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Orbiting Cleveland: Discussing the Masterson case

IBI regulars Steve Orbanek, Jim Pete and Michael Hattery chime in on Masterson

Orbiting Cleveland: Discussing the Masterson case
March 28, 2014
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t's now been over a week since news broke that the negotiations between the Cleveland Indians and Justin Masterson fell through. It's been a polarizing topic for Indians' fans since then as many seem to believe a deal should have gotten done. The IBI's Jim Pete, Michael Hattery and Steve Orbanek also have some thoughts on the topic, and they share them this week in an e-mail chain discussion on the topic.

Steve Orbanek: Gentlemen, as hard as it may be to believe, the 2014 MLB season is set to commence in just a couple days. That must mean either time moves too quickly or I'm starting to get old. Heck, it's probably a combination of both.

Nonetheless, it's crazy how quickly last season has blurred into this one. There's plenty of storylines out there surrounding the Cleveland Indians, but I wanted to gauge both of your thoughts on the situation with Justin Masterson.

A few weeks back we heard news that Justin Masterson wanted to take a shorter deal to stay with the Indians. He then was even quoted in the media as saying, "I figure somehow, someway I'll end up still being here for a few more years." The situation seemed too good to be true, right?

Well, not exactly. Last week, Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Masterson and agent Randy Rowley offered a two-year and a three-year proposal, with the two-year offer coming in at roughly $35 million and the three-year offer coming in at roughly $51 million. The years are certainly nice, but it would be hard to imagine the Indians paying more than $17 million annually for a starting pitcher. Since this news broke, it's now being reported that talks have broke down and Masterson will likely be a free agent.

But my question to both of you is this: Should talks have broken down? The money is certainly a lot, but as you have pointed out many times Pete, it's usually more about years with the Indians, and should the team have had interest in the two-year deal?

My concern now is that they let Ubaldo Jimenez walk on a below-market deal to the Baltimore Orioles, and now they risk losing Mastersonn too? Just like that, two front-of-the-rotation arms are now gone. That's placing a lot of faith onDanny Salazar moving forward, and does it also show that they expect Corey Kluber to develop into a front-of-the-rotation starter?

Of course, the other thinking here is that they may have a lot of faith in Trevor Bauer and Cody Anderson and the future impact they can make to the rotation. Either way, it's kind of hard to believe that both Jimenez and Masterson could get away, especially considering both deals would not have been backbreakers to the Indians.

Jim Pete: Well, first and foremost, we have to take into account that the Indians have only formally signed one player heading into their walk year, and that was the Jake Westbrook, three-year, $33-million extension. The Indians have never signed players like this before, and haven't since. While I'm annoyed by this news, and while I certainly don't agree with it with regards to sustaining team success over the years, I am not surprised by it at all, as I've wrote about many, many times.

I can't predict the future, and I'm not really sure where all of this is heading, but it does look as though the Indians are counting on the qualifying offer, Masterson turning it down, and the Indians taking the pick. This would also suggest that the Indians are going to try and build the minor league system, which they haven't shown a propensity for in, well, a long, long time, especially when you consider starting pitchers. Now a case can be made that it's improving, but I would suggest that what's improving is the overall floor of the system. I'm not yet convinced that they've done a nice job creating a ceiling, past Lindor.

I'm not happy with this. If your numbers are correct Steve, and they would have taken a two-year, $35 million deal, and the Indians said no, then I have no clue what they are doing. If this team isn't willing to sustain at least a season or two of salary to take it to the next level (or even stay at a decent level), I don't know what their short or long-term plans are at this point. While I realize that they'll have a substantial amount of money wrapped up into contracts heading into 2015, if ultimately it builds trust in the fan base, and if ultimately it creates a foundation for a World Series run, they you ultimately build this team for improved finances going forward.

Maybe there is more to this than meets the eye, but it's hard to fathom that the Indians couldn't get something done.

Here's what I know. If the Indians aren't signing Masterson, than the long-term plan better be to sign Salazar, Kluber and McAllister longterm, followed by Cody Anderson.

And that's not to mention Jason Kipnis. He's on the verge of a big year. If he has it, they won't be able to touch a long-term deal.

