The Value of Justin Masterson and the Cleveland Indians
Mike Brandyberry | On 29, Mar 2014
The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is a core member of the team and key to contention this season and beyond.
Despite a spring full of success and all signs pointing to a big year on the mound, it isn’t win totals, ERAs or strikeouts that are the numbers most discussed in regards to Justin Masterson this spring.
It’s years and millions.
Masterson compiled a 4-0 record and 1.09 ERA in 24.2 innings this spring and will be the Indians’ Opening Day starter Monday evening in Oakland. At 29-years old, Masterson is coming off his best season as a starting pitcher in 2013—going 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA and his first All-Star appearance—and will be asked to lead the Tribe’s otherwise young rotation into contention in 2014. With the loss of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir to free agency this winter, the responsibility to lead the rotation and be the Indians’ front of the rotation starting pitcher rests squarely on Masterson’s shoulders.
Masterson may be the Indians single most valuable player. Without him, contention in 2014 and beyond seems improbable.
It’s why optimism seemed to abound early this spring when Masterson announced he’d like to stay with the Indians and sign a long-term contract. Masterson is a free agent after the 2014 season and when Cincinnati signed Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million contract this February, it seemed Masterson’s value would be too much for the less-than-deep-pockets of the Cleveland Indians. But Masterson made it clear, he wasn’t looking for a contract as long or as lucrative as Bailey’s. In early March, CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman reported Masterson and his agent were willing to negotiate a contract around three years. Remaining with the Indians’ core of Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and manager Terry Francona was important to him.
“We’re trying to be sensitive to something that makes sense … We’ve been sensitive, flexible and willing to work with them. But we can’t be … a sellout,” Randy Rowley, Masterson’s agent, told Heyman.
According to Heyman, Rowley submitted a few contract proposals and options to the Indians on March 1. Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer later reported Rowley and Masterson offered a two-year deal, valued at $35 million and a three-year deal, valued at $51 million. Both offers far less in length, yet comparable to yearly value in comparison to Bailey’s contract in Cincinnati.
With the ball solely in the court of the Indians front office, hardly a word was spoken for almost three full weeks until Heyman reported talks between the Tribe and Masterson had broken down on March 20. Reportedly, the Indians countered with a two-year contract, with a team option for a third year, at roughly $14 million per season. Rowley and Masterson rejected the Indians’ offer and talks broke down.
The Indians—a team who has struggled to resign their own players once hitting the free agent market—are gambling big with their most valuable pitcher.
If Masterson and the Indians can not agree to a long-term contract and he becomes a free agent after the 2014 season, his value may not be as high as he and Rowley are currently posturing. While his statistics seem comparable to Bailey’s—thus commanding the $17 million annual salary—Masterson will join a deep starting pitcher pool in free agency next winter. Max Scherzer, James Shields and Jon Lester are all slated to be free agents next winter. All three pitchers have a better track record and would command more salary than Masterson on the open market. Lester and the Boston Red Sox have discussed contract extension, but negotiations have progressed slowly. Scherzer rejected a six-year, $144 million offer from the Detroit Tigers this week. Shields and the Kansas City Royals have not had any serious talks about an extension. It’s also very likely Jake Peavy will not reach benchmarks in his contract to exercise his 2015 player option and he will become a free agent next winter, too.
Scherzer, Shields, Lester and Peavy would all receive the qualifying offer from their respective teams. The Indians will certainly offer Masterson the same qualifying offer and that will affect his value on the open market. Next year, that qualifying offer should exceed $15 million for the one-year deal. Teams are becoming hesitant to spend large amounts of money, and sacrifice a draft pick, for the third or fourth best option on the free agent market. As vital as starting pitching is in baseball, Kyle Lohse, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana all struggled to reach a contract on the open market with the qualifying offer attached to them. Masterson has never won more than 14 games in a season and lost 15 games just two seasons ago. The blemishes on Masterson’s record could affect his value.
How much money will be left for Masterson after Scherzer, Shields and Lester sign if they are all free agents next winter? Is Masterson willing to go through a long winter, possibly signing late or even after spring training begins?
The Indians are gambling a yearly salary of $17 million does not exist on the open market for Masterson. Their also gambling Masterson will not want to endure a stressful, uncertain winter. If the Indians gamble correctly, they may be able to still sign Masterson for around the $14 million annual salary they counter-offered 10 days ago and comparable to what Lohse, Santana and Jimenez received.
But is the gamble worth the risk?
The Indians and Masterson need each other in 2014. The Tribe needs Masterson to have his best season and lead the rotation in hopes of taking the Indians to their first back-to-back playoff appearances since 1998-99. If Masterson does what the Indians need on the mound, his value may rise to the point the Tribe can no longer afford him in their tight budget.
Both sides made two-year contract offers, yet $3.5 million apart in yearly salary. It’s a substantial amount and maybe an amount the Indians already cannot commit to since they’ve already entered into large contracts with Swisher and Bourn through 2016. When Masterson takes the mound Monday evening in Oakland, the question mark of his Indians’ future will hang directly over his head until a resolution is reached. If the Indians struggle and Masterson is dealt at the trade deadline, or he leaves at the end of the season via free agency, he’ll become another name on the list of Tribesmen to leave in the prime of their career.
Worse more for the Indians, they’ll suffer another setback in the eye of public perception. Fair or unfair, the Tribe will again appear to not spend money and keep its most valuable core players together. This time, a player would leave who publicly said he wanted to stay and was willing to not gouge the organization. If Masterson isn’t on the Indians in 2015, it’s hard to fathom the team as a serious competitor for the Central Division or playoffs. It’s very clear to see an already shaky relationship between the organization and its fan base would again be damaged.
Justin Masterson may, or may not, garner $17 million per season on the open market next winter. Masterson and Rowley have said they are willing to continue to negotiate during the season despite that not being the Indians normal practice. The Indians may, or may not, be right in their perceived value of Masterson.
Are the Indians gambling more than just $3.5 million in annual salary? If the Indians gamble and Masterson leaves Cleveland after 2014, are the repercussions worth more than $3.5 million in 2015 and 2016?
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer