I don’t live in New England, so I don’t know the answer to this for certain. Perhaps someone in the sizable contingent of Red Sox fans amid our readership can tell me: has Justin Masterson started appearing on milk cartons yet?

I ask because Masterson has been the forgotten man on the Red Sox staff, the red-headed stepchild to fellow rookie Clay Buchholz‘s golden boy. Whether patching the rotation in the wake of an injury, temporarily nudging the struggling Buchholz out of the picture, or simply filling a higher-leverage relief role, Masterson could be occupying a more prominent position than the Beantown equivalent of the Jay Witasick Memorial Rumble Seat on a team that could clearly use the help. Despite going 12-6 to begin August, the Sox have lost a game and a half in the standings to the AL East-leading Rays while preserving just a half-game lead over the Twins in the wild card race. Their post-season odds have edged upwards from 76 to 84 percent in that timespan, a function of their scoring rates, but even with the Yankees apparently vanquished, the Red Sox suddenly look vulnerable.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Buchholz came into this year heralded as the top pitcher and overall second-best prospect on our Top 100 Prospects list, having thrown a no-hitter in just his second major league start last September 1. After a solid start to this season (3.71 ERA and three quality starts out of six through May 2), he was severely pounded twice, and then sent to Triple-A Pawtucket for two months. Since returning on July 11, he has failed to make a quality start in seven attempts and has been bombed for an 8.29 ERA; on Wednesday night, he couldn’t even get out of the third inning against the Orioles, squandering a 4-0 lead and dropping to 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA. Those who have seen more of him than I have say there’s nothing physically wrong with the 24-year-old; instead his problems are mental, mechanical, and/or tactical. He’s not getting ahead of hitters, he’s not throwing his highly-regarded changeup enough, and opposing hitters are dishing out Cream of Whoop-Ass every time he takes the hill. Yet the Sox keep sending him out there.

As for Masterston, the 6-foot-6, 23-year-old rookie came into the year rated by Kevin Goldstein as the third-best prospect in the Red Sox organization behind Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury, and 53rd overall in our Top 100. He’s a four-star prospect with a heavy sinker that Goldstein suggested before the season was “arguably the best in all of the minor leagues.” His second pitch is a slider that Masterson occasionally has trouble staying on top of because of his low three-quarter arm angle, and his changeup is a work in progress.

Masterson began the year at Double-A Portland, commuting to Boston to make a pair of spot starts in April and May in which he pitched quite well. Following his second start on May 24, the Red Sox sent him to Triple-A Pawtucket, but he was summoned back to Boston after just one turn once Daisuke Matsuzaka went on the DL with a rotator cuff strain. He held is own in a solid month in the rotation, putting up a 3.67 ERA through his first nine starts (including the cameos) while averaging six innings per start. To be fair, his peripherals were hardly sterling (6.5 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9), with his home-run rate particularly high given his ground-ball-oriented approach, the consequence of too many sliders that didn’t slide. An unsustainably low .216 BABIP kept things in check; Masterson’s 5.23 FIP as a starter is a more accurate measure of his performance to that point.

Just before the All-Star break, the Sox recalled Buchholz, and sent Masterson back to Pawtucket to convert him into a relief role. He didn’t spend long in the PawSox bullpen before returning to the big club, and while he’s pitched well in 11 relief appearances over the past month, those opportunities have come mainly in blowouts and lost causes. Only one appearance has come with the Red Sox anywhere from one run down to three runs ahead, and his leverage score is the lowest among any of the team’s current relievers:

Pitcher             IPr   FRAr    ARP    WXRL    LEV
Hideki Okajima     47.2   4.51   -0.7   0.966   1.65
Jonathan Papelbon  53.2   2.54   14.9   2.622   1.57
Manny Delcarmen    52.2   4.71    3.1  -0.099   1.06
Javier Lopez       46.1   2.66   12.3   1.216   1.03
Mike Timlin        35.1   6.39   -6.6  -0.475   0.86
David Aardsma      42.1   4.13    3.1   0.427   0.68
Justin Masterson   16.0   2.35    4.6   0.447   0.42

Innings pitched and Fair Run Average numbers are for relief appearances only. Not shown here is the fact that Masterson’s command issues have improved markedly since moving to the bullpen; he’s put up an 18/2 K/BB ratio and allowed just one homer while getting defensive support that’s much closer to average (.308 BABIP). At the very least, that would appear worthy of a higher spot in the pecking order than fourth-string righty in a bullpen that’s just 10th in the league in WXRL, no? You’d think so, particularly with Timlin having reached his sell-by date and Aardsma having been scored upon in all four outings since returning from a DL stint, including last night, when he surrendered a three-run bomb to Ramon Hernandez to pour gasoline on the smoldering fire left by Buchholz.

