In 2013, Justin Masterson pitched like a No. 1 starter. During spring training, he wanted to be paid like one. The problem is, Masterson has never been able to pitch like a top hurler with any consistency during his career. This season has been a microcosm of that.
Masty made his first All-Star team a season ago, on his way to a 14-10 record and 3.45 ERA. It was a solid season that seemed to signify that the big right-hander had jumped onto the scene as Cleveland’s true top starting pitcher. Of course, 2011 was to have screamed that as well.
In 2011, Masterson had his best Major League season, going 12-10 with a career-low 3.21 ERA. He was the Tribe’s Opening Day starter in 2012 and proceeded to go 11-15 with a disappointing 4.95 ERA.
Much like Masterson did two years ago, he is again following an excellent season with a sub-par one. The sinker-ball specialist is currently 4-5, with a 5.03 ERA. He will not be headed to Minnesota for another Mid-Summer Classic, that is certain. He also does not seem to be headed for the big pay day he had hoped for before the season began.
During spring training, it was reported Masterson was seeking in the neighborhood of $17 million between two to four years. That would be in the same price range of Cincinnati Reds hurler Homer Bailey. Bailey is making $9 million this year and is slated to see an increase in money over the next several years. He will earn $10 million next season. That will be followed by guaranteed seasons of $18, $19, $21 and $23 million dollars. The Reds may be regretting that deal as their 28-year-old righty is struggling this season after two straight years of solid work.
Masterson, now 29, has yet to have back-to-back ace-like seasons. This year may be his most disheartening, yet. The down 2012 could be explained by youth. It was just his third full season as a starting pitcher. This year, it was thought that he had hit his peak. That may not be the case.
Theories are out there as to what has derailed Masterson’s 2014 campaign to this point. One is the obvious idea that the contract situation is hanging over his head and weighing him down. That is possible, but maybe not likely. Remember, the contract status was fresh on Opening Day when Cleveland’s ace shut out a solid Oakland A’s lineup over seven innings on the road.
The more likely culprit is injury. Following a rough outing against the Diamondbacks on Tuesday, it was revealed on Wednesday that Masty had an ailing right knee. He told reporters that the knee has been bothering him since his second start of the season.
That explanation for Masterson’s down year is a little more believable. After that dominating first start, Masterson labored through his second and third appearances, surrendering five earned runs in each. He has had good starts since, but has been wildly inconsistent. Just when you think he has come back to being the Tribe’s ace with a very good game, he follows it up with bad performance.
If the knee has been bad for the majority of his starts, it could help explain why he has not been able to get into a consistent rhythm or pitch like he did in 2013 with any sort of regularity.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona said that Masterson’s scheduled start Sunday in Seattle will be skipped. The No. 1 starter will take a couple days off and then throw bullpen sessions over the weekend. If all goes well, he could be back on the mound by Tuesday or Wednesday.
In a best-case scenario, the Indians are hoping a little down time and rest will be just what Masterson needs to get himself righted. They hope a stint on the disabled list or anything more than a few extra days will not be in order.
Cleveland needs Masty to get healed up and start pitching as was hoped following his success of a year ago. Right now, Corey Kluber is the only Tribe starter pitching well on a consistent basis. Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin have had more good outings than bad, but are not shutdown guys right now. Bauer may get there eventually, Tomlin is not expected to be a No. 1 or 2 pitcher.
Zach McAllister has battled injuries and ineffectiveness of his own, while T.J. House has been a fine spot-starter, but should not be counted on for a lot more.
The fact Cleveland has just one starter it has been able to regularly count on this year is a big reason the team is only hanging around .500, despite expectations of playoff contention.
If Masterson can get his kneed in shape and start resembling the Masty of old, he and Kluber have the opportunity to form a solid 1-2 punch. Kluber, plus the No. 1-version of Masterson would go a long way toward helping the Indians contend for a second straight postseason berth.
Without Masterson righting the ship, the Indians are looking at a .500 season and being out of playoff contention by mid-September. With a healthy and strong Masterson, the Tribe has a far better shot of playing meaningful late-season games as the team did last year.
The next week or so with Masterson trying to get his knee issue worked out could be big. It could make the season for the Tribe and could very well make or break Masterson’s financial output when free-agency comes about after the season.
Masterson still has time to reverse the course his season is going down. He needs to be healthy, obviously to pitch like an ace. He needs to pitch like and ace to get paid like one. The Indians and Masterson both need to see the guy who pitched in 2013 for both team and personal reasons.
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