Is it Time to Extend Justin Masterson?

The Cleveland Indians spent over $100 million last winter to improve and rebuild their team. They might need to spend some more soon if they wish to continue to build toward being a playoff team.

With a month of the season officially in the record books, it appears Justin Masterson has found much of the dominance he had in 2011 and cleaned out the cobwebs from 2012. This season, Masterson is 4-2, with a 3.64 ERA in seven starts—including a 19-inning scoreless streak. It’s a vast improvement from last season when he was 11-15, with a 4.93 ERA and major control issues.

For the Indians, Masterson’s resurgence is an indication that they may need to buy now to keep the large right-handed pitcher in Cleveland long term. Cleveland owns Masterson’s rights through 2014, with him eligible for arbitration for a third straight winter after this season. After his 12-10, 3.21 ERA season in 2011, Masterson avoided arbitration with the Tribe and settled for a one-year, $3.825 million contract. After his disappointing 2012, Masterson still earned a sizeable raise, earning a one-year, $5.6875 million contract for this season. Had his 2012 season mirrored his 2011 campaign, the Indians would have likely had to offer something closer to the tax bracket closer Chris Perez resides this season ($7.3 million). If Masterson’s 2013 season continues down the path it has started, he will likely recoup much of the money lost from last year’s subpar season.

Supposedly, the Indians approached Masterson and his agent after the 2011 season looking to sign a long term deal likely to buy out his arbitration years and another season or two of free agency, but he declined any of the Tribe’s offers. MLBTradeRumors projected Masterson at the time to be worth around a four-year, $27 million contract extension. Had he agreed to a contract like that, he would be under the Indians control through 2015, an extra year than they currently have.

And while most players don’t discuss contract extensions during the season, the Indians should be preparing their best possible proposal for Masterson and hope to make their pitch to the top starter at the All-Star break this July. The Indians did much the same over the previous few seasons with Shin-Soo Choo. By the middle of last season, they knew with a year and a half on this contract that he was unwilling to resign in Cleveland. They had little choice but to trade him last winter, or risk getting nothing in return when he left via free agency.

However, different than the Indians’ attempts to resign Choo, the organization and management has a new feel and dedication. Cleveland has brought in Masterson’s first big league manager in Terry Francona and filled the clubhouse with veterans like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn that are signed to long term contracts of their own. While it is fair to assume the pieces to the Tribe’s puzzle will shift in the coming years, it is also safe to assume the veteran presence and player-centered attitude created by Francona and Swisher will remain. It was a new draw to free agents last winter, it has to impact some players already on the roster who may now have added interest in remaining in Cleveland.

If Masterson has newfound interest in remaining in Cleveland, the Indians need to seize the moment and make their best attempt to resign the 28-year old, right-handed pitcher who currently leads their rotation. They likely couldn’t sign Masterson two years ago for that four-year, $27 million deal and would need much more financial funding to sign him to a deal now.

With Francona, Swisher and Bourn each signed through 2016, the Indians could easily use that as a starting point in negotiations with Masterson. Swisher and Bourn each have vesting options dependent on plate appearances for the 2017 season. If Cleveland offered Masterson a three-year contract, valued at $36 million (an average of $12 million per season), with a vesting option for 2017 based on performance, he would have to take it under serious consideration. That contract extension would still make him a free agent after 2016 or 2017, when he would still only be 32 or 33 years old, and able to cash in another free agent deal if his performance warranted it.

While his 2011 season, and now 2013 campaign, appear to be quality seasons, the 2012 season still looms. If he turned down a deal and had a quality season in both 2013 and 2014, he could likely command more money on the open market, but if he turned down a deal in this range and struggled in 2014, he would not garner the same value on the free agent market when his contract expired. In the words of Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti, both sides assume risk in a long term contract.

Most importantly, how can the Indians not exhaust all measures to extend Masterson?

The team’s weakness remains its starting rotation and regardless of where Masterson may fit in the rotation of a World Series winning team, he’s currently the best starting pitcher the Indians have. If the Tribe is forced to trade Masterson because they can’t extend him, or he leaves after the 2014 season, the rotation will suffer. He needs to be a piece of the Tribe’s rotation reclamation moving forward, along with Trevor Bauer and Zach McAllister.

With a rather thin minor league system of immediate starting pitching options, Masterson’s departure from Cleveland would be a subtraction to the rotation and the win-loss record in the standings, not to mention the investments they already committed to in Francona, Swisher and Bourn.

The Indians cannot afford to not meet Masterson’s price at some point. Likely it is better to buy now than later.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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