At the beginning of the month, the biggest question for the Yankees pitching staff was who the fifth starter would be. Not a bad problem to have, especially when that player would fill out arguably the best starting rotation in baseball. Fast-forward three weeks, and the starting situation faces far more uncertainty, with James Paxton out three to four months after undergoing back surgery and Luis Severino returning to New York for tests after experiencing forearm soreness.
How do the Yankees go about addressing this eerily similar situation to last year? The Yankees’ various in-house options are the first place to look for the re-vacated fifth spot in the rotation. The Yankees have a handful of relatively unproven starting arms on the 40-man roster and in the minor leagues. Alternatively, could we see the return of the opener, a makeshift solution to Severino’s lengthy absence last season? Such moves which had seemed obsolete after the Gerrit Cole signing are once again returning to the fore.
A level of discomfort accompanies each of the Yankees’ in-house options, regardless of the route they choose. The two pitchers with the most experience, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga have proven ineffective in a starting role at the major league level. Up-and-coming youngsters Deivi Garcia, Michael King, and Clarke Schmidt have yet to establish themselves at Triple-A, let alone the big leagues. The Yankees may also be concerned with their service time.
While Chad Green did have some success in an opener role last season, with the team going 11-4 in those games, employing an opener can tax a bullpen which looked gassed en route to an ALCS exit in 2019. The Yankees instead could look to the thinned out free agent pool, where a former All-Star still lurks.
Danny Salazar was a once-dominant strikeout artist with the Cleveland Indians, posting a 3.82 ERA (112 ERA+), 3.61 FIP, and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings between 2013 and 2017. A power pitcher whose four-seamer hovered around 95-96 miles per hour at his peak, he experienced occasional control issues, walking 3.2 batters per nine, but was close to unhittable on his day.
How does a player with this pedigree still remain without a team? Unfortunately, Salazar was bitten hard by the injury bug. He only played in one game the last two seasons, missing all of 2018 after shoulder surgery, and most of 2019 with a persistent groin injury. After attempting various rehab assignments with the Indians’ minor league affiliates, and only averaging 86.5 mph in his lone 2019 appearance, the Indians outrighted Salazar to the Columbus Clippers following the season, after which he opted for free agency.
There are, however, reasons for hope. The Yankees don’t need Salazar to become the hurler who could touch triple digits. If he can sustain the 91-93 mph he showed in his half-dozen minor league starts, he can still be successful at the major league level. And the Yankees have the perfect teammate to help him adapt to such a finesse approach.
Masahiro Tanaka has thrived with a soft-offering approach, averaging under 92 mph on his four-seamer the last two seasons. The deception he creates with the equal distribution of pitches between the fastball, slider, and splitter more than makes up for the lack of velocity.
There are other pitchers who provide a similar blueprint to success for Salazar. CC Sabathia had to reinvent himself as a finesse pitcher after multiple injuries and diminished fastball velocity. Anibal Sanchez just won a World Series with a sub-90 fastball. They achieved this through the crafty implementation of breaking and offspeed pitches.
This is where the key lies for Salazar. As effective as his fastball was, what truly set him apart was his filthy changeup. Salazar’s changeup was a truly elite offering, ranking as the single best pitch in all of baseball in 2016 by FanGraphs’ pitch run value metric.
Danny Salazar, two 86 mph changeups to Jose Abreu (movement). pic.twitter.com/TRgNGZX1ZF— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 13, 2017
What makes it unique is that he has at least three variations on the same pitch. He throws a pronated version that has both riding action and splitter-like drop, and a supinated version with some cut action. He is able to vary the speeds on all three types, making hitters look foolish.
That no team has showed serious interest in acquiring his services suggests the Yankees could sign him for a deal similar to that signed by Gio Gonzalez last spring training. Gonzales inked a minor league deal, which carried a guarantee if he made the major league roster, as well as incentives for different appearance milestones.
This type of deal is a win-win for New York and Salazar. If Salazar proves he can succeed in the major league, the Yankees find a fifth starter and Salazar makes a major league salary. If Salazar still hasn’t found his form by Opening Day, the Yankees can keep him on a minor league salary while Salazar has the ability to opt out and become a free agent again, as Gonzalez did.
I realize Salazar is not the most attractive option, especially given his own medical history, but the Yankees can’t feel entirely comfortable with their current options. They are getting to the point of throwing against a wall and seeing what sticks. Perhaps a reunion with former Indians coach Matt Blake, in addition to tutelage under CC and Tanaka, can help Danny Salazar turn the corner on the second half of his baseball career. The Yankees would receive a desperately needed reinforcement at the end of their rotation, and Salazar would get another chance at a World Series run.