They have signed Santana and Brantley, so perhaps that's the first volley of signings for players pre-arbitration, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Michael Hattery: I have to confess before I consider this in any sort of critical light that I am highly disappointed. The deal Materson offered isn't exactly cheap, but two years for $35 million would be pretty fair in terms of expected WAR value, with limited risk because of the limited length.

For all intents and purposes, I am surprised the Tribe couldn't get a deal done. Be it Masterson's willingness to stay or Francona's love of Justin, I can't help but be shocked when I hear negotiations have cooled. For a team that talked about building something special here, when Swisher talked about moving forward, I expected that Masterson would be part of that dynamic.

Yet, the Indians have struggled to extend the essentials. While we discuss having a young core, we have successfully extended one star of this team beyond arbitration, in Santana. I love Michael Brantley, but the deal wasn't exactly a bargain and he would not have priced himself out of the Indians budget.

To me extending Brantley was a face-saving move, rather than based on monetary value. The front office understood that Brantley is one of the most beloved players on this roster, and an extension of him would earn them some political capital in the fan base.

Effectively, for the Indians to build around this core they would need to extend three or maybe four players. Kipnis, Santana, Masterson and maybe Kluber. They are one for four so far.

Two more pieces that interest me. The Indians have one of the most saber-minded front offices in baseball. I think they believe Kluber can replace Masterson as a front of the rotation guy. Probably not an ace but front of the rotation. This is because his peripherals were outstanding and his arsenal is plus. In fact, if I were a gambling man, I would bet on Kluber outperforming Masterson in 2014.

Lastly, an odd suggestion, or perhaps brash related to the immense talent Danny Salazar. If you are going to let Masterson walk, why not buy out Salazar's arbitration years and tack on two reasonable cost option years. It helps eliminate risk on both sides, you convince Salazar that it eliminates some risk for him because of his injury issues, provides financial certainty. For the Indians it offers huge potential upside in terms of financial value, as you would have low costs locked in for a potential ace. Food for thought.

Orbanek: Michael, I do not doubt your assessment that Kluber could outperform Masterson in 2014. In fact, I would even say that I agree with you. With his wide arsenal, there seems to be a strong possibility that he can develop into a front-of-the-rotation type. However, I don't know if that's an excuse for them to just disregard the fact that Masterson was willing to sign a two-year deal. As you mentioned, there really is limited risk when it comes down to two years.

It becomes even more unforgivable when you realize that they will essentially be letting both Masterson and Jimenez walk. I mean, take a look at those two deals. So, the one proposed Masterson deal is for two years and $35 million. The deal that Jimenez signed with the Orioles was for four years and $50 million. In both cases, there is a noticeable factor that would scare the Indians away. In Masterson's case, it's the annual salary committment and in Jimenez's case, it's the length of the deal.

So, yes, we can agree that neither deal was the perfect Indians deal. But when exactly are the Indians going to find that perfect deal? Should we, from now on, never expect the Indians to extend a starting pitcher? I just do not know when they will find a better situation than the one they had this year with both Masterson and Jimenez. Hell, you could argue that they should have re-signed both players.

I'm not one for being pessimistic. In fact, I try to refrain from it whenever possible. But it's just hard to be satisfied with all of this.

Pete: The counter to all of this is taking the very realistic approach that the Indians don't value Masterson as a $17 million a year pitcher, and that Homer Bailey was grossly overpaid. Now I'm not necessarily agreeing with that mentality, but the Indians have been fairly consistent with that.

They may be focusing their assets on position players, and it would be a fun argument to have, debating the value of a player that is in the lineup seven days a week, vs. signing a guy that pitches once or twice a week. That's not what this is about though.

My question to you guys is if the Indians don't sign a guy like Kluber or McAllister or Salazar in Masterson's stead, what are the Indians doing with regards to pitching? The Indians haven't had a history of developing starters. Is there a belief that there is enough in the coffers in Anderson, Bauer and some others such as Dylan Baker, as well as faith in drafting starters in the future, that the Indians can afford to allow every good starter to walk at the end of their arbitration?

Should we call this the "Jake Westbrook Rule?"

Orbanek: I think the "Jake Westbrook Rule" is an appropriate term, and I think we might as well go ahead and copyright that term while we're at it. Kudos to Pete.

A case could be made that they are focusing on re-signing position players, but I don't think that really should help them save face in this situation. Anyway that you slice it, I think it's clear that the Indians should have made an effort to ensure that one of either Masterson or Jimenez would be in the fold for the next few years. That does not seem to be case, and that's troubling.

