GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Justin Masterson understood why the Indians decided to move him into the bullpen last September, but that did not mean the big right-hander had to like it. Masterson would have preferred to finish what he started in Cleveland's rotation.
"I would've still liked to get my starts in. But hey," Masterson said with a shrug, "they've got to protect the young arms."
The move to the bullpen was in no way an indictment of Masterson's performance, or a sign that the Tribe was considering using the righty as a reliever like the Red Sox had done in the past. It was simply a way to control Masterson's innings, preparing him for a full season as a starter in 2011.
Now, standing inside the Indians' player development complex in Arizona, Masterson is facing precisely that. He is viewed an an integral piece within Cleveland's starting five and he heads into the coming campaign with no restrictions. That fact brings a smile to Masterson's face.
"That's what's exciting," Masterson said. "It's get out there, come into spring, really hone down on what we need to work on and take that into the season."
And there is no second guessing about Masterson's role.
As things currently stand, Masterson projects to be the Tribe's No. 2 starter behind Fausto Carmona. Masterson has had an inconsistent Major League career, but he has shown enough flashes of promise to give the Indians hope that the 6-foot-6, 250-pound pitcher might be on the verge of a breakthrough.
"He could have a breakout year for us," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
That would be a great development for Cleveland, which acquired Masterson as part of the July 2009 trade that shipped All-Star catcher Victor Martinez to the Red Sox. Landing Masterson in that deal was important for the Indians, and giving him a chance to be a big league starter was always the goal.
"He was an important part of the deal," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said.
Masterson -- a second-round selection by the Red Sox in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft -- spent the bulk of his Minor League career with Boston as a starter. Upon reaching the Majors, though, the Red Sox used him mainly out of the bullpen, and Masterson responded well.
During the 2008 playoffs, Masterson struck out nine hitters over 9 2/3 innings, posting a 1.86 ERA along the way. He posted a 3.16 ERA in 36 games (nine starts) for the Red Sox that season and fashioned a 4.50 ERA in 31 games (six starts) with Boston before being traded to Cleveland in '09.
The Tribe always viewed him as a starter.
"When we evaluated him, we thought he had a chance to start," Antonetti said. "Obviously, he had demonstrated success as a reliever, so we certainly knew that was a fallback option, but we felt he had the ingredients to start. He's a big physical guy that has weapons to attack hitters and get through a lineup multiple times."
Masterson's first stint with the Indians was rocky. He went 1-7 with a 4.55 ERA over 11 outings (10 starts) after being acquired in 2009. Cleveland stuck with its plan and gave Masterson ample opportunity in 2010 to work out any issues. The results, once again, were inconsistent.
Over his first 10 starts last year, Masterson went 0-5 with a 5.87 ERA. He then improved to the tune of a 3-2 record with a 3.51 ERA over his next six turns. After that peak came another valley, as Masterson went 1-5 with a 6.22 ERA from July 6-Aug. 20. He salvaged his season with a strong push, posting a 2.08 ERA over his final nine outings.
Needless to say, the goal for 2011 is simple.
"I'm just trying to become more consistent," Masterson said. "I think everything is there that we need to be successful."
The key for Masterson is finding a way to effectively repeat his delivery -- not always an easy task for someone of his size. Helping matters is the fact that Masterson and Indians pitching coach Tim Belcher established some checkpoints within his delivery.
As Masterson winds up and goes through his motion, he is becoming increasingly mindful of his mechanics. The pitcher said an important aspect is consistently landing the same with his lead leg, allowing everything else to fall into place.
"I think [we] found something," Masterson said. "I wrote it down and journaled about it so I could remember it as we came in this year, to kind of use that same thing and hope that it works out the same way."
Masterson said he could feel a difference in the second half last season, and the numbers back it up. From Aug. 4 through the end of the year, Masterson's 2.86 ERA was the ninth-lowest figure among American League pitchers with at least 56 innings over that span.
"We're really pleased with the strides that he's made as a starter, especially in the second half," Antonetti said. "We think he's well positioned to have a lot of success moving forward."
And now Masterson has no innings limitations.
Following his move to the bullpen last season, Masterson ended with an even 180 innings. Now, the right-hander is ready for a full Major League workload, preparing to handle at least 200 innings for the Indians if everything goes according to plan.
The competitor in Masterson wanted to notch that many a year ago.
"At the end of the year," he said, "I was the strongest. That's the way you want it."