Indians Need to Get Deal Done With Masterson

Every spring, Major League Baseball teams go to arbitration with a player or players who have unsettled contracts. Every spring, for more than 20 years, the Indians have not needed to dispute a player’s contract in front of an arbitrator. Indications are that may very well change in the next few weeks.

Cleveland currently has four arbitration-eligible players who have not yet inked deals for the 2014 season. General Manager Chris Antonetti recently said one or more of those players could take the Tribe to an arbitration table for the first time since the team could not come to agreements with Jerry Browne and Greg Swindell in 1991.

Three of the four unsigned players seem stand a pretty good shot of coming to terms with the Indians before their hearing dates. Michael Brantley, Vinnie Pestano and Josh Tomlin are not far apart on dollar amounts with the team. Of the trio, Brantley is the furthest away from settling, as his agent and the Tribe are a reported $1.1 million away from each other.

The elephant in the room appears to be ace starter Justin Masterson. The righty is seeking $11.8 million, while the Indians have offered $8.05 million. That is a disparity of $3.75 million, the widest gap in baseball between a team and arbitration-eligible player.  There is plenty of time between now and the scheduled Feb. 20 hearing, but that is quite the wide margin for the two sides to make up.

It seems almost inevitable that Masterson is going to break the Tribe’s 23-year run of avoiding the arbitration table. It is a table worth avoiding as the hearings could very easily stir up some bad feelings. It is up to the team to explain why they player is not worth what he is asking. Negative things are sometimes aid, which could cause a rift in player-management relations. Swindell and Browne were both gone from Cleveland shortly after the 1991 campaign.

Starting in the early/mid-1990s, Indians management began giving long-term contracts to players pegged as worth holding on to. This kept their top players from going elsewhere in a short amount of time. It also kept the best young players from seeing arbitration. Cleveland bought out the arbitration-eligible years of players the likes of Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Sandy Alomar, Jr. By the time they were free agents, the arbitration years were over. It was good for both sides. The biggest key for the Indians was getting right who would be worth having on the team for five years or so, without extensive track records. The team hit the jackpot most of the time in the 90s, leading to their boom years.

Cleveland has not been so successful at this in the last decade. Long-term deals given to Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Jake Westbrook blew up in the face of management as all three had their careers marred by injury. It has made the team wary, as of late, of giving big money to young players.  This is why four are still in line to go to arbitration this year.

As for Masterson, the Indians spent most of January trying to work out a long-term contract for the all-star hurler.  Those talks stalled earlier this week as the two sides decided to focus more on getting a one-year deal finalized before going to arbitration. That is both good news and bad news.

The good news certainly is that the Indians and Masterson’s agent want to get something done soon.  The bad news is, it seems increasingly likely that Cleveland’s one, true ace will go into the regular season without a deal beyond this year. He can be a free agent after the season.

Indians fans have seen this before with superstar starting pitchers. C.C .Sabathia and Cliff Lee were not able to get long term agreements done with the Tribe and were dealt during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, respectively. The hard part of those moves was that each had won the American League Cy Young Award the season prior.

At the moment, Masterson is not the caliber of Sabathia or Lee. He has not won a Cy Young and has not had a truly dominating season like either of them had as Indians players. Masty, however, is still a very good pitcher. Two of the last three years he has pitched like an ace and is just now entering his prime as this will be his age 29 season. Last year, Masterson was named an all-star for the first time.

The righty is also the only starter Cleveland currently has who could be called an ace. Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister look more like middle-of-the-rotation starters, while Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer have the potential to be future front-line starters, but have a long way to go to get there.

If the Indians were to lose Masterson or, God-forbid, get off to bad start this year and trade him at the July 31 deadline, that would really anger a fan base that has yet to really forgive the team for letting go of Sabathia and Lee. While not a Cy Young pitcher, losing Masterson would be another sign that the Tribe can not keep its best players and thoughts of contention are base more on dreams than reality.

Cleveland almost has to get something done with Masterson. The hope is that the two sides can avoid arbitration and come to a good agreement on a one-year deal that makes everyone happy. That would give the Indians more than a month to try and lock up Masterson for the long-haul before the season begins. Most players do not like to talk contract during the year as it can become a distraction.

Masterson should not cost the Indians the amount Sabathia and Lee would have. However, the cost of losing him could be just as steep. Keeping him keeps a solid No. 1 starter around for the foreseeable future. Losing him means the Indians have to try and find a guy to slide into the No. 1 spot, even if that pitcher is not at that level. That is a dangerous proposition for club that would like to build on its successful 2013 run that ended with a Wild Card appearance.  It seems time for the Indians to forget about the bad deals of the last decade and take a chance on one working again.

Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

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