After Danny Salazar gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Royals on April 22, dropping his record to 0-3 and inflating his ERA to 7.86 after four starts, Indians manager Terry Francona said he didn't believe that returning the fireballing 24-year-old sophomore to Triple-A would be the solution for his struggles. Salazar rewarded that faith with quality starts in two of his next three turns. However, after an inefficient outing in Toronto on Thursday in which Salazar allowed just two runs but used up 98 pitches in a mere four innings of work, that Triple-A assignment has come to pass.
The good news for Cleveland fans is that the decision to demote Salazar comes hand-in-hand with the promotion of 23-year-old righty Trevor Bauer, the former third-overall draft pick the Indians acquired in the three-way trade that sent Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds prior to last season. Bauer, a prospect who has been both more highly regarded and more confounding than Salazar in his brief professional career, appears to have righted his ship this season both with a strong performance in seven Triple-A starts (4-1, 2.15 ERA with a career-low 2.7 walks per nine innings) and a strong spot start for the big club in an early-April doubleheader against the Padres.
Actually, that should read a strong performance in six Triple-A starts. Including his major league spot-start, Bauer turned in a quality start in his first seven starts this season, posting a 1.17 ERA while striking out 48 men in 46 1/3 innings. In fact, he allowed just seven runs through is first 50 1/3 innings this season, but in that final frame, his last prior to his impending promotion, he gave up five runs on four home runs, because Trevor Bauer is an enigma and he doesn't want to be understood.
Salazar is an easier riddle to solve. Although he struck out 47 men in 40 2/3 innings with Cleveland, virtually every other part of his game was problematic, from his 3.8 walks per nine innings to his 1.8 home runs allowed per nine, to his inefficiency, which had limited him to an average of just five innings per start. As such, Salazar's most representative start this year may have been the one in which he became the first starting pitcher ever to strike out ten men and fail to complete the fourth inning, also allowing two home runs. There was some bad luck involved in Salazar's struggles in the form of a .369 opponents batting average on balls in play, but Salazar's extreme fly-ball rate (two-thirds of the balls in play he allowed were in the air), lack of command of his upper-90s fastball and inconsistent secondary pitches (his at-times devastating split-change and less impressive slider) suggest that, in this particular case, bad luck was very much the residue of poor design. Ultimately the Indians hope that some combination of these two talented but frustrating young pitchers can replace the rare effective season they received from since-departed free agent Ubaldo Jimenez last year. Given that Jimenez's ERA one year ago was almost identical to the one Salazar brings back to Triple-A (5.55 to 5.53), there's still time for that to happen, but the bar is now set higher: Starting with his ninth start of the season last year, Jimenez posted a 2.73 ERA.