Justin Masterson: “For the first time in a couple of years, I haven’t had any pain”

BRADENTON – Justin Masterson heard the stories about how good the Pirates have been rehabbing pitchers and getting them back to their prior success. He had friends encouraging him to join the Pirates this off-season, pointing to their past success and his current situation — now healthy after arthroscopic right shoulder surgery in September.

“It’s hard to not see [their success] when you’re around the game, to not hear whether the true stories and the folklore, and finding the mix between the two. Without a doubt, that was a part of it,” Masterson said on what led to him signing with the Pirates.

He heard good things around the game about the Pirates and their work with pitchers, but wasn’t sure how much of it was actually true.

“It’s like catching that fish. You first catch the fish and it was here,” Masterson said, holding his hands about a foot apart. “And then the fish gets to here (widens gap between hands). Which, it’s still an incredible fish. But you have that little bit of ‘Well, I’m sure they’re good. Can they really be that good?’ And I’m sure that my socks will be blown off as I’m here, and being around them more and more and understanding how brilliant and good they are to work with.”

After working with them for a few days, Masterson said that his experience has been nothing but impressive.

“The fish is pretty big so far,” he joked.

Masterson was recruited heavily by Daniel Bard, who is currently in extended Spring Training with the Pirates, and TJ Large, who works in the Player Development department for the Pirates. Large and Masterson were roommates in the Red Sox system in 2006 and 2007, and shared a host family in the minors in 2008. They’ve stayed close since then, and when Masterson was looking for a team this off-season, Large heavily recruited him for the Pirates.

“He’s near and dear to my heart,” Masterson said of Large. “We’ve always kept in touch. He’s been talking, because he feels like this is a place that can help allow me to go back to the level [I’ve been at], and to help the Pirates, because he’s really enjoyed this organization, how much they care about the individual players and care about what’s happening.”

Masterson now gets to spend his days finishing up his rehab at Pirate City, where Bard is working on his mechanics, and where Large is often in camp. But eventually, the goal is to get to Pittsburgh, and that will require him to spend a lot of time with Scott Elarton, who is a Special Assistant in the Baseball Operations department, working with all of the rehabbing pitchers. It’s very similar to the role Jim Benedict had last year, although Elarton isn’t directly replacing Benedict.

“I’ve got the rehab guys, and in the sense [Masterson is] still a rehab guy,” Elarton said. “I don’t know if we really tried to replace Benny. Whoever is here, and whoever I’m told to work with, that’s who I’m going to work with. I don’t try to be him. I just try to do what I do and help get the guys better.”

Elarton did say that he learned a lot from Benedict when he was a pitching coach for the GCL Pirates in 2014, and has brought a few things from that relationship to his current job. But this is nothing new for him, as he spent time last year working with guys like Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, and others who were rehabbing.

Today, Elarton watched Masterson throw about 35 pitches in a bullpen session. Masterson was throwing at about 75% effort, but was getting a lot of movement on his sinker, while also throwing four seamers to the glove side, and mixing in a few sliders.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming in. For me, I’m pleasantly surprised,” Elarton said. “He’s always had good sink, and good life on the ball. There were times when he was synced up pretty good today, and it was coming out nice.”

The sinking action on the fastball is a good thing to see, and a good sign for Masterson’s health. He previously didn’t have that action, and had restrictions on how much he could move his arm without experiencing pain. He’s now healthy and pain-free when throwing, and once again getting the action he once had.

“For the first time in a couple of years, I haven’t had any pain,” Masterson said, while noting that he can get extension with his arm now. “The velocity may or may not be back to 96-97, but if I can have extension, I can have that late action on the sinker that I didn’t have the last couple of years, because it hurt.”

The Pirates signed Masterson with the hope that he’s healthy, and that he has his old stuff back. The early signs have been encouraging.

“[He’s] not far removed from being a very good Major League starting pitcher,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday. “His battles from injury, battles from inconsistency, and obviously when that power sink is on, it’s hard for hitters to do much with. If we can get him back to that, then we’ll have a guy who can come up here and help us.”

Elarton didn’t want to put a timetable on his return, but said that he doesn’t think Masterson is far away.

“I wouldn’t consider him a guy that’s a huge project,” Elarton said. “He looks pretty solid. Just getting him built back up to where he was, arm-strength wise. He’s still somewhat in the rehab process from the surgery. We’ve just got to make sure he’s got a good arm strength base, and move forward from there.”

Masterson has been throwing bullpen sessions for a few weeks, and will get into live batting practice and sim games soon, as he replicates a Spring Training progression.

“If we continue to progress the way that I think we’re going to, then [I’ll] move on [out of extended Spring Training] and maybe eventually have an opportunity in the big leagues,” Masterson said of his eventual progression.

Huntington said on Sunday that the Pirates signed Masterson to be a starter for them at the Major League level, although with the depth they have — especially with the prospects at Triple-A — there is a chance they could use him in the bullpen.

“Our hope is to have five really good Major League pitchers, and if there is not a sure-fire opportunity for him as a starter at the Major League level, we’ll have that conversation at that point in time,” Huntington said. “We signed him to be a guy to come in here to be a Major League starting pitcher for us. There is always the fallback of going to the bullpen if we get five guys that are rolling and five guys that we feel make us a better club.”

Masterson said that he’s fine with either approach.

“We stretch it out, we work to be a starter, and hopefully that’s a way we can help out the team,” Masterson said. “But if it comes down to it, any way I can help out, I’m not opposed to coming out of the bullpen. I’m not opposed to long relief, whatever it might be, if that’s what’s needed at the time, and I’m in the position to be able to have success with that.”

