Sheldon Ocker

PHOENIX: It’ no secret that for the Indians to contend with the Detroit Tigers for the Central Division title, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez cannot repeat their disappointing performances of last season, when they put together a dominating set of negative statistics.

Nevertheless, for the second year in a row, Masterson and Jimenez are being counted on to lead the front end of the Tribe’s rotation.

Why? Because they have live arms and at times have displayed overpowering stuff. It’s difficult to give up on young pitchers with potential, even when that potential shows itself only sporadically.

If anyone has doubts about manager Terry Francona’s aspirations for Masterson and Jimenez, on Monday he said, “These guys are going to be matched up against the other teams’ best two pitchers.”

By inference, that makes Masterson and Jimenez No. 1 and No. 2 in the manager’s appraisal. Francona hasn’t announced his Opening Day starter, but it’s likely to be Masterson, who pitched Monday against the Oakland Athletics.

In 2012, Jimenez and Masterson combined to go 20-32 with a 5.16 ERA and an average of 4.3 walks per nine innings. Breaking it down individually, Jimenez was first in the American League with 17 losses, Masterson third with 15. Jimenez had the worst ERA in the league (5.40), Masterson came in third from the bottom (4.93).

Strong start

In his first start of the spring, Masterson delivered two hitless innings, striking out one and inducing A’s batters to beat the ball into the dirt for five outs.

Nobody could have asked for more. Not only did Masterson retire every batter he faced, he received maximum style points for getting most of the outs with his sinking fastball.

“I was able to pound the zone,” he said. “That’s what I want to do early in camp. I threw a lot of heaters and a couple of change-ups.”

Of his struggles last year, Masterson said, “I tried to do a little more and less happened. That’s my take on it.”

Masterson’s 2012 season was not devoid of effective outings, but his bad ones too often became disastrous.

“I’d give up a couple runs then try harder,” he said. “Things would get worse, and I’d give up more runs. I’d want to slap myself in the face when I got home.”

Masterson was followed to the mound by Jimenez, who delivered two scoreless innings, allowing two singles, a walk and striking out two. One of the hits was a pop fly that was lost in the sun.

“Ubaldo had a lot of life on his fastball,” Francona said. “That’s the kind of progress that’s really good.”

Slow delivery

Jimenez has been the bigger mystery, tumbling from the top of the world in the first half of 2010, when he started for the Colorado Rockies, to his status as arguably the most ineffective starter in the American League.

“I think Ubaldo and [pitching coach] Mickey Callaway are building a rapport, and that’s really important,” Francona said. “Mickey went to see him twice [in the Dominican Republic] over the winter.”

Much has been made of flaws in Jimenez’s mechanics since he arrived in Cleveland, midway through the 2011 season. Francona describes his problem this way: “We’re trying to get him to have a little more rhythm. When Mickey looked at video of him in Colorado, everything came together when he had more rhythm.”

Francona wasn’t talking about prepping Jimenez for Dancing With the Stars.

“When he throws from the windup, he’s probably a full second slower now than he was with Colorado,” Francona said.

What has Jimenez been told by Callaway?

“He said I should just be myself,” Jimenez said. “If I am doing something wrong, he will tell me.”

Asked whether the problem is a slow delivery, Jimenez said, “Yes, that’s it. I’ll work on that in spring training until I get it done.”

Francona believes that slowing Jimenez’s delivery has adversely affected his command and maybe even his velocity.

At his peak with the Rockies, Jimenez routinely threw 96-97 mph. Last year, Jimenez usually threw 91-93.

Referring to Jimenez’s velocity, Francona said, “I think it has to do with getting out of sorts with his delivery, when he rocks back and gets slower with his delivery. We want him to pound the ball down. If he does that, I think you’ll see his velocity go up. Even if it doesn’t, it’s good enough.”

Sheldon Ocker can be reached at socker@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Indians blog at https://ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.