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The Sunday Drive with T.J. House, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar

(Photo: David Richard/USA Today Sports)
It's the last Sunday of March, and somehow the snowflakes are still flying here on the North Coast. Ordinarily, the smells of spring are in the air, but today, it just means there are eight full days until the official 2015 baseball season begins for your Cleveland Indians, and spring couldn't be further from my mind. I mean seriously, how long has this years' Spring Training felt like?

Before I dive into the eccentricities of dealing with three inches of snow over a week after the Vernal equinox began, let's get this Sunday Drive rolling...

There really hasn't been too much uncertainty regarding the Indians 25-man roster, with the open spots available mostly revolving around the fringes of the team. Most of the uncertain spotlight has focused on the back-end of the starting rotation, and depending on who you talk to, it involves either one or both of the final two spots in the starting five.

I'll get to that in a minute.

Once the Indians signed Gavin Floyd to their curious $4-million-dollar-contract-that-could-go-up-to-$10-million-dollars-if-he-doesn't-get-injured back in December, it seemed as though Terry Francona would only have to settle on that #5 spot, with three viable options in the mix: flame-thrower Danny Salazar, lefty T.J. House and big righty, Zach McAllister.

While the front office dallied around with Bruce Chen, Josh Tomlin and Shaun Marcum, it's clear that they were only pitching to give Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway depth options should something dramatic happen injury-wise to multiple pitchers. Fortunately, that's not been the case, as Floyd is the only pitcher that's gotten hurt up to this point.

But...didn't we all look at Floyd's arm issues when they signed him, and regardless of the lack-of-connectivity to his Tommy John surgery from 2013. and his olecranon break in 2014, think, "this guy's going to get hurt?"

Former major league reliever Joel Zumaya had the same injury as Floyd, and while it was more dramatic than both of Gavin Floyd's fractures, he's never pitched again in a major league baseball game. While I'm not saying that Floyd's career is taking the same path, he hasn't been ruled out for the year yet.

Um...he re-fractured the same olecranon bone in his right elbow this season, and at 32-years-old, is more likely than not, pounding on the "career-is-over" door. I hope I'm wrong, but at the very least, let's not count on him in 2015. If he makes it back...and can get into shape...and can pitch well...and doesn't get hurt again...great.

Reality dictates that if you have three likely-season-ending surgeries in your 30, 31 and 32-year-old seasons, longevity isn't likely in the cards.

With Floyd out of the picture, there were two clear options available, and the smart money would have been on both Salazar and House making the rotation, with Zach McAllister taking his newfound velocity (and lack of options) heading to the bullpen.

Let's just get this out of the way: Josh Tomlin isn't part of the equation. I don't even think it's worth discussing at this point. I'll leave it at this: with Floyd out, and McAllister likely to find his way into the rotation, Tomlin may end up in the bullpen after all. He shouldn't be a starter for this team.

What's really been interesting to me over the course of spring training has been how T.J. House has solidified himself as a lock. If Floyd didn't get hurt, I have to believe House was the guy that was going to end up in that five slot, with McAllister moving to the bullpen as the "do-everything" reliever.

His ascension has been something to behold.

I've spoken a lot in my columns about House's transformation, which really comes down to a couple of things in the majors: a new pitch that can eat-up right-handed hitters, and an ability to miss bats, even as his velocity dropped from month-to-month last season.

His fastball has really good downward movement, and while he can throw it upwards into the mid-90's, he didn't have to do that last year to make bats miss. As a matter of fact, as the season progressed, his fastball and slider velocity decreased:




While his velocity dropped, his K-Rate managed to not only improve, but dramatically so from the beginning to the end of his season.

SplitERAGSIPBBSOSO9
May4.05213.1396.1
June4.43420.16135.8
July4.96316.15105.5
August2.89528.07268.4
Sept/Oct1.50424.01228.3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/29/2015.

What House has done is similar in some respects to what Corey Kluber did before him. He's managed to improve his slider to the point that lefties can't do much with it, and it's equally made his curveball much more effective. He throws a looping, slow curveball that can really take your breath away. Mixed in with a sinking fastball and a slider that moved in on lefties, he's found a way to make bats missed, regardless of how hard he's throwing.

The fact that he's done it without an increase in walks is icing on the cake.

The most impressive piece to House for me has been his overall improvement since the 2012 season. This is a kid who's turned the curve upwards on his career, and he should be an important piece to this rotation for many years to come.

So what is all this ado about Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar anyways? The bare bones of this decision to send down Danny Salazar is that he's clearly struggled this Spring, and more importantly, he's clearly not doing things that both Francona and Callaway have wanted him to do.

If you were to read between the lines when Francona was discussing Salazar's last outing, you could see that Francona was agitated, and that Salazar still needed some work. Imagine that, a 25-year-old that's never pitched a complete major league season needing to get down to the minors to get some work.

I mean, it's unheard of (please note the sarcasm).

There hasn't been a bigger supporter of Danny Salazar's progression through the system than me. The first time I saw Salazar was during the 2012 season with the Carolina Mudcats. He made two starts, then went on the DL, but it was clear that he was both a worker, and that the front office absolutely loved him.