As for the Boston rotation, Matsuzaka and Jon Lester appear to be the only sure things these days. Josh Beckett was pushed back this week due to a bout of numbness in his fingers that may have contributed to him being torched by Toronto earlier this week; he’s now carrying a rather un-Beckett-like 4.34 ERA. Fourth starter Tim Wakefield is on the DL with shoulder inflammation; his replacement, fellow knuckleballer Charlie Zink, wasted a ten-run lead in his major league debut and was sent back to Pawtucket posthaste. Veteran Paul Byrd was acquired from Cleveland at the trading deadline, and suddenly looks more like a staple than an insurance policy. That leaves Buchholz’s slot, which isn’t ready to be filled by Bartolo Colon, as the veteran is at least two turns away from meriting a recall from a rehab stint that’s been set back by illness and erratic performances. Short of Luis Tiant coming out of retirement to give the club a few innings, it’s unclear just who else the Sox can call upon to avoid giving another start to Masterson.

Here’s a look at the team’s current pool of starters:

Pitcher               IPs   SNLVAR   RA    FRA   SNWP
Daisuke Matsuzaka   126.2    4.7   2.98   3.01   .621
Jon Lester          167.2    4.8   3.33   3.49   .591
Tim Wakefield       147.0    3.7   4.04   3.91   .567  DL
Justin Masterson     54.0    1.4   3.34   3.29   .563
Josh Beckett        149.1    3.4   4.46   4.20   .555
Paul Byrd           138.2    2.3   4.81   4.87   .508  Combined
Bartolo Colon        33.0    0.5   4.91   4.92   .484  DL
Clay Buchholz        75.0   -0.2   7.46   7.18   .392
Charlie Zink          4.1   -0.2  16.62  14.90   .197  Triple-A

Again, innings pitched, Run Average, and Fair Run Average are from these pitchers’ starting appearances only. SNWP is Support Neutral Winning Percentage, to which I’ve been referring a lot lately, a rate stat that measures how often a starter’s performance gives his team a chance to win given average offensive and bullpen support. It doesn’t see how a pitcher gets the job done-if, as in Masterson’s case, he’s been helped tremendously by his defense to overcome shaky peripherals-it just sees that he’s left the team in a position to win via a sabermetric approximation of his quality-start rate.

Given the current crop of injuries in their rotation, it’s very tough to argue that Masterson doesn’t belong in Boston’s front five at the moment, particularly with a robust offense to provide better-than-average support that can overcome any work-in-progress hiccups. Relative to Buchholz and Zink, even a six-inning, four-run outing would be an improvement that could ease the burden on a shaky bullpen and give the team a chance to win, and Masterson’s relief work suggests he’s ironed out enough of his kinks to make that a reality.

Long term, the Red Sox brass apparently see Buchholz as a front-of-the-rotation starter, and Masterson as a key set-up reliever. Buchholz has obviously hit a stumbling block somewhat akin to what the Yankees have gone through with Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy this year, minus the former’s fluky injury. His maturation is an organizational priority of the first order, but his performance has jeopardized their season, and with the team fighting for a playoff berth, it’s time to acknowledge that it’s just not happening this year. Masterson may lack that kind of upside, but it’s still a head-scratcher to see the Sox consider him less a Derek Lowe than a Ramiro Mendoza, complete with the pejorative sense of the ground-balling former Yankee swingman’s inglorious stint in Boston.

Whether they move Masterson higher in the bullpen pecking order or restore him to the rotation, the Red Sox have a pitcher who can help them get through this rough stretch. It’s up to them to call his number.

Late note: the Red Sox optioned Buchholz back to Portland after the game, with no word on who will replace him.