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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Cards rooting for burst of brilliance from Masterson

In need of starter, defending NL champions hope righty will turn things around

Cards rooting for burst of brilliance from Masterson play video for Cards rooting for burst of brilliance from Masterson

CLEVELAND -- Shopping metaphors are in strong supply at the moment in my line of work, so let's call Justin Masterson the pair of designer shorts with a $150 price tag when the weather first warmed, now substantially discounted as the summer season wanes.

It has been both a precipitous and expeditious fall from grace for the former ace of the Indians and the newest member of the Cardinals.

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Mere months ago, the Indians were publicly derided for backing off the option of extending Masterson with a fairly short-term deal worth about $17 million per year (i.e. Homer Bailey money). Now, Masterson is two months away from his first free agency with no clear concept of his open-market value except the discernible conclusion that it, like his velocity, has dropped considerably.

Masterson himself acknowledged what he called the "pessimistic/realistic" outlook Wednesday, in the wake of the trade.

"[Some people will say,] 'Hey, he didn't perform that well like they were hoping for, so maybe they dodged a bullet,'" Masterson said. "But I plan on coming out the rest of this month, next month and next year doing great things."

The Cardinals will take their chances on the once-Nasty Masty and, frankly, they're paying handsomely for the risk. They didn't just give up outfielder James Ramsey, who was regarded by MLB.com as their sixth-best prospect, but they also surrendered the remaining $3 million or so on Masterson's expiring contract.

But a need is a need, and the Cards did, indeed, have a need. They had a vacant starting slot for Saturday, specifically, and, more generally, an absence in quality innings from their starters since Michael Wacha went on the disabled list.

"When you look at what was happening with our fourth and fifth starters, we were just not getting deep into games," general manager John Mozeliak told reporters. "So we tried to identify somebody that had a history of doing so, somebody that has experience who can take a little pressure off some of our younger pitchers."

What are the Cards getting in Masterson? Well, on the plus side, they're getting a stable home-run and strikeout-rate, as well as an elite ground-ball rate that should play well with their vastly improved defense.

But Masterson's walk totals and reduced zip (per BrooksBaseball.net, his sinker has sunk from 91.2 mph in 2013 to 90.0 and his four-seamer has gone from 94.1 to 91.4) on the heater are definitely alarming. His health is less so, because his DL stint was as much about giving Masterson a breather to retool and reconfigure as it was about addressing his sore right knee.

Anyway, Masterson is not far removed from his 2013 All-Star season, hence the allure. And Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist can now take over the makeover that Mickey Callaway was working on.

"It sounds like [Masterson] is healthy physically and he's in a much better spot mentally than when we last saw him in the big leagues," said Callaway, the Tribe's pitching coach. "You put some health and some mental issues into one, and it's tough to compete. It's hard enough when you have one of those things going on. I think it compounded on him, he hit rock bottom and he's on his way back."

Rock bottom looks like this: a 5.51 ERA, 56 walks and a 1.653 WHIP in 98 innings, a ballpark-adjusted ERA+ basically 32 percent worse than league average.

Even Masterson's rehab start Friday at Triple-A Columbus was cause for some concern. The Indians asked him to air it out and treat it like a playoff game. He responded with six walks in 6 2/3 innings.

That's a lot for even the shift to the DH-less National League to account for. But the perpetually upbeat Masterson -- as good a guy as there is in this game -- seems to have embraced the notion that he'll have to make do with less, in terms of stuff.

This is where savvy will have to kick in.

"I don't know if we'll be able to get that top-notch velocity like I would like to have," Masterson said, "but the control and mid-range velocity and sink will all be very good. That's what I was looking for going on the DL."

The Indians certainly got what they were looking for here. Masterson went from stud to superfluous in their eyes. He wasn't going to be worth the $15 million (or thereabouts) qualifying offer it would have taken to get Draft pick compensation out of Masterson, and the performance of youngsters Danny Salazar and T.J. House has been encouraging enough to lead them to believe they can still compete for a Wild Card spot without him. To add another bat to the system and save some cash made this a very good deal for the Tribe.

For the Cards, again, it's a risk. Consistency has not been Masterson's strong suit as a starter, but they'll be rooting for a short burst of brilliance out of the big right-hander.

"I was excited to come back [from the DL] before knowing about the trade," he said. "Now being traded, the same excited [feeling] continues."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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