After learning that B.J. Upton and Sam Fuld will miss at least the start of the season with injuries, the Rays had to scramble to finish off their roster. Most of the players who made the team were either on the team last year or acquired through a major league deal or trade this offseason- with one exception. The name of one player set to make the Rays’ Opening Day roster will not ring a bell unless you’ve been following the Rays this spring training. This player is Jeff Salazar. Who is he? Let’s find out.
Salazar, a 6’0″, 195 lefty-swinging outfielder, was selected in the 8th round of the 2002 draft by the Colorado Rockies out of Oklahoma State University and made his pro debut that same season for Short Season-A Tri-City, posting a .235/.351/.328 line with 5 doubles, 4 triples, 4 homers, 21 RBI, and 10 steals in 16 attempts in 72 games. He walked 47 times compared to 43 strikeouts. But his .328 slugging percentage was absolutely no indication of what Salazar was about to do at Low-A Asheville, where he would play all but one of his games in 2003. Salazar put up incredible numbers in 2003, posting a .281/.383/.521 line with 23 doubles, 4 triples, 29 homers (tops in the Sally League), 98 homers (also most in the Sally League and by a wide margin), and 28 stolen bases in 42 attempts, also walking 77 times compared to just 74 strikeouts. Defensively, Salazar also impressed with his arm strength, managing 21 outfield assists.
Salazar continued to play well at High-A Visalia to begin 2004, posting a .347/.419/.586 line in 75 games with 18 doubles, 9 triples, 13 homers, 44 RBI, 17 stolen bases in 19 attempts and 38 walks compared to 33 strikeouts. He also posted 14 outfield assists. That was enough for the Rockies to start accelerating him to the big leagues at age 23, calling him up to Double-A Tulsa, but then Salazar finally hit a speed bump, posting just a .223/.331/.313 line in 58 games, although he did steal 10 bases in 13 tries. Salazar rebounded to an extent in 2005 between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Colorado Springs, posting a .271/.366/.422 line with 30 doubles, 5 triples, 12 homers, 61 RBI, and 17 stolen bases in 27 attempts, but for the first time he struck out more than he walked and it wasn’t even close, as he K’d 107 times compared to 76 walks. Salazar was on the cusp of the big leagues, but the Rockies were getting the feeling that he wasn’t anything special as a prospect.
Salazar got off to a rocky start in 2006, spraining his UCL in his left throwing elbow in spring training, but when he came back he played decently at Colorado Springs, posting a .265/.357/.433 line with 14 doubles, 7 triples, 9 homers, 39 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 17 attempts in 85 games, and in September he was called up to the big leagues for the first time at age 25, and he played well albeit in a very limited sample, posting a .283/.409/.415 line with 4 doubles, 1 homer, 8 RBI, and 2 stolen bases in 19 games. But following the season, the Rockies placed Salazar on waivers, and he was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Salazar began 2007 back at Triple-A, this time at the D-backs’ Tuscan affiliate, and this time he dominated the level in 108 games, posting a .299/.385/.495 line with 31 doubles, 9 triples, 10 homers, 68 RBI, 18 stolen bases in 23 tries, and an even 56-56 walk to strikeout ratio. Salazar was called up to the Diamondbacks for a 6-game stint in July, hitting .333, and he was with the D-backs from August 15th to the end of the season. Overall, Salazar posted a .277/.340/.394 line with 6 doubles, 1 triple, 1 homer, 10 RBI, and 2 stolen bases in 38 games. His home run was a big one for the D-backs: with 2 on and 2 outs in a game that the D-backs were trailing to the San Francisco Giants 3-2, Salazar stepped into the batter’s box against Giants closer Brad Hennessey and drilled a go-ahead 3-run homer that was the winning margin as Arizona won 5-3.
In 2008, Salazar made the Diamondbacks roster coming out of spring training as a pinch-hitter and backup outfielder, and he got off to a hot start in April, posting a .333/.409/.704 line with 2 doubles, 1 triples, 2 homers, and 7 RBI in 19 games but just 31 plate appearances. He started just 4 games, recorded a hit in each. But Salazar hit just .188 in May and .125 from June 1st until July 2nd, when he was sent back down to the minors to rebuild his confidence. After hitting .364 in 24 Triple-A games, Salazar returned to Phoenix on August 10th and hit a little better when he came back, .241 in 32 games the rest of the season, but the Diamondbacks allowed Salazar to leave as a free agent following the season.
Salazar spent 2009 in the Pirates organization, splitting time between Triple-A and the big leagues. At Triple-A Indianapolis, Salazer hit just .270, although he did jack 10 home runs and go a perfect 16 for 16 in stolen base attempts in 84 games. In between, Salazar struggled mightily in a 21 game stretch in Pittsburgh from July to mid-August, going just 1 for 23 (.043) although in fairness, Salazar was rusty as he started just 1 game in that stretch and played in the field just three times. Nevertheless, Salazar was stuck going for a minor league deal again in 2010 and this time he toiled at the Orioles’ Triple-A Norfolk franchise, hitting .252 with 16 home runs and 26 stolen bases in 29 tries in 117 games. In 2011, Salazar split time between the Rockies and Tigers organizations, hitting just .228 in 96 Triple-A games, although he did hit 9 home runs and go 23 for 27 in stolen bases. Following the season, the Rays gave Salazar, now 31 years old, one more chance to make the major leagues.
This spring training, Salazar showcased his all-around game. He has hit .278 in 28 games with 4 doubles, 1 triple, 1 homer, 2 RBI, 4 stolen bases in 5 tries, and he has walked 10 times compared to 8 strikeouts. Jeff Salazar isn’t an outstanding player, but he can do a little bit of everything. He can hit for some power, steal some bases, fight for walks, and play solid defense. It’s a nice story that Salazar is finally getting an opportunity to return to the big leagues after a two year absence. With the Rays lacking in outfield depth, Salazar could play an important role as a backup outfielder. And maybe this time, he’ll finally stick in the big leagues.