What can Tribe do with Masterson?

MastyIt seems pretty clear that something’s got to give on the Justin Masterson front. There were no signs on Monday night that the sinkerballer is close to pulling out of his recent funk on the mound.

Masterson’s issues have put the offense in early holes and taxed the bullpen (he’s averaged roughly 3.2 IP across his last five starts). Monday was more of the same: a 5-0 hole by the third inning and seven required innings from the relievers.

After the latest effort, Masterson seemed to be at a loss.

“I think I feel good,” Masterson said. “I don’t know. Who knows? It’s one of those where it’s a tick [off]. You’re so close and yet you’re so far away. I felt like tonight was going to be such a great one. We had a great bullpen session, got some good things in. Something so, so tiny can make such a big difference when you’re  going 60 feet, six inches.”

Here are some of the ugly details:

  • Masterson has posted a 13.00 ERA in his past three starts, throwing 230 pitches in that span with nearly as many balls (109) as strikes (121). That sample includes just nine innings, in which he’s given up 13 earned runs on 20 hits with 10 walks against 14 strikeouts.
  • It’s not much better if you keep going back over the past six weeks or so. Masterson has a 9.50 ERA in his last five starts (19 earned runs on 27 hits with 17 walks in 18 innings) and a 7.16 ERA in his last 11 turns (39 earned runs on 60 hits with 36 walks in 49 innings).
  • This is only the fourth time in the past 100 seasons that an Indians starter has lasted four innings or fewer with at least three walks issued in three straight starts (a club record). The others include: Roberto Hernandez (2009), Ray Lamb (1971) and Willie Mitchell (1915).
  • The previous three occurrences of a Cleveland started logging four innings or fewer in at least three straight starts came in 2012 (Jeanmar Gomez) and 2009 (David Huff and Hernandez). The club record is five such outings in a row (done five times).
  • If this was Masterson’s last outing of the first half (a distinct possibility), he will have given up 66 runs in 98 innings. There have only been two other Cleveland pitchers in the past 100 seasons to allow at least that many runs in no more than 98 innings: Dave Burba in 2001 and Tom Candiotti in 1987.
  • Masterson already has eight starts this season with fewer than five innings logged. To be fair, I’ll point out that one of those was abbreviated due to a rain delay. Still, the last Cleveland pitcher to have at least eight such starts in a single season was Cliff Lee, who had eight in all of 2004.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what are the Indians’ options for Masterson?

  1.  The obvious option is to place Masterson on the 15-day disabled list. He’s been open about the fact that he’s been bothered off and on by a right knee injury since around his second start of the season. It would then seem logical, given the continued issues on the mound, to place Masterson on the DL, especially with the All-Star break coming up soon. Cleveland could make the move and call up a reliever until a fifth starter would be needed on Saturday. Masterson would be eligible to be activated on July 23.
  2. The only issue with that option is the fact that Cleveland could need a sixth starter for July 22, because of the doubleheader with Detroit on July 19. So, another option is to keep Masterson active, but do the ol’ temporary move to the bullpen. Under that scenario, Cleveland could option its eighth reliever to the Minors to call up a fifth starter (Zach McAllister or Danny Salazar) for Saturday’s game before the four-day All-Star break. The Indians can afford to be short one of its eight relievers with the break coming, and Masterson can act, technically, as the extra reliever.
  3. If Masterson isn’t put on the disabled list, he could be brought back to start on July 22 (assuming Cleveland goes with its MLB five-man rotation for the first four games, including the doubleheader). Here’s the catch, if the Indians use the 26th-man rule to add a starter for the twin bill (let’s say, Salazar, for example), the rotation can essentially stay untouched one through five until Aug. 3 (thanks to the scheduled team off-day on July 28). Of course, maybe manager Terry Francona wants that 26th spot for another reliever. If it is used on a starting pitcher, that would basically give the Indians and Masterson their pick for which game best suits him for returning. He could come back in any one of the five series after the break. At a minimum, he’d have two weeks to sort through any issues behind the scenes before rejoining the rotation, all without having “DL” on his career resume.
  4. Then again, if Cleveland wants to avoid the roster trickery and increase the team’s flexibility, it goes back to DL’ing Masterson. They could use his stint to call up an extra catcher (optioning rookie outfielder Tyler Holt to clear a spot for that potential move is also an option) or an added reliever for Francona’s bullpen army. Then, Cleveland would worry about the fifth starter on Saturday and Masterson would be eligible to come back in roughly two weeks anyways.
  5. The other choice is to continue to let Masterson work the kinks out on the mound. If he feels like he’s just a “tick” off, give him the last start of the first half, let him use the All-Star break to his advantage physically and mentally, and then bring him back as the fifth (or sixth) starter to start the second half. In that scenario, he’d have at least nine days between starts.

Were you able to follow along with that stream of thought? No matter how you slice it, Masterson will have some extra rest between outings coming up. How Cleveland handles that (DL stint or no DL stint) will likely be with the idea of keeping as much roster flexibility as possible, while also giving Masterson time to work things out. We haven’t even touched on the fact that the Indians are sitting less than a month away from the July 31 Trade Deadline. That surely factors somewhat into the team’s thinking, too.

Francona will likely shed more light on the situation and the club’s plans on Tuesday. Stay tuned…

UPDATE — 2:45 p.m. ET Tuesday: The Indians placed Masterson on the DL prior to Tuesday’s game against the Yankees. The Tribe called up a reliever (Nick Hagadone) for the time being, considering the team won’t need another starter until Saturday. Now, Masterson can rest his right knee and Cleveland will have its pick of when to bring him back after July 23 and into August (thanks to the doubleheader 26th man rule for July 19 and the off-day on July 28).

–JB

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