Masterson Takes Control Of Rotation

By Craig Gifford

In two years, Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Justin Masterson has gone from the player nobody wanted in the Victor Martinez trade to becoming the ace of the pitching staff. He has gone from a pitcher no one knew what to do with, to the steps of elite-level starter.

In July of 2009, with the Tribe out of contention for a second straight season, Indians management began trading away veteran talent, that would soon command millions of dollars on the open market, for young players with boatloads of potential. Masterson was one of those players. A second round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in 2006, the flame-throwing right-hander had tons of potential. The biggest question was where would that potential best be suited?

In a season and a half with Boston, generally thought of as a team that can get a firm grasp on these decisions, the Red Sox could not determine whether Masterson’s blazing heat was best used out of the bullpen or over the long stretch as a starter. Masterson’s first big league season, 2008, saw him bounce back and forth. He started nine games and relieved 27. He did carry an earned run average of 3.16, proof that the talent was there.

The beginning of 2009 was much the same. Masterson appeared in 31 games for Boston, starting six of them. The pitcher was getting tired of the yo-yo routine and apparently, too, was the team. Then, the Indians came knocking. Cleveland, beginning its fire sale, just two years removed from nearly going to the World Series, needed a place to unload its catcher, Martinez. Martinez would be a free agent after 2010 and Tribe management wanted to get the best deal for him by trading him a summer early. They had done the same with ace pitcher Cliff the same summer.

Most fans and pundits thought the best deal for the all-star catcher would include Boston’s young phenom Clay Buchholz. Buchholz was definitely a starter and a promising one at that. Cleveland’s front office opted for more of a project in Masterson and immediately ended his starter/reliever act. Over the final two months with the Tribe, Masterson would appear in 11 games, making 10 starts. He went into 2010 entrenched as a starting pitcher. Still, most fans wished the Indians could have gotten Buchholz for their prized catcher.

The 2010 season did nothing to change the perception of the Martinez deal. Buchholz had a break-out year, going 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. Masterson, meanwhile, was just getting his teeth wet as a full-time major league starter and struggled to 6-13 mark, with a 4.70 ERA. Fans were beginning to wonder if the Martinez trade was worth it.

Well, any question of that may be heading to rest at this point. Much like Buchholz last year, Masterson has seemingly figured out how to start at the big league level and in a huge way. From day one this season, the 26-year-old has looked like a new pitcher. He has been the best starter on the Tribe all year. His record of 10-7 could be much better if the team gave run support, which it typically does not. Rather than looking at the record, however, the proof of Masterson’s new command is in other numbers. He has given up just six home runs all year, on the way to a solid 2.71 ERA entering his start Monday against Seattle.

While not getting the run support for the offense, Masterson has been a stopper. Any time the Indians have slumped an needed a big outing, Masterson has typically stepped up and done the job. Nearly every time he has started, the Indians have had a chance to win the ball game. That is a far cry from the pitcher he was the last few years when it was in question whether Masterson would even be on the mound to start a ball game.

With expected ace Fausto Carmona struggling this year, Masterson’s emergence has been all the more important to keep the Indians in what, until recently, was a tight race for the AL Central Division title. He will also be a key component going forward. A young, talented core of Tribe players has a shot to make some noise over the next handful of years in the American League and they will certainly need a strong ace at the front of the rotation to carry them to lofty heights. It appears Cleveland now has that in Masterson, whom nobody wanted. Would anyone give him back now? Neither would I.


Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

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