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Stakes are high for the aces of the AL Central

Scherzer, Shields, Masterson seeking both postseason and big payday @castrovince

Max Scherzer took the mound last week in his first start of 2014 to the sound of cheers -- not jeers -- from the Comerica Park crowd. If there are any hurt feelings about his decision to balk at $144 million from the hometown team, the Detroit faithful certainly weren't going to show it in the heat of battle.

"I'm out there to get guys out," Scherzer said matter-of-factly. "They're going to cheer when I get guys out."

Scherzer got guys out, all right. With eight scoreless innings, he turned in arguably a better start than any of the 32 he made in his 2013 American League Cy Young Award-winning campaign. For Scherzer, what happened last week was a great start to the season, a great start to his bid to justify his bargaining bravery and a great start to a particularly interesting subplot to the AL Central race.

In Scherzer, James Shields and Justin Masterson, we have three ace-type arms from the division's three most likely contenders, each trying to lead his team to the Promised Land while simultaneously trying to lead himself to a major paycheck.

As a result of varying circumstances, they are each in the middle of their walk year, knowing full well that their performance affects not only their team's competitive standing but their own individual value in a market that is shaping up to be more competitive than usual in this age in which in-house extensions have robbed the free-agent field.

"We're battling each other," Masterson said. "It's a rivalry within a rivalry."

Scherzer, Shields and Masterson took different paths to this point. Scherzer turned down the Tigers' offer of a reported $24 million in average annual value, whereas Masterson's request for $17 million in average annual value on a shorter-term deal was denied by the Tribe. To the best of our knowledge, the Royals and Shields have not engaged in any serious long-term discussions since his arrival in a trade with the Rays before 2013.

Regardless of how they got here, the threesome is slated to join Boston's Jon Lester as arguably the top arms untied to club options at the end of 2014. Thus they'll front a free-agent market that could once again be complicated by the Draft-pick compensation system.

For Scherzer, the compensation angle won't be an issue if he remains healthy and repeats or nears his 2013 effort. He'd be at the top of the class.

The gauge by which Scherzer will be judged, of course, is the money he turned down and how his next contract compares. The Tigers' decision to make public notice of his bargaining stance only added to the intrigue surrounding his situation.

So even by walk-year standards, there is an unusual amount of interest in each of Scherzer's starts (he'll take the mound on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium) and how they affect his future worth.

An armchair psychologist would infer from Scherzer's struggle to throw strikes in the first inning of his first start of the season (as well as his own admission that those troubles were "between the ears") that the contract saga was in his head. Even if that is the case, though, Scherzer righted himself in a hurry, and his intense focus on consistently improving his secondary pitches gives him a chance to increase his innings workload this season. Scherzer's curveball and sinker are relatively new entries into his arsenal, and the curve is an increasingly important pitch for him against left-handed hitters.

"My thing is, I'm always looking to get better every single year," Scherzer said. "I feel I'm better than last year, from a pitches standpoint."

Shields' greatest asset is the work ethic that has put him in position to eat an abnormal number of innings in his career; he threw at least 203 1/3 each season from 2007-13. Only CC Sabathia (1,610) and Justin Verlander (1,574 2/3) threw more innings than Shields (1,558 2/3) in that span.

"I've seen a lot of guys who are regimented," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "But this guy is the same every single day, regardless of whether or not he's pitching. He's into every game, even when he's not pitching. He's a great teammate, a great leader."

Of course, Sabathia's recent struggles and notable loss of velocity illustrate the toll those innings take. Shields' past durability, therefore, could be billed as both an asset and a cause for concern when he hits the open market.

"Whatever is going to happen is going to happen," Shields said. "The bottom line is, my job is to win and just do what I do and stay as consistent as I possibly can, like I've been doing every year."

As one AL evaluator noted, Masterson is behind Scherzer and Shields in the consistency department. His ballpark-adjusted ERA, as calculated by Baseball Reference, rates as exactly league average both over the past three seasons and in the totality of his career.

So when Masterson follows a masterful performance like the one he turned in on Opening Day (seven scoreless innings in Oakland) with a stinker (five earned runs over 3 2/3 innings on Sunday against the Twins), you get the sense that his value is flip-flopping accordingly.

Masterson admits that it can create a different kind of pressure to perform, though he insists his head is in the right place.

"That's what makes being a starting pitcher good and bad," Masterson said with a smile. "Position players look at our schedule and say, 'I'd love to be a pitcher.' But you also have to deal with [the fact that] each time you go out there, it affects you. It depends on who you are."

Fewer opportunities mean more magnification of the bad outings and more celebration of the good. The ever-present threat of injury (and we've certainly seen our share of injuries to pitchers already in this young season) adds to the risk taken on by Scherzer and the high stakes faced by Masterson and Shields.

Oh, and then there's that little matter of the standings. Because if this season goes the way we expect it to, this "rivalry within a rivalry" is going to have a serious impact on the Central finish.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Justin Masterson, Max Scherzer, James Shields