GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Cleveland pitcher Justin Masterson has the kind of cheery outlook you might expect from a man who was born in the tropical paradise of Jamaica. That sunny disposition is easy to maintain when his sinker is biting and he’s strutting off the mound after another tidy 12-pitch inning.
But life threw a few too many obstacles in his path last year, when Masterson kept morphing from Usain Bolt to the Jamaican bobsled team. Each good start begat a terrible one. Mastery turned to calamity, and confidence to confusion. The end result was an 11-15 record, a 4.93 ERA and the nagging feeling that he failed to do his share in a season that went badly awry for the Indians.
Masterson wasn’t alone. Although fans in Colorado and Minnesota might beg to differ, Cleveland’s starting pitching was about as bad as it can get in 2012. When angry bloggers and talk-show callers ripped him and his rotation mates for their performance, Masterson took the path of least resistance. He threw up his hands and pled guilty.
“I’m my own worst critic, so I’m more disappointed than anybody,’’ Masterson said. “No one is going to tell me something I don’t already know. My mom is the one who reads everything. She’ll call and say, 'I can’t believe so-and-so wrote that about you.' I told her from the beginning not to read it. It just makes me laugh now.’’
If Masterson’s mother happens to be monitoring the sports pages this spring, she’ll see a different storyline. People in Cleveland are no longer complaining about how bad the pitching is. They’re too busy praying it will be better.
The Indians have made some major modifications to the product after a 68-94 finish. New manager Terry Francona has injected the camp with a sense of confidence and purpose. The team’s notoriously thrifty owner, Larry Dolan, spent $104 million on guaranteed deals for free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. And new additions Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs bring lots of power, interspersed with lots more swings and misses.
But the revamped lineup and offensive promise won’t count for much if Cleveland’s starting pitching fails to improve from last season, when it was bad in every way imaginable.
Cleveland’s 10 starters combined to go 48-76 with a 5.25 ERA. The Indians’ rotation ranked 27th in the majors in innings pitched (913) and 28th in strikeouts (621) while issuing the second-most walks (351). The Tribe was tied for 24th in the majors with the Cubs and Astros with 73 quality starts.
If the Indians plan to turn things around, they’ll need comeback seasons from Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez. Veteran Brett Myers, who signed a one-year, $7 million deal, will provide innings and toughness. The Indians expect Zach McAllister to take a step forward once he gains better command of his secondary stuff, and Carlos Carrasco should be at full strength now that he’s almost 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, David Huff and Scott Kazmir, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2011, will all get extensive looks in spring training.
Maybe it’s all that sunshine in Arizona, but the folks in charge in Cleveland think the pitching has a chance to be good.
“We’ve got a lot of potential in the rotation,’’ said Indians GM Chris Antonetti. “We just need to get consistent performance. I can very easily see a scenario in a couple of months where we’re talking about our starting rotation as a strength.’’
The manager is also selling that premise.
“We would be crazy not to be optimistic,’’ Francona said.
It all begins with the big guys, Masterson and Jimenez. Masterson looked like a bona fide horse in 2011, when he threw 216 innings and ranked third in the AL with a 3.21 ERA. But he never got in sync after undergoing surgery on his non-pitching shoulder the winter before last season, and his sinker came and went with frustrating regularity. Casey Kotchman, Cleveland’s first baseman last season, told Masterson that hitters would reach base and remark that Masterson’s sinker was “dancing’’ in the first couple of innings. Then it mysteriously stopped dancing, and he got crushed.
“I would be feeling good, and I’d try to up my effort level and overthrow,’’ Masterson said. “Balls would be up, and the next thing you know I would give up three or four runs. It was one of those trying years. I’d be like, 'What the heck just happened out here?' It felt similar, but I knew I was doing something different.’’
Jimenez made a huge splash with Colorado in 2010 when he threw a no-hitter and eased into the All-Star break with a 15-1 record. But things quickly unraveled for him in Denver. When Jimenez sulked over his unsettled contract situation, the Rockies thought he quit on the team and traded him to Cleveland for prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. Jimenez has a 5.32 ERA as an Indian, with 19 quality starts in 42 outings, so it’s an understatement to say he’s been a disappointment.
Any discussion of Jimenez’s travails inevitably leads to a dissection of his pitching mechanics. He has an unorthodox delivery, and little problems tend to mushroom when he’s slightly off kilter. Just ask Tim Lincecum how that works.
“We don’t want him to change,’’ Francona said. “His mechanics are never going to be the textbook stuff you see in a manual. We just want him to throw downhill. If he pounds the zone down, he’s going to have a lot of success. That’s what he did in Colorado. He could tell you what was coming, and good luck doing something with it.’’
Masterson and Jimenez yielded matching .309 batting averages on balls in play last season -- tied for 16th highest in the majors -- so a little better luck would help. Jimenez is more a fly ball pitcher, so he should instantly be helped from Cleveland’s revamped outfield alignment. Antonetti said that most advanced metrics ranked Cleveland’s outfield as one of the three worst in the game defensively. With Bourn in center field flanked by Michael Brantley in left and Stubbs in right, the Indians have a chance to be No. 1 defensively this season.
Kazmir, 29, might be the most compelling story in Cleveland’s spring camp. Since his first professional season in 2002, he’s gone from hot-shot prospect with the Mets to a two-time All-Star in Tampa Bay to a complete mess in Anaheim to a reclamation project in Goodyear. Kazmir thinks his problems began in 2008, when he hurt his triceps, pitched through a groin injury and messed up his delivery trying to compensate.
“Before you know it, you don’t even know who you are out there on the mound,’’ Kazmir said.
By June 2011, Kazmir was barely cracking 80 mph when the Angels released him. Rather than scrounge for a Triple-A job, Kazmir signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters in the independent Atlantic League. Manager Gary Gaetti told him he could take his beatings and stay on the mound as long as he wanted in the effort to work through his problems. Kazmir watched hours of video, self-analyzed and tried to rediscover what came naturally.
This offseason, Kazmir pitched for the Gigantes de Carolina in Puerto Rico under former Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez, who is now a minor league manager in Cleveland’s system, and built his velocity back up into the 90s. Rodriguez gave him a positive scouting report, and now Kazmir finds himself in Indians camp trying to craft a new chapter. After hitting such profound depths, he’s grateful for the opportunity.
“I spent so much time asking other people for answers,’’ Kazmir said. “I knew if I was going to turn it around, it had to be me. I feel like I’m in a good place now. When things aren’t going your way and you don’t have a clue how to get it back, it’s frustrating. There’s anxiety coming to the field. Now my mind is clear. I feel good to be with an affiliated organization. It’s nice to be here.’’
Thank goodness for fresh starts. In Goodyear this spring, a group of comeback candidates, injury rehabbers, reasonably priced veterans and talented kids will be trying to make an impression and help Cleveland field a contender for the first time since 2007. Terry Francona -- and their moms -- will be watching closely.