Friday, December 21, 2007

Prospect Profile - Justin Masterson

Masterson was drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft. He got off to a fast start as a reliever at the Single-A level that same year, posting an ERA of 0.85 and a WHIP of 0.65, while striking out more than a batter an inning. He put those numbers up over 14 relief appearances (31.2 innings) in Lowell.

To begin the 2007 season, Masterson was switched back to a starter in notoriously hitter friendly Single-A Lancaster. To give you an idea of just how hitter friendly Lancaster is, the majority of the Lancaster lineup hit .330 or better last year. Two regulars had a slugging percentage better than .650 and of all the members of the team with at least 150 at bats, all but four had a SLG above .490.

Still, Masterson managed to keep a cool head and hold his own. Over 95.2 innings of work, Masterson posted an ERA of 4.33 and a WHIP of 1.31. Considering the atmosphere in which he was pitching, those numbers are pretty impressive. Masterson managed to limit the damage by walking only 2.07 batters for every nine innings of work and getting two ground ball outs for every out made in the air.

After surviving the gauntlet that is Lancaster, Masterson was promoted to Double-A Portland in July. At Portland, Masterson was quick to impress. In his first appearance, he pitched 6.2 innings of no-hit baseball. The only baserunner he allowed was Lyle Overbay, who walked twice while rehabbing. Overbay then broke up the no-hitter in the 9th inning.

Masterson went on to recorded six quality starts in his first six Dobule-A appearances. His ERA was 1.04, while he struck out 32 batters over his first 26 innings of work. In his seventh and eighth minor league starts, however, Masterson struggled giving up 15 runs over 10 innings of work. Those runs inflated his overall ERA to 4.34.

Still, even with the inflated ERA, Masterson's numbers were incredibly solid. Masterson allowed only 7.60 hits for every nine innings of work, helping him to earn an WHIP of 1.16 while he struck out more than a batter an inning. What was truly impressive however was Masterson's ability to induce ground balls.

In his 58 innings of work at Double-A Portland, Masterson posted an absolutely absurd ground out to fly out ratio of 3.52. That's a better ground out to fly out ratio than any major league pitcher managed last year. In fact, since 1999, only one major league pitcher has ever posted a ground out to fly out ratio better than 3.50, and that was Brandon Webb.

So how does Masterson fit in to the organization's future plans? Well, at the moment it seems rather likely that his largest contribution may be to help acquire Johan Santana in a trade. Just like Jacoby Ellsbury, the Twins are very high on Masterson, who is still only 22 years old. Masterson is likely to be included in any deal for Santana, as his inclusion in a deal is one of the many reasons the Twins appear to prefer trade packages offered by the Red Sox.

But, should the Red Sox miss out on Santana, Masterson projects to be promoted to the major leagues some time around the second half of 2008. He could fill in for an injured starter if the need arises, or he could get rather regular time out of the Boston bullpen. Given how quickly Masterson took to the role of a reliever last year, Masterson could be rather valuable in that role.

I wouldn't be surprised to see him take to the majors rather quickly and he could do so fairly soon should he be dealt to the Twins. He's faced higher levels of competition with quite a bit of focus and intensity. When promoted to Single-A and then Double-A he immediately put up some head turning numbers.

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