|Justin Masterson: 'If I was [still with the Red Sox], I'd probably still be in the bullpen.' (Getty Images)|
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Yes, there was doubt.
You bet there was doubt.
Two years ago, the question wasn't whether Justin Masterson could pitch at the top of a rotation. It was whether he belonged in a rotation at all.
We know the Indians can exceed expectations; they did it in the first half of 2011. Likes, dislikes >>
"There was a lot of debate," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "But we were committed to see it through."
The Red Sox had already made their decision, first pushing Masterson into the bullpen and then including him in their July deadline move for Victor Martinez.
Now here we are, 2 1/2 years after that trade, the Red Sox are short on starting pitchers ... and Masterson is the opening day starter for the Indians.
"If I was [still with the Red Sox], I'd probably still be in the bullpen," Masterson said.
He always believed he could start, even when the Red Sox didn't. He believed, even when he was still struggling midway through the 2010 season, even when the Indians were debating.
"There wasn't doubt," he said. "There was frustration that I wasn't doing what I know I can do. I was thinking, 'I should be doing better than this.' "
Others weren't so sure.
His pitch mix didn't include anything offspeed. His arm slot screamed bullpen. His left-right splits had you wondering if he could survive when opponents could load their lineups with left-handed hitters.
Bounce-back player ... Shin-Soo Choo, OF: After back-to-back .300-20-80-80-20 seasons, Shin-Soo Choo's 2011 was clearly a step in the wrong direction. But it was also unusually contentious. His DUI arrest on May 2 led to a backlash in his native South Korea that he admitted became a distraction, and the numbers back it up. He hit .241 with one home run from that point until June 24, when he broke his thumb. The two months he missed with the injury gave him a chance to regroup, and when he returned on Aug. 12, he was a different player, hitting .348 with three homers in 46 at-bats before going down with another injury -- this time a strained oblique -- that effectively ended his season. Clearly, Choo's 2011 was marred by bad decisions and even worse timing, but his performance in August was encouraging enough that he deserves a free pass. He's only 29, after all. A swift decline wouldn't make sense, given his track record. You should feel confident drafting Choo as your second outfielder, as usual.
Bust ... Asdrubal Cabrera, SS: OK, so Asdrubal Cabrera was the surprise of 2011, emerging off the waiver wire to contribute 25 homers and 94 RBI at the weakest position in Fantasy. It was fun, sure. But the danger for Fantasy owners is when that once-in-a-lifetime season becomes the new expectation. Not only were Cabrera's 25 homers a complete departure from his established track record, but they came with an elevated fly ball rate that began to wreak havoc on his batting average in the second half when he presumably became homer-conscious. He hit only .244 after the All-Star break and his .411 slugging percentage during that stretch was actually lower than the one he put together during a six-homer campaign in 2009. If he continues to force the issue, he could turn out like Aaron Hill. Then again, if he reverts to being more of a line-drive hitter, he'll have to settle for fewer homers. Either way would cause Cabrera to take a step back in Fantasy, perhaps to the Erick Aybar-Derek Jeter class of shortstops, so proceed with caution. -- Scott White
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He still has that pitch mix, the only difference being that he treats his two-seam and four-seam fastballs as fully distinct pitches. He still has that arm angle, and he still has fairly drastic left-right splits.
Last year, left-handers hit .291 against him, with a .746 OPS. He held right-handers to a .210 average, with a .560 OPS.
But instead of struggling, last year Masterson began to thrive as a starter.
His ERA, which was 4.70 a year before, dropped to 3.21. His WHIP (walks and hits per inning) fell from 1.500 to 1.278. His sabermetric numbers improved drastically, and so did his old-school numbers (after going 7-20 in his first year and a half with the Indians, Masterson was 12-10 in 2011).
And when Indians manager Manny Acta named Masterson as the opening day starter over Ubaldo Jimenez no one associated with the Indians was surprised -- not even Jimenez.
"He deserved it," Jimenez said. "He earned the spot."
The Indians traded their two top pitching prospects for Jimenez, with thoughts that he would become their ace, their answer to Justin Verlander in the American League Central.
Perhaps Jimenez can still be that, but the early evidence hasn't been good. He was average at best in his 11 starts for the Indians after last July's trade, and after a winter conditioning program that had the Indians encouraged, he went out early in spring training and looked too much like last year.
After watching Jimenez in a spring start where his velocity topped out at 94 mph, one scout said, "His [stuff] just isn't as electric as it was before."
He's not the ace of this rotation. Masterson is.
Of course, Masterson always saw himself as someone who could do it.
When the Indians told him after the trade that they intended to make him a starter again, he was thrilled.
"I said, 'I like it,'" he said. "That's what I wanted to do. The opportunity to lead a staff and be a workhorse, how can a guy not be like, 'Yeah!?'
"I want to be able to lead a staff."
He did it last year, pitching 216 innings for the Indians at age 26. He took the responsibility for leading the staff, for setting the tone, and he showed off an attitude that the Indians need.
He did that again this spring. Indians fans may have been discouraged by the Tigers' signing of Prince Fielder, but Masterson's reaction was basically, bring it on.
"I was excited," he said. "It makes it fun. You want to play in a division with solid competition.
"You see [the Tigers sign Fielder], and that just adds to the challenge."
The Indians haven't had the smoothest of springs, with Grady Sizemore needing back surgery and closer Chris Perez missing time with a strained left side (although he could be back by opening day). Besides that, the general perception has been that the Tigers are the overwhelming favorites in the AL Central.
But Antonetti says the Indians "expect to be in the postseason." Masterson reminds you that the Indians spent the first half of last season in first place.
"There's an expectation here," he said. "We expect to do well, and we should."
He knows about outside expectations. Remember, most people didn't expect that he could be a big-league starter, but he did.
And now he's starting on opening day.