A few years ago, I remember hearing Keith Law on some podcast talking about how scouting comes down to a yes or no answer, either acquire or do not acquire. Scouts can’t waffle. You either want the player or you don’t. I like the bottom-line certainty of that in this confusing world of the false notions of hope and change, globalization, automation, rapid technological change, and yet a seemingly permanently stagnant economy. Wait, what? I don’t know; the point is the world is a very confusing place in 2014.
And so but my fantasy strategy this season was to buy the bats early and get young pitching later. I was able to draft Jeff Samardzija (1.46 ERA), Sonny Gray (1.99 ERA), Yordano Ventura (2.80 ERA) and Michael Wacha (2.54 ERA). Samardzija isn’t exactly young (29 years old), but there’s probably less mileage on his arm given his college football background. Those three are a pretty solid rotation foundation.
The guy I was most confident in, however, is already toiling in Triple-A. Danny Salazar was still missing bats (25.5 percent strikeout rate) with Cleveland this year after a dominant ten-start showing in 2013. When I saw him throw late last year I immediately put him into my “acquire” pile for 2014. What’s not to like about a guy averaging 96 mph on the heater with a plus-plus change? Unfortunately, Salazar had control (9.2 percent walk rate) and command issues (1.77 HR/9) over eight starts to open this season, earning a demotion. His average fastball velocity was down three ticks from last year.
Salazar is out and former (and arguably current) top prospect Trevor Bauer is back in the Cleveland rotation. Bauer is a good cautionary tale for those ready to pull the plug on the talented Salazar. Like Salazar, Bauer had some early-career velocity dips. After averaging 92.8 mph on the fastball last year, Bauer’s velocity is up to 94.6 over his two big league starts this season. With the velocity bump has come an increase in strikeouts. In 2013, Bauer struck out 19.3 percent of Triple-A hitters and just 13.6 percent over four starts with Cleveland. So far in 2014, he’s fanned 24.2 percent at Triple-A and 26 percent in the big leagues.
The real question with Salazar in the long-term might be his health. He had Tommy John surgery in 2010 which, combined with the sudden velocity loss, could be construed as evidence that health is the problem here. That’s obviously just speculation; perhaps his problems are just mechanical. We don’t know what the problem is, but we do know that something isn’t right with Salazar in the here and now when everything looked pretty great just a handful of months ago.
If Salazar could dominate in the big leagues before, he can certainly do it again. He’s only 24 years old, he has swing-and-miss stuff, and he’s had recent professional success. It’s far too early to quit on a talent like this, just as it was too soon to give up on Bauer.
The 23-year-old Bauer was the third pick of the 2011 draft and a top-ten prospect in 2012. The 24-year-old Salazar looked like a future ace last year. Arms like this don’t grow on trees, and they also don’t always grow on a linear trajectory towards stardom. There are often bumps in the road, and stardom isn’t guaranteed. However, in the final analysis, Bauer and Salazar remain two young arms worth riding the waves of struggle with towards fantasy success and perhaps renewed hope in Cleveland.
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