He missed a month, in April and May that year, but when he came back from injury, it was clear that he was special. His velocity was impressive, and the way the Indians' took care of him, was equally noteworthy.

He didn't pitch past three innings until July, and only had one appearance past four innings, before the Indians sent him to Akron at the end of the year. In his short time and short outings, Salazar was explosive. He struck out 53 batters in 53 2/3 innings, and it was clear that they saw a kid who could be something special on the big stage.

They were right then.

They'd be right now.

Of course there are variables to all of this that we can't control. There are off-the-field things that we often don't see (and sometimes do), and it's hard to say what Salazar's spring has been like behind the scenes. Clearly, on the field, he needs to shake some things out, and like the entire rotation ahead of him, that's exactly what he'll do.

What I can't stand is the scuttlebutt that he's done. While he's struggled at times at the big league level, it's never been as bad as it's been made out to be. If you really go inning-by-inning, and start-to-start, Salazar has done more good than bad, and his bad is hardly at a level that makes you think he'll never make it.

Of course, in today's game, when you set the bar at 100 MPH and strike out the best hitting in baseball three times in a row, a high floor can seem really low to those that don't think before they speak.

In other words, I'm fine with Danny Salazar in the minors to start the year off. Maybe it was based entirely on merit. Maybe it was to send a message. Hell, maybe it was simply to keep his starts regulated. Looking at the schedule, the Indians will only need a fifth starter three times. Do you think it's possible that Cleveland just wants to get him those two or three extra starts in Columbus? Do you think that even though they're sending a message to their young flame-thrower, that there's more behind it?

Nah, let's rather think sinister thoughts and ponder his career as a reliever.

Yeah, I'm visibly shaking my head.

Salazar will be back. He will be starting. He will be really good.

Likewise, I'm trying to figure out the angst over McAllister making the rotation. Sometimes guys just figure it out. I think back to Cliff Lee in 2008. I get a phone call about halfway through the season, and a guy in my fantasy baseball team wants to trade me Lee for Josh Beckett and Fausto Carmona. I didn't blink twice.

Once I made the deal, he start cackling about regression, and how Lee didn't stand a chance going forward.


We all know how that turned out.

No, I'm not saying that McAllister is Cliff Lee. No, I'm not saying that McAllister is going to be great. What I am saying is that it's distinctly possible that McAllister isn't going to regress, but be okay.

Is there evidence to support that?

He's looked good in the spring, and yesterday, seemed to emphasize his case as a starter by striking out nine Milwaukee Brewers. His velocity continues to improve, and from what I could see, his secondary pitches have gained a bunch of movement.

Yes, it's a small sample size.

No, I don't have any supporting data from this spring.

Here's a few things that I do know: Mickey Callaway has found a way to work with pitchers that really want to be worked with, and to improve their outcomes. His poster boy is Corey Kluber, but you can point to several others currently on the team (Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, T.J. House), as well as some that aren't (Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir) who have clearly been effected in a positive way thanks to Callaway's instruction.

Is there anything in McAllister's demeanor that would lead you to believe that he wouldn't want to be here in Cleveland, performing at a high level, and doing whatever it takes to get better?

He's improved his velocity, and he's carried it over from relieving to starting. In an interview yesterday, McAllister alluded to several slight changes that were made when he got sent down last season, that not only helped his command, but helped his velocity.
"Being able to be consistent with my delivery and my arm action...trust that I can let it go, and it's going to go where I needed it to go, and I'm not going to place anything."
Francona followed up on that:
"He's been good all spring, and not just strikes but down in the zone when he wants to, and then he can elevate with some velocity. I think that his hard work is paying off. I mean, he's worked so hard, and he's come in so prepared, and it looks like it."
McAllister has a lot to prove, and being more prepared in spring than everyone else doesn't always mean long-term success, but what if it does? Do the Cleveland Indians want McAllister to fail, so that Danny Salazar can succeed, or vice versa?

It's idiotic.

The best case scenario here is that Zach McAllister has a year that nobody expected. The best case scenario is that Danny Salazar has to work, in the same manner as McAllister, and earn his place on this team.

Think back to last year. Carlos Carrasco struggled early on after being given the #5 slot, and once he was sent down to the minors, the message was sent. Look at McAllister, who went down to Columbus and simply dominated. He hasn't been the same pitcher since. Look at Kluber, who dealt with that in 2013, and hasn't looked back since.

Now it's time for Danny Salazar to step up. If he's brilliant, then it's time to show it. If he's got the upside that I know he has, as does Francona, then here is his chance to shine. For Salazar, it's time to NOT rest on the great gifts he's been given, but to outwork everyone else.

The greatest players in baseball all had great gifts, but always outworked everyone else.

McAllister is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in Cleveland, including working out of the bullpen, and you'll see that a bit in April I think. The key for ZMac, as Michael Hattery pointed out in his piece on Friday, is whether or not he can mix it up as the lineups see him a second and third time. It's rare that a pitcher can just "change" in half a season, so it will be interesting to see how it unfolds throughout the season.

In the end, these things tend to work out. We need both Salazar and McAllister to be at the top of their games. The constant rhetoric that either one can work out, while the other is a complete failure, is pretty ridiculous.

This isn't King of the Mountain, or Highlander...

Is it?





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