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.