense that doesn’t lack them. Between his power production and the open spot for him, he’s a better bet to make a bigger impact than Salazar.