Also, I don't think the Michael Brantley extension should be looked upon as a possible saving grace either. As Michael said earlier, Brantley likely would have never priced himself outside of the Indians' budget anyhow. Sure, it does look nice, and it's a solid move and a solid PR move at that. However, you cannot compare the value that Brantley brings to a potential front of the rotation starter like Masterson or Jimenez.

So, just curious and for the sake of discussion only, if the Indians could only make one of the two moves, which would you prefer? So to be more precise, would you rather the team sign Masterson to a two-year extension worth $35 million or Jimenez to a four-year deal worth $50 million? You both know my answer, so I do not feel the need to elaborate, but I am curious to hear your answers as well. There's no right or wrong answer, and I also do not think it's as simple as it might appear.

Hattery: I am going to take the plunge. I don't want either Masterson or Ubaldo Jimenez at that cost. Well I do but I don't. As a baseball fan I have dissociative identity disorder. On one hand is fan boy Mike, a guy who cannot bear to see a man like Masterson walk out the door. Justin Masterson by all accounts is one of the finest men to ever don an Indians uniform, and his performance less season was integral to success. I would love to see him in Cleveland for the next three or four years.

Truthfully when it comes to the attrition rate among starting pitchers and the aging curve, the Indians front offices strict adherence to the "Jake Westbrook Rule" is one that is well founded. Rational, saber leaning Mike understands that for the Indians, Masterson and Jimenez are luxuries/risks that we simply cannot afford to retain.

Fan boy Mike would have loved to extend either Ubaldo or Masterson so as to have confidence in the rotation for the course of the next three or four years, or at least familiarity with two likable, hard working guys. Rational Mike is ready to move on, trust the future of this rotation to Salazar, Kluber, Anderson, Bauer, McAllister, Tomlin/Carrasco.

The only contract that I truly would have done in a second, Scott Kazmir, and well that one is mostly fan boy Mike as well.

Orbanek: Mike, you make a good point there. As fans, yes, it is easy to point the finger in this situation, but why exactly are we surprised? Neither one of these contracts would be typical of the Indians, and if we do subscribe to the "Jake Westbrook Rule," then why would we ever believe that the Indians would make such a move?

Nonetheless, as a fan, I am terribly disappointed that neither one of these guys will be Indians for the long term, especially my boy Jimenez. And the truth is that unless the Indians have a solid young pitcher in his pre-arbitration years, then there is likely a good chance that he won't be extended. There is just no blue print to point to anything else with the Indians.

So, in the years beyond 2014, the Indians are definitely going to be in need of some high-upside starting pitchers. Both the Indians and the fanboys in us all had better hope that either Trevor Bauer or Cody Anderson turn out to be something special.

Pete: In the grand scheme of things, I have no problem with this mentality. The Rays have been utilizing it for years, and it has paid off for them in many different ways. They've developed many young, talented starters (and not all first round prospects), they've been able to overlap them and slow build them to make sure they've built up their arms, they've been able to use them effectively, and they've been able to deal them, for the most part, for replenishment.

I would love for the Indians to subscribe to this sort of mentality for some time, but their draft picks have been suspect, to say the least, and they haven't taken the approach that the Rays have taken, and signed their young starters to long-term deals when it's cost effective. Of course, that's not a risk aversive strategy for the Indians in that young pitchers are susceptible to injury and non-performance, but the flip-side is you could sign a young star to a deal into their free agent years at a fraction of a cost.

Great teams are able to put together a front office that can put all this together. The Indians have struggled at finding these types of players, molding them, and developing them. If they did this, then Masterson really would be an afterthought.

The fact that he's not seems to be an organizational struggle to keep and maintain young pitchers. Now, there does seem to be a general up-tick in talent at the position, but the Indians are still in a "can't-miss" phase because they just don't have an overabundance of MLB starting potential long-term.

At the end of the day, I understand why the Indians are taking this approach with their free agent starters. What I don't understand is how they are throwing all their eggs into the same basket with a group of pitchers that truly have an abundance of questions. I know the upside of all these guys, but I fear that the "can't-miss" aspect of all this could be an issue this year, and in the coming years, if they aren't able to find another Kazmir, or make a commitment to a free agent.

