FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox threw bags of money at “professional” hitters over the last six months. They have assembled a lineup that should be one of the best in baseball.
Pitching? That’s another story. The analytic minds that populate Boston’s baseball ops department have concluded that “ace” pitchers are overrated. The team makes no attempt to hide its disgust for starting pitchers over the age of 30 who command big bucks on the open market.
That’s why Jon Lester is not here. Ditto for Max Scherzer and Cole Hamels.
In their place, the Sox have assembled a starting staff of No. 3 pitchers: Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Justin Masterson.
Buchholz has been a 17-game winner. Kelly has started a World Series game. Porcello was a starter in the bigs when he was 20. Miley is a crafty lefty who might be tougher to run on than any major league southpaw.
Masterson is the only one who has been an ace. He started three Opening Days and was an All-Star with the Cleveland Indians. He’s started 25 or more games in five straight seasons. At his best, he’s an octopus righty (he’s 6 feet 6 inches) who drops down and dominates righthanded hitters.
So what is he doing in this rotation?
Simple. Masterson, who turns 30 in three weeks, is a reclamation project. He got hurt and went 7-9 with a 5.88 ERA in 2014, his “walk” season. That’s why he didn’t cost $100 million. The Sox got him on a one-year deal for $9.5 million. And they know everything there is to know about his considerable character.
Sox fans should remember Masterson. As a rookie in 2008, he was a lockdown setup reliever for Terry Francona. At the age of 23, Masterson pitched in nine of the Sox’ postseason games. The Sox lost to the Rays in a seven-game ALCS, but Masterson got the win in Game 5, making him the youngest Red Sox pitcher credited with a postseason victory since Babe Ruth beat the Brooklyn Robins in the 1916 World Series.
The Sox traded Masterson the following summer — in a deal that brought Victor Martinez to Fenway Park. Francona remembers it as one of his toughest days in baseball, taking Masterson into the manager’s office at Camden Yards and telling him he’d been traded to Cleveland. Masterson cried.
“They called me in,’’ Masterson remembered Sunday in the Sox’ spring clubhouse at JetBlue Park. “Tito and John [Sox manager John Farrell was Masterson’s pitching coach in 2008 and ’09]. It was tough, especially since it was the first time I’d been traded. I’m a relationship guy and you build relationships. It can be difficult. I didn’t even feel like I could talk about it.’’
Masterson was a great fit in Cleveland. The Tribe made him a starter and his best season was 2013 (reunited with Francona) when he went 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA and made the All Star team. In an attempt to lock him up, Cleveland offered him a three-year, $45 million extension. Those were the days when Scherzer was turning down $144 million from the Tigers. Masterson said no to the extension. He rolled the dice. And lost.
In 2014, he suffered a torn muscle in his side and then hurt his right knee and shoulder. His velocity dropped and the Indians moved him to St. Louis at the trade deadline. Things didn’t get any better in St. Louis. His market value was low when the season ended and the Red Sox pounced one day after Lester signed with the Cubs.
A lot of folks would be bitter or embarrassed about turning down the security and then getting hurt and having your worst season. Not this guy. Masterson sees it as something of a relief. He says he would have been sheepish about signing for the big bucks, then failing. His conscience is clear and he has a chance to prove himself again.
“If you sign and get hurt, that’s not fun,’’ he said. “That’s disappointing for you as a person and fans aren’t liking that and you don’t like not doing well. I don’t care if I have the security or not. I’m not that type of guy.
“You’ve got to have the idea that you’re confident in your skills. Security? Whatever. I like baseball. We’re going to go after it. If things don’t work out, it’s going to work somehow, someway. Maybe we don’t make as much, maybe we do make as much. We’re still being really blessed with whatever that is. I’m not overly concerned about it.”
He’s not worried about being an Opening Day starter, either.
“I’ll leave that to Clay,’’ said Masterson. “Three is a good number. I’ll take three, four, or five. Those usually work out really well. I’ll be more than happy with that.’’Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.