Justin Masterson made his third rehab start yesterday in Pawtucket. Judging solely by the stat line, is was an impressive outing in which he threw six innings of one-run baseball while striking out six batters and walking just one. Of course, we can’t judge these kind of things by the stat line, and the accounts of people in the crowd did not paint such a pretty picture. This isn’t a new phenomenon, as his start with Portland told a similar tale. This is all to say his time on rehab against minor-league competition has looked eerily similar to his lousy time in the majors early this season. With all the being said, the Red Sox can only keep him down for so long, and the time is quickly approaching where they’ll have to make a decision with him. Which course of action makes the most sense?
Putting him back in the rotation
The old saying goes that a player should never lose their job because of injury. The old saying does not apply here. This is technically an option, but it’s not one they should spend any time at all considering. After struggling for the first month of the season, Boston’s rotation has actually looked solid since then. Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Eduardo Rodriguez are in the rotation to stay, and although he’s been bad, Joe Kelly has done nothing to deserve to be yanked from the group in favor of Masterson. In fact, the highest one could reasonably rank Masterson in terms of current Boston starters in eighth, behind the five listed above as well as Steven Wright and Brian Johnson. If the Red Sox inexplicably make this decision (they won’t), you can say whatever you’d like about Ben Cherington, John Farrell and anyone else in the organization.
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Slotting him into the Bullpen
This seems like the most likely course of action, though it’s not one I’m overly excited about. Even when he was signed with the clear intention of pitching out of the rotation, it always seemed like he’d be a better fit for the bullpen. The thinking behind it is two-fold. For one thing, Masterson has always been dominant against righties while struggling with lefties at the plate. To wit, right-handed opponents have a .612 OPS while lefties sport a .797 mark over the course of his career. Putting him in a bullpen role would make it easier to manipulate his matchups. The other theory behind putting him in a relief role is that his stuff would play up in shorter stints. It makes sense. If you’re only going to throw 20 pitches as opposed to 100, you can let it rip much more often. The issue here, however, is that Masterson’s stuff would have to play way up for him to be a viable option at this point. It’s hard to imagine a guy currently sitting in the mid-80s bumping his velocity up nearly 10 mph just because of a change in role. I suspect this is the way the Red Sox will go, but it’s a risky proposition.
Here we find the simplest solution. Just wash your hands of the entire situation and move on. These "pillow contracts" in which players are looking to rebuild value are always going to be a risk, and sometimes they don’t work out. The worst thing you can do is try to squeeze value out of a situation that clearly won’t produce any. By designating Masterson for assignment, they open themselves up to three possibilities. In the first, someone claims him on waivers. It’s incredibly unlikely, but if it happened it would mean Boston was no longer responsible for his contract. In the second, he clears waivers and agrees to pitch in the minors. Considering his reaction to being placed on the disabled list in the first place, it would surprise me if he went this way, although it’s certainly not impossible. There would be worse things than having him in the minors -- and off the 40-man -- in case he actually does turn it around later in the year. Finally, he could clear waivers, refuse a minor-league assignment and become a free agent. The Red Sox would still be on the hook for his money, but it’s only for this year, so that’s already a sunk cost. Not having to worry about his roster spot may be worth it.
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Find a minor injury, place him back on the minor-league DL and restart his rehab clock
As with almost anything in baseball, there are loopholes to be manipulated in situations like these. Perhaps the Red Sox believe Masterson just needs a few more starts in the minors to get things cranked back up to be production. In this case, they could "find" a minor injury, sit him for a week and then get a brand new 30 day period in which he can rehab. Sounds ideal, right? It’s all well and good if you set aside any ethical considerations. Masterson was clearly upset the first time he was placed on the disabled list, and there’s virtually no chance he’d put up with something like this unless it was completely legitimate. Is it really worth holding a player back from finding a new opportunity for the off-chance he may regain his former stuff after another break? I tend to doubt it. Of course, if there’s a legitimate injury to shelf him with this strategy is fair game. There’s just been no indication this is the case.
So, these are the four options as I see them, and only two of them seem at all viable. Putting him back in the rotation can’t happen with at least seven other options who are better fits. "Finding" an injury to restart his rehab clock is too sketchy, especially for a guy who will probably be a non-factor the rest of the year. So, we’re down to sending Masterson to the bullpen, or designating him for assignment and (probably) eventually releasing him. If it were up to me, I’d go with the latter, but either route is defensible. Gun to my head, I’d guess they’ll try him out of the bullpen at first. Given how he’s pitched this season, one would imagine (and/or hope) they’d have a short leash. A team trying to compete can’t afford to wait around for weeks hoping he’ll turn it around.