The Pirates definitely don’t have a rotation that is set. Jeff Locke has been inconsistent in the past. Juan Nicasio has looked good at times, but it’s questionable how effective he can be the third time through the lineup. They’ve got Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow in the minors, but both have things to work on, and prospects are never a guarantee. So there could definitely be an opportunity for Masterson.

Masterson is only a few years removed from being a 2-4+ WAR pitcher on a yearly basis. He’s dealt with numerous injuries the last two seasons, and says that his shoulder is finally healthy. If the Pirates can get a guy who is anywhere close to the pitcher he was a few years ago, then they’ll have another good option for the back of their rotation, and stronger depth. At the least, it seems they could get a nice middle relief option, which is an area where they’ve struggled recently. Either way, the Masterson signing was a good low-risk, high-upside move, and with their success rate in that department, the Pirates should never turn this type of opportunity down.

  • he once threw 96 or 97?

  • One of the better pieces I have read here — great quotes and reporting put Masterson and others in the foreground and made the writer nearly invisible

    • It’s awesome to come to here and be able to get news on the Pirates that you can’t find anywhere else. I check the site daily, and while I usually don’t have enough time to read all of the articles, I always at least read the “Prospect Watch.” Great stuff, guys.

  • If he’s healthy and gets his velocity and command back he could be a nice find for the 2nd half or late 1st half.

  • Great interview, Tim.

    I’m sure it was mostly GM-speak and part of the package they used to sign him, but talk of him being competitive as a starter has to be borderline-fantasy at this point. As a two-pitch sinkerballer with marginal control who always fought massive platoon splits, health and innings were really the only thing that separated Masterson from Charlie Morton even when Masterson was at his best.

    No harm in stretching him out, but it would seem that a more realistic role would be one of the multi-inning relievers that Hurdle is supposed to be using. In that sense, shouldn’t take a miracle to outpitch Lobstein.

    • Even though you are spot on NMR, it is refreshing for us long time fans to actually see free agents, whether actually healthy or not, to want to come to Pittsburgh is a refreshing thought.

    • Yeah he’s definitely a long shot; but really no risk in checking him out. And while I was always rooting for Ground Chuck to succeed ; I’d say Masterson was a bit superior in control and bearing down under duress.

    • he had succesful years- not that long ago. assuming he is healthy, platoon splits be damned, he is or can be significantly better than jeff locke

      • Poor Jeff, he has to be the Rodney Dangerfield of SP’s. In his 3 years in the Rotation, 2013 – 2015, he is 25-24 in 81 Starts. The Pirates have paid him $1.5 mil over that 3 year period and all he has done is returned a Value using WAR of $24.7 mil. He may be nearing the end of his tenure with the Pirates, but he has sure helped this team get to where they are at now.

        I would not advocate keeping him, because if he is traded, it would mean that the Pirates are getting some guys up from AAA, and that is where our future success lies.

        • Good points emjay- but masterson was still better in 2010-2013 then Locke has been 2013-present.

      • “Not that long ago”

        Eh, 2 years is rather long ago in terms of a players career (particularly for SP). The last time Masterson was successful-

        Cliff Lee was still throwing like an ace
        Justin Verlander was still a TOR arm
        Mike Minor was useful
        Pedro Alvarez could still field a baseball

        • Alvarez could always field a baseball just couldnt ever throw one…

        • Those are fantastic points. Water was still wet, summers were still hot in Florida and taxes were still due on april 15th though. I’m being an ass, but i could throw out 400 things that haven’t changed in baseball too…….

          • Then dont make the point that 2-3 years ago is not that long ago.

            It is a long time ago, particularly in the context of baseball. A ton can change in 2-3 years, as we saw with Justin Masterson. His health and quality of results changed drastically. It could change again, but its been a long time since he was effective.

            • Don’t tell me what to do- It isn’t that long ago. For some players it can be a lifetime, for others its nothing. Perspective is key and as usual, you have none. Masterson’s health changed drastically, not his ability. While there is reason to doubt if he will stay healthy, there is no reason to believe he can’t perform well if he is healthy until he proves otherwise.

              • Right, his health changed. That happens, a lot, to players over a 2-3 year span.

                Healthy for a year, healthy for a year, hurt. There is plenty of reason to think his injuries forcing his FB velo 3-5 mph slower drastically alters how he is as a SP.

                Otherwise lets sign Cliff Lee, he was successful 3 years ago and if he is healthy there is no reason to believe he cant perform well.

                • you say that out of jest, but I actually prescribe to that thought as well….we are on different wavelengths, so lets move on. Once a pitcher is healthy and fully recovered in terms of actual arm strength, there are only a few injuries which have lasting effects……and masterson’s injuries were not.

                • kinda like jaime garcia- injured every year- but every year when he’s healthy he pitches well. Difference between Jaime and Masterson is Masterson pitched in pain and was ineffective……Jaime never does. To each his own.

      • His velo charts also look like my portfolio over the past two quarters.

        Maybe we’ll all be surprised the first time somebody puts a gun on him, but production from three years ago is meaningless when a guy has gone from sitting at 95 in the rotation to barely breaking 90 out of the pen.

        • Would be true, but i think that pretty much noone throws with the same velo when they are injured…..we just have to see where he is at about a month from now to gauge that part of it.

    • That he’s supposed be using…hopefully he uses them less because any “multiple inning” pitcher we’ve run out there has been awful. Lobstein is god awful.

  • Chris Thomas
    April 19, 2016 5:18 pm

    How long did we sign him for? One year I assume?

    • Minor league contract with no word of any opt-out date, so the rest of the year. Definitely not longer than that as he was a free agent.