An odd June schedule that included three off days within a span of eight days followed by a double header on Saturday allowed the Indians to play some roster games with their rotation during the past week.
Danny Salazar had already been placed in the bullpen, but was expected to start in Colorado last week before he was placed on the DL. Despite this, Mike Clevinger was sent down to AAA to make one start before his expected recall on Saturday (6/17) and the double header against Minnesota. With the Indians holding a four man rotation otherwise and unwilling to throw Corey Kluber on short rest (he’s scheduled to pitch today, so he would be on three days rest Saturday), Salazar still seemed the obvious choice. With the move of Ryan Merritt from AAA Columbus to A Lake County so he could pitch Monday instead of Tuesday, that decision appears to have been made and it doesn’t include Salazar.
When Salazar was initially placed on the DL, there were many questioning the legitimacy of the injury. Given his struggles with control and his injury issues both last year and early in his career, it was very easy to believe that he was hurt, but it also came at an opportune time for the Indians as Salazar was struggling and Kluber returning from the DL.
Ryan Merritt making this start on Saturday certainly isn’t convenient, however. Salazar has some of the best movement and velocity of all Indians starters and has been incredibly successful over the past few years, particularly the first half of 2016. There is no question that the Indians will want him to be a big part of the rotation in the second half of the season and this double header would be the perfect time to get him into a game and see if he’s ready to return to the rotation or stay in the bullpen. With Salazar remaining on the DL, it could mean at least a slightly more significant injury than originally expected, although the Indians have already said that an MRI revealed no structural issues.
As far as Merritt is concerned, the Indians could be far worse off. Many teams would love to have Merritt as their fifth starter and he has pitched extremely well at times, particularly in the 2016 ALCS against Toronto. However, Merritt has often been referred to as a left handed Josh Tomlin and doesn’t have the high ceiling of a true prospect. There is obvious value in a soft tossing, control artist lefty, but he’s not necessarily the pitcher that will give the Indians the best options down the long run.
This season, Merritt has largely struggled in AAA. He allowed four runs in three of his first five starts and three in another as his ERA ballooned to 4.82 by April 28th. During this span, he was uncharacteristically giving up a lot of walks and home runs and, while he has still walked at least one batter every start this season, he has walked just seven in his last five games after walking 15 in his first seven. Other than a May 16th start against Indianapolis, he’s allowed three or fewer runs in each of his last seven starts and he’s pitched seven innings in each of his last two.
While this is likely to be a one and done for Merritt as the Indians can go back to the five man rotation as they play one game every day from July 18th through July 30th, a good start for Merritt could bring him back to the forefront. The Indians will likely need another starter for the July 1st double header against Detroit and given Josh Tomlin’s consistent issues with the long ball, over the long run the Indians could decide they are better off with the younger, more left handed version. With an otherwise completely hard throwing and right handed rotation, it’s arguable that they could be better off with a change of pace like Merritt as the fifth starter.
If everyone is playing at their peak level, the Indians best rotation is essentially Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Clevinger, but depth never hurts and, as it stands, Merritt is essentially number seven based on that list (after Tomlin as well). Beyond him, few have any MLB experience as Adam Plutko (who made a brief MLB debut in 2016) and Julian Merryweather (promoted to AAA this year) are the next best options. They could be decent options in the future, but with a team expected to return to the World Series fighting to stay above .500, they aren’t great options for the present.