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Masterson Should Come Out of Bullpen Once Healthy

Masterson Should Come Out of Bullpen Once Healthy

| On 20, Sep 2013

When Justin Masterson left his Sept. 2 start against Baltimore with a strained oblique muscle, many Indians fans thought it would spell the end of Cleveland’s postseason push. The 2013 American League All-Star had been the backbone of the Tribe’s rotation, with a 14-10 record and 3.52 ERA.

Instead of Cleveland’s hopes for its first playoff appearance since 2007 being derailed, the team has gone 10-5 since its ace went down. Other starters have stepped up. The much-maligned Ubaldo Jimenez has looked like the No. 1 pitcher the Indians were hoping to get when they traded for him in 2011. Young guys like Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar have been mostly good in the season’s final month. Lefty Scott Kazmir has provided a solid, veteran presence for the starting five.

Now, instead of shutting down Masterson as they would have done if the last few weeks had gone badly, the Indians are getting him ready to pitch again. He could be back some time next week. During this past series in Kansas City, Masterson threw long toss at 110 feet. He is scheduled to have a bullpen session today. If all goes well, the Tribe could have its top starter back very soon.

The question, now, is where exactly Masterson will fit in. Reports have indicated that the team is considering putting Masterson in the bullpen. For a number of reasons, that would probably be the best move.

After what would be more than three weeks without any game action, expecting Masty to come back at full speed would be foolish. Pitchers, especially starters, need time to get their arms stretched out to have the strength to throw multiple innings and 100 pitches. The fact is, Masterson does not have time. The regular season has nine games left.

It is a shame that the 28-year-old would be unable to lead the rotation in a pennant push and possible postseason appearance. However, having him and his arm available out of the pen would still allow Masterson to log valuable innings.

Cleveland’s relief corps, for years the strength of the club, has been down this year. Closer Chris Perez has remained a quality game-ender while Joe Smith has maintained his role as a key late-inning hurler. The Indians have been relying on Cody Allen, a player in his first full big league season, for big late-game situations. The rest of the bullpen has been up-and-down all year. No one else has really stayed consistently good. Guys like Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers and Rich Hill have looked good at times. However, none of them is a lights-out type of reliever.

Putting Masterson in the bullpen for the remainder of the year would certainly strengthen the pen. Masterson could throw several frames of relief if a starter is looking shaky early in a key game. He could also serve as another valuable late-game option in case a guy like Allen falters in his first taste of must-win situations. He can still be an important member of the pitching staff, if not the rotation.

Putting Masterson back in the starting five, could actually do more possible harm than good. It would be horrible to see the righty sailing through the first several innings of a start only to begin weakening early because him arm is not ready for multitude of innings and pitches he has become accustomed to. Worse yet, if Masterson is rushed back into the rotation too soon, he faces the possibility of reinjuring himself if he throws too many pitches.

Beyond Masterson’s physical well-being is the fact that the rest of the rotation has been plenty strong. Going down the stretch and maybe the playoffs with a four-man rotation of Jimenez, Kluber, McAllister and Kazmir would not be the worst thing in the world.

Of course, there is another option the Indians could explore. Salazar, a rookie, has been on a short lease as far as his pitch count. The Indians do not want to burn out the arm of the young flame-thrower. He has what should be two more starts left this year. Perhaps the Tribe can plan to split his starts with Masterson. Have Salazar pitch the first few inning and then bring in the ace to pitch the next several. It would be like a spring training game when starters are working to get their arm strength up to speed. This idea would both save wear and tear on the youngster and extend Masterson a little sooner.

Either way, Masterson will not be ready to resume his normal amount of work before the end of the regular season. If the Indians do get one of the wild card spots and win, it is doubtful that Masty would be ready to take starter’s innings for the AL Divisional Series, either. It would probably be the AL Championship Series that the Cleveland ace would be back to his old self.

While it would be nice to see Masterson come back and again be the leader of the rotation during critical games, the bullpen is probably the best spot for him out of the shoot. It would benefit him in the long run and could actually help the team for the rest of the season. If all goes well, Masterson should other opportunities to lead the Indians’ pitching staff in future pennant races.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images