6 Reasons Cleveland Indians Need Justin Masterson to Make the Leap

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2013

6 Reasons Cleveland Indians Need Justin Masterson to Make the Leap

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    The time has come for Justin Masterson to assert himself as the unquestioned No. 1 guy of the Cleveland Indians' pitching staff.

    He led the team in ERA and wins in 2012. However, 11 wins and a 4.93 ERA are nothing to brag about for Masterson, who started Opening Day. Last year was a big drop from 2011 for Masterson, when he went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA.

    Masterson shows the flashes of becoming a very good starting pitcher, but the good has been far outweighed by the bad so far in his career.

    Here's six reasons why Masterson needs to finally become the pitcher the Indians so desperately need.

1. He's the Ace

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    A team can't make the playoffs if its top pitcher has an ERA near five.

    Only two starting pitchers had ERAs under five last season: Masterson and Zach McAllister. The rotation as a whole was atrocious. It helped the Indians finish 29th in the league in team ERA at 4.78.

    It hasn't made its decision as to who will start on Opening Day. Masterson will likely get the honor, which is evidence of his importance to the team.

    As the ace of the staff, he needs to lead by example. Ubaldo Jimenez has been a disappointment, so it's all on Masterson to do well at the top of the rotation.

2. There's Not Much Depth in the Rotation

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    On paper, Cleveland has one of the weakest starting rotations in the league. After Masterson, the quality of the starters falls off a cliff.

    Carlos Carrasco is coming off Tommy John surgery. Jimenez won't ever regain the form of his 2010 season. Trevor Bauer is a promising prospect, but he's only made four starts in the majors.

    McAllister is a solid option, but he's unlikely to be more than a No. 4 or 5 starter, which is the category for almost every starting pitcher.

    That's why it's vital for the guys in the top half to perform as expected. The Indians can't contend if the team is full of pitchers who belong in the lower end of the rotation.

3. The Organization Doesn't Have Money to Sign Another Top-End Starter

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    Earlier in the month, Cleveland signed Brett Myers (h/t Jerry Crasnick of ESPN). He is likely the only signing the Indians will be making in regard to the starting rotation.

    Fans might have gotten excited by the arrival of Nick Swisher, which acted as a sign of a stronger financial commitment from owner Paul Dolan.

    However, with Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner coming off the books, Swisher's salary doesn't put the team payroll much over the 2012 levels.

    Should things not work out in the middle of the season, the Indians can't afford to bring in an experienced veteran starting pitcher at or near his prime.

    They have to rely on what they already have, or gamble on guys like Myers and Scott Kazmir (h/t Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer).

    Either way, if Masterson struggles, there's no way the Indians can simply buy their way out of the problem.

4. If Not Now, When?

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    The Indians were able to avoid arbitration this past offseason with Masterson (h/t Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer). He will be making a little over $5.6 million this year.

    As a result, Masterson will have the financial motivation of playing for a much bigger contract. By the time Opening Day rolls around, Masterson will be 28 years old.

    He still has the opportunity to cash in on a big deal, though the window for that to happen is closing.

    In terms of his on-field performance, it's not like he's a young, promising pitcher anymore. Instead of building on his success in 2011, Masterson hasn't improved much.

    Nobody is going to be giving him the benefit of the doubt, expecting him to put it together in another year or two.

    If he hasn't become a top-end starter by the end of the 2012 season, it's unlikely he ever will.

5. Give Indians Some Return for Victor Martinez

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    Here's what the Indians received from the Victor Martinez trade in 2009: Masterson, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price (h/t Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

    All three of those players have failed to deliver.

    If the organization has been guilty of one thing over the past couple of years, it's that the Indians have failed to cash in on their stars. The CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades have not netted much beyond Lou Marson and Michael Brantley combined.

    It's understandable if the Indians can't afford to pay guys like Lee and Sabathia, though the Indians can only remain competitive if they are able to get good players in return.

    That hasn't happened, with the three biggest trades failing to replenish what has become one of the more mediocre farm systems in baseball.

    Masterson coming through can help make that V-Mart trade a little more worthwhile.

6. Fans Need a Reason to Show Up

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    For a team that finished 29th in attendance, it's vital to give fans every single reason to show up to the ballpark.

    Fans have long said that X year was the last one they would buy season tickets if the team didn't get better. While generally nothing more than hot air, this was the year where it genuinely sounded like they would follow through on that threat.

    Swisher helped to get Indians fans excited for the upcoming season. That feeling is not going to last very long if the starting rotation performs as poorly as it did last year.

    In fact, an ace can bring fans to the ballpark like no other position on the field, as illustrated by Stephen Strasburg. If Masterson can do well, he can make the Indians must-see baseball when he pitches.