The Cleveland Indians are blessed with unnaturally talented pitching. They have noted robot Corey Kluber and the upstart Carlos Carrasco. They also have a genuine pitching geek in Trevor Bauer and a fascinating young piece in Danny Salazar, who's been up and down from Triple-A but finally stuck in the big leagues this year. Salazar pitched 185 innings of 3.63 DRA ball while striking out just over a quarter of opposing batters. FIP-based fWAR (3.2) and DRA-based WARP (3.1) paint a similar picture of his body of work from the 2015 season.
Salazar's always caught the fancy of pitching geeks for his knockout stuff. In particular, his splitter (FanGraphs' Pitch F/X data identifies it as a curveball) is an especially good out pitch.
In his current form, Salazar is a more-than-capable mid-rotation starter. There's the potential for a lot more. At age 26 with less than two years of big league service time under his belt, Salazar would fetch more than a pretty penny on the trade market. While the Indians are surely planning on contending this year, they have only so much money to throw around to improve their roster. They've already spent on Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli, and with Michael Brantley on the shelf for a while and the rest of the division gearing up for a fight, now is the best time for Cleveland to deal from its biggest source of depth.
This winter's pitching market was a veritable buffet of options, but many teams have been left outside in the cold. Salazar is likely a better option than many of this year's free agent options because of his affordability and youth. He's the kind of asset that would fetch a top 50 prospect at the very least, along with a few other pieces. Young pitching is the most important resource in baseball. With next year's pitching market being composed almost entirely of Stephen Strasburg, it's not a stretch of the imagination to think that many a club would pounce on Salazar at a moment's notice.
The Yankees are openly seeking a young starter, and clubs such as the Orioles, Astros, Red Sox, Pirates, Blue Jays, and Rangers could also be suitors. All of these clubs are brimming with prospects to offer in a possible trade, and all of them are in tight divisional races. If the Indians wanted to, they could even theoretically leverage the AL East clubs against each other in an effort to drive up Salazar's price.
The loss of Salazar would undoubtedly be a short-term blow to the Cleveland roster and leave the Indians a step back in the race against the rest of the AL Central. Nearly every other team (except for the Twins) has either retained major pieces or brought in top players in a race to the top. Cleveland was hoping for health and a full season of Francisco Lindor to be enough, but the injury to Brantley is more than enough of a setback to make a trade of Salazar palatable. If Cleveland were able to get a big league asset in the return package for Salazar, possibly an outfielder, they could still stand to keep some value while plugging Cody Anderson or T.J. House into the rotation.
It's not the easiest pill to swallow if you're an Indians fan. However, pitching prospects Mike Clevinger and Rob Kaminsky aren't too far away, and it's not as if the rest of the division is bulletproof. The White Sox still don't have much of an outfield beyond Adam Eaton and not much of a rotation outside Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. The Tigers are continuing their relentless march toward the cold embrace of old age and may be staring at the last year of their contention window. The Twins over-performed last year and are praying that Byron Buxton starts hitting big league pitching and that Jose Berrios can come up and pitch like a god. And yes, the Royals are the Royals. But nearly every team in this division has major warts, and the Indians may very well be able to get away with trading Salazar while still trying to contend. Kluber and Carrasco are incredibly good pitchers, and Cleveland has better depth in this department than most.
Before long, the Tigers will age out of contention, and the White Sox will discover that their small farm has run dry. The Royals will be forced to make hard choices when their young core all starts hitting arbitration. There's a very real scenario in which the AL Central is a fight between the Twins and the Indians in three years' time. Because of that, it would be prudent for Cleveland to fight its battles both for today and tomorrow. A trade of Danny Salazar isn't the sexiest choice. But it may very well be the right one.