Steve can be reached via email at orbaneks@gmail.com.

User Comments

Matt underwood
March 29, 2014 - 5:59 PM EDT
I wouldn't mind letting him walk or trading him if I had any faith this organization could target, draft or develop talent
pathofkindness
March 29, 2014 - 2:02 PM EDT
Nice article guys, thanks! -- of course it always helps if I agree with what you are writing, which in this case, I do... 8--)

Even though I hated to see any of our top pitchers go, and the fan in me wants to keep them all, I think the Tribe ultimately made the right move not going 4yrs/$50m for Ubaldo (although I think that could end up being a very good deal for the Orioles). We'll see. I have similar feelings about Kazmir.

I also felt very early on that there was no way that Masterson was ever going to give a hometown discount on $'s. Why should he? There's no reason, and there's a whole lot of pressure on the players to maximize contract $'s. The two years is however, IMO, a very significant hometown 'discount'. Despite past history w Westbrook & others, I cannot believe that 2yrs/$35m doesn't get done. Somehow. Oh well...

Trading Masterson HAS to be an option now, and I imagine that it would make sense, or not, relative to what is being offered for him. Obviously, we don't know what that looks like.

So, if we could get a good return I think we should deal him. I don't think that the PR factor could be any worse than it is right now, so don't think they take a hit if they dealt Justin. People get it. Yes, trades for prospects are going to be risky, but they are much less risky than betting on future draft picks. For example, I think that Tampa is probably pretty happy about having Myers in their outfield and Odirizzi in their starting rotation for years instead of seeing Shields walk for a draft pick. Heck, that's how we got Masterson in the first place. These things do work out pretty well sometimes.

Looks to me like the Tribe FO is not being proactive here but is a little stuck, not able to get deals done...8--(
Rich
March 29, 2014 - 9:46 AM EDT
The problem with trading Masterson is you're going to get guys like we got for Cliff Lee - Carrasco and Knapp. Or guys like the Rockies got for Ubaldo - Pomeranz and White.

Or like when we traded Choo for a blue chip starting prospect - Trevor Bauer.

They really should try to sign Masterson long term. They won't be able to trade him as long as they're in contention or they'll lose whatever fan base they have left. They were able to trade Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez in-season because they were out of contention those years.
Chip
March 29, 2014 - 1:47 AM EDT
In my opinion there is only 2 options that make sense for this club.
1. Sign Masterson to a 2-3 yr deal at or close to his asking
price.
2. Trade Masterson early in the season.
A franchise that cannot afford to extend good players cannot afford to allow them to walk for 1 sandwich pick either. I don't care which avenue they choose, but they need to be frugal about expelling any and all value from key players that they cannot afford to extend.

As I thought at the very moment Kazmir signed with the A's. Not offering him the same contract he signed was nothing short of stupid if they don't sign Masterson. I truly love the Indians, but it sure is frustrating seeing how this team is ran at times. As far as Jimenez is concerned, he would've had to have another solid season to convince me to extend him. I wish him well though.
Walter
March 28, 2014 - 11:01 PM EDT
Masterson has to prove he could be a dominant pitcher, and at this point he has not. One good year followed by a bad year. Since he is in his contract year there is a good chance he could break that streak.

Because of the risks of every pitcher being a pitch away from TJS, there contracts should not be guaranteed in my opinion.
Roger
March 28, 2014 - 9:20 PM EDT
i wonder if we could go 32 for 15 and 16 and based on 200 innings each year would automatic trigger 18million for 2017 that is yes 50 million for 3 yrs but the innings threashold for 2017 guarantees that the first two years are productive and worth the 16 million avg paid to him. i agree that paying a pitcher a half a million bucks a start is a lot of money where it is brown who signed for 15 million or johan santana who wasnt worth half the money the mets paid him however that is the game being played today. sometimes you have to go along wth the program based on what others are doing. I thinkth etigers are out of their minds giving contracts like they are apparently doing with an owner who is 84 or so. However mrs ilitch owns a casino in downtown detroit and he gambling a lot of money on miggie verlander and sanchez however i do think that maybe the indians should reexamine on the terms i listed above they may allready have offered that but if they are low balling at say less than 30mill for 2 years then shame on them if masty becomes a dominant starting pitcher worth every dime the team is paying.

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