Red Sox Prospect No. 3: Justin Masterson

Editor's Note: Diehard Magazine is in the midst of its third annual countdown of the top 50 prospects in the Red Sox chain today. Subscribe to our print magazine in order to learn even more on the top 50! Today: The countdown continues with the no. 3 prospect, right-handed pitcher Justin Masterson.

If you can make it in Lancaster, you can make it anywhere.

Not quite as catchy as a certain Frank Sinatra tune, but it's true as far as Justin Masterson is concerned.

Masterson, whom the Red Sox selected in the second round of the 2006 draft out of San Diego State University, opened last season at Lancaster and struggled at the outset like every JetHawks pitcher not named Michael Bowden. He gave up at least four earned runs five times in an eight-start span from Apr. 24 through June 2 and sported a gaudy 5.91 ERA at the end of the stretch.

And then something clicked. Masterson went 6-0 with a 2.06 ERA in his final six starts, during which he allowed as many as three earned runs only once. He struck out 22 and walked just one and lasted seven innings in each of his final four appearances—including his last outing July 4, when he led the JetHawks to a 12-4 win over Inland Empire in a one-game tiebreaker for the first half South Division title.

For Masterson, the key to success at Lancaster—home of the high altitude and fierce winds—was trusting his power sinker. "The first couple [starts] you're like ‘Man, do I need to do something different? It's just not working,'" Masterson said. "And then talking to Bob Kipper, our pitching coach out there, [he was] saying ‘Your stuff plays. You just have to relax. You can't worry about what you can't control.

"And so once I was really able to get that mindset in my head is when I can say ‘OK: Let's just give them the ball, make them put it in play and just see what happens."

That attitude continued to work wonders for Masterson following a promotion to Double-A Portland. He threw 6 2/3 no-hit innings in his debut July 9—Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay, who was on a rehab assignment, broke up the gem with two outs in the ninth—and allowed two runs or less in each of his first six starts.

Masterson struggled down the stretch for the Sea Dogs (he posted a 10.42 ERA in his final four starts as his overall mark rose from 1.38 to 4.34), no surprise given he ended up throwing 153 2/3 innings—tied for second-most in the chain behind only Travis Beazley—in his first season as a starter.

"I think the adjustments he made when he was in Lancaster were significant, especially with his ability to attack the strike zone with his sinker," Sox director of player development Mike Hazen said. "We really felt like that's when the light turned on for him and he ran off a long string of success that carried over right to Portland.

"I think some of the things we saw at the end of the year [were due to] fatigue due to it being his first full year and throwing 150 innings and throwing everyday for the first time. We're pretty happy where he is right now and we think this guy has a chance to come on."

He could arrive in a variety of roles. Masterson pitched in relief throughout his career at San Diego State, but the Sox believe he can be a no. 2 or no. 3 starter with his durability and sinkerball. Or he could be quite valuable in the late innings as a hard-throwing reliever who can induce ground balls by the bushel.

That versatility lifts him above teammate Michael Bowden as the top pitching prospect in the chain behind Clay Buchholz. Masterson is expected to start this season in the Portland rotation, but he's closer to helping the big league club than any other 2006 draftee. Immediate success with the Sea Dogs could put him on a Jonathan Papelbon-esque fast track. Papelbon was the Opening Day starter for Portland in 2005 and ended the season as the Sox' top set-up reliever.

And if and when Masterson does get to the majors, he'll look back on his experience at Lancaster as the turning point.

"Even if you get a nice hopper, it just kind of hits the infield and skids out or accelerates," Masterson said, referring to the dry infield at Lancaster's Clear Channel Stadium. "How the heck did that happen? It's tough because you can't get mad at your infielders even if it's [a] hit because it's a tough play. But it was fun. It teaches you to keep the ball low and get ground balls. You're going to be learning out there, if anything.

"Having a little success in Lancaster and coming out here, where there aren't these features that are hurting you, must give you an extra confidence. Players feel like if you can do it out there, you can do it anywhere."


Previous prospects ranked No. 3:
2007: Dustin Pedroia, IF
2006: Craig Hansen, P (no longer rookie eligible in 2007)
2005: Jonathan Papelbon, P (ranked no. 1 in 2006)


DIEHARD 2008 TOP 50 PROSPECTS
50.) Travis Beazley, P
49.) Beau Vaughan, P
48.) Ty Weeden, C
47.) Mike Jones, 1B
46.) Tommy Hottovy, P
45.) Chad Spann, 3B
44.) Yamaico Navarro, SS
43.) Chad Rhoades, P
42.) Mike James, P
41.) Jay Johnson, OF
40.) Jeff Natale, IF
39.) George Kottaras, C
38.) Bryce Cox, P
37.) Daniel Haigwood, P
36.) Che-Hsuan Lin, OF
35.) Edgar Martinez, P
34.) Andrew Pinckney, 3B
33.) Dusty Brown, C
32.) Jason Place, OF
31.) Jeff Corsaletti, OF
30.) Argenis Diaz, SS
29.) Daniel Bard, P
28.) Brock Huntzinger, P
27.) Adam Mills, P
26.) David Pauley, P
25.) David Mailman, OF
24.) Anthony Rizzo, 1B
23.) Chris Province, P
22.) Bubba Bell, OF
21.) Hunter Jones, P
20.) Zach Daeges, OF
19.) Jon Still, C/1B
18.) Oscar Tejeda, SS
17.) Reid Engel, OF
16.) Kris Johnson, P
15.) Chris Carter, 1B/DH
14.) Ryan Dent, SS
13.) Mark Wagner, C
12.) Josh Reddick, OF
11.) Dustin Richardson, P
10.) Ryan Kalish, OF
9.) Nick Hagadone, P
8.) Aaron Bates, 1B
7.) Lars Anderson, 1B
6.) Michael Bowden, P
5.) Brandon Moss, OF
4.) Jed Lowrie, IF
3.) Justin Masterson, P


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752.

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