The Cleveland Indians were amidst many potential trade rumors last week during the Winter Meetings. One of the most surprising and startling rumors was the whisper that the Indians were listening to offers on starting pitcher Justin Masterson.
Masterson was 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA in 34 games and 29 starts last season. Were it not for an injury in September that forced him out of the rotation, it’s safe to assume his numbers could be slightly better. Masterson rebounded nicely from a poor 2012, just like former teammate Ubaldo Jimenez. Masterson is due to make Masterson is projected to make $9.7 million in salary arbitration this winter and he will be a free agent after the 2014 season.
When it was reported that the Indians were listening to offers for Masterson, General Manager Chris Antonetti warned to, “not believe everything you read,” during an interview with on MLB Network. Manager Terry Francona even called Masterson directly to assure him he wasn’t going to be traded.
“I called him yesterday and told him, ‘Whether you like it or not you’re not getting rid of us,'” Francona told Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes last Thursday.
Every team has to listen when others call making offers. It only makes sense. It’s also likely the Indians are listening to offers to judge what kind of value, or what teams, may have interest in Masterson if Cleveland elects to trade him before the July trade deadline. With his contract expiring at the end of 2014, if the Indians were out of contention by summer, they would be forced to consider trading Masterson and getting something for him instead of just a compensatory draft pick.
What’s more concerning is that the Indians even have to consider the possibility of trading Masterson.
Instead of listening to offers, estimating value and building a list of teams for later, the Indians should be working very hard to extend Masterson long term. In the same Hoynes story, Masterson’s agent—Randy Rowley—said the Indians have not made any kind of long term offer.
“I haven’t heard from them, but that doesn’t alarm me in any way, shape or form,” said Rowley, who just returned from the Dominican Republic with Masterson. “Right now, we’re preparing to go to arbitration on a one-year deal and we’re very comfortable with that.”
It likely would take some where in the neighborhood of five years and $75-85 million to extend Masterson to a long term deal. While that sounds like a lot of money, it’s the going rate these days for top of the rotation starting pitchers. One would have to think if the Indians offered, Masterson would be very interested in continuing to man the top of the Tribe rotation and playing for Francona.
If the Indians haven’t made an offer, like Rowley claims, one has to wonder why. That kind of commitment to any player seems like a major move the Indians may want to try and solidify early in the winter before using remaining money fill out the roster. It seems that would affect other moves throughout the winter. Signing players to fill out the 2014 roster but being unable to commit to Masterson long term seems like a backwards route to building a team to win both short term and long term.
But more troubling is if the Indians can’t extend Masterson—someone who has spent the majority of his career in Cleveland and has familiarity with the entire organization—who can they extend? If Cleveland can’t give Masterson a five year deal for $75-85 million, they’ll never be able to keep a veteran, top of the line, starting pitcher. The vicious cycle of trading veteran talent for youthful prospects will begin all over again. It’s a formula for frustration, not success.
Coming off a 92 win season, expectations will be high for 2014 and they should be. It’s probable that the Indians are far from done assembling their roster. Likely they’ll make at least one trade and acquire a closer. Maybe signing Masterson long term is part of their plan for this winter.
If it is, that’s great and it will keep the Indians’ nucleus in tact through Francona’s contract in 2016. If Masterson isn’t extended, and is either dealt midseason or leaves via free agency, it seems the Indians’ possibilities of serious contention would expire too. Masterson isn’t necessarily the best player on the Indians, or the best starting pitcher in the league, but he’s probably the most important player to the Indians and their chances of winning in the next couple seasons.
An extension for Masterson should be a when, not if, type of scenario. The thought that the Indians are making any kind of plans for life without him is troubling.
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