“Better ask questions before you shoot”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

It’s late at night as I write this, so I’m not going to waste our time by getting into the whole “Player A” vs. “Player B” game in which I wow you with the sleight of hand of statistics attached to anonymity.

Let’s just get right to it:

Justin Masterson (2011-13): 3.86 ERA, 615 1/3 IP, 100 ERA+, 1.313 WHIP, 2.24 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9, 3.71 xFIP

Jake Westbrook (2004-06): 4.01 ERA, 637 2/3 IP, 108 ERA+, 1.325 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9, 3.86 xFIP

These stats beg the question: What is Justin Masterson?

ImageWell, he’s the ace of the Indians, right?

Why, yes, of course he is. Masterson’s value to this organization in the immediate is considerable, particularly in the wake of Ubaldo Jimenez cashing in on his Mickey Callaway-aided overhaul and Trevor Bauer trending dangerously close to the “S” (or possibly, depending on your particular opinion, the “T”) in the game of B-U-S-T and Carlos Carrasco still looking like he might very well be bullpen material and so much unknown about the staying power of Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister or the secondary stuff of Danny Salazar and the presumption that there isn’t a secret assembly line pumping out another Salazar or two down in Akron and Columbus.

Add to that the influence he infuses, the clubhouse clout he wields and the generally pleasant personality he provides, and Masterson’s importance is unquestioned.

With the notable caveat that it ain’t my money, I was among the many in favor of the Indians taking Masterson up on his proposal of a shorter-term (and we now learn, via Ken Rosenthal, that it was a three-year deal with a lower average annual value than Homer Bailey’s $17.5 million arrangement with the Reds) contract, because, eternal optimist that I am, I think Masterson’s 2014 will more closely resemble his 2013 than his 2012.

But at a time when so many Tribe fans are shaking their fist at their Twitter feed and joining what DiaTriber Paul Cousineau used to call the “Dolanz R Cheep” chorus, I do think a little context counts. After all, we are all products of our times and subjects of our specific circumstances. And when you look at those above numbers, you are reminded that our perception of Masterson is significantly weighted in what’s surrounding him.

In 2014, Justin Masterson is an ace to the Indians.

In 2007, in an Indians clubhouse that contained CC Sabathia and the Artist Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona and the seeds of Cliff Lee, Justin Masterson would have been Jake Westbrook (albeit with a better strikeout rate).

ImageAnd understand, there was value in Jake Westbrook. So much value, in fact, that the Indians signed him to a three-year, $33 million extension before that ’07 season (the extension was added to his pre-existing deal running through ’07 and therefore went through 2010), knowing full well that their chances of extending CC a year later would be remote, to say the least.

But that contract proved to be cumbersome. Westbrook was a completely capable No. 3 starter in 2007, when he still yielded the budget price of $6.1 million. But he blew out his elbow in ’08, missed all of ’09 and had an ERA+ 15 percent below league average when the Indians dealt him to St. Louis midway through 2010.

So for $33 million over three years, the Indians got 26 starts and a 4.26 ERA. Not great value.

They did, however, get Kluber in the three-way trade involving the Cards and Padres, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Still, though, not great value.

None of this to say that Masterson is going to follow the same path as Westbrook (my NCAA bracket is already testament to my inability to forecast the future), but, if we can take a moment to view this news through this particular prism, it does help settle the stomach a tad.

On a psychological level, declining the opportunity to lock up your ace at what is, by today’s standards, a reasonable ace rate is troubling, and the Indians will find themselves under specific public pressure to address the rotation in other ways next winter.

But on a pure statistical level, if $33 million over three for Westbrook didn’t turn out so swell, you can certainly see the hesitancy to fork over somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million over three for Masterson.

Of course, it’s only March, which means there are a lot of directions this could still go. As it stands, Masterson is in line for the same Draft pick compensation crunch that forced Ubaldo to play the waiting game for his $50 million deal (that one stretches over four years, for the record) and prompted Ervin Santana to bite the bullet and sign the very monetary guarantee ($14.1 million) he turned down mere months earlier.

Masterson’s career, while uneven, does not contain as disastrous a dip as those two endured at certain points on their path to free agency, so I presume he’ll fare well in the free-agent field. But projecting something six months out in said field is a fool’s errand. A 2013-like effort, and the qualifying offer shouldn’t be a hurdle. A step back, and the qualifying offer could be a goal.

Time will tell, as it tends to do.

All that can reasonably be said, for now, is that the Indians are taking a big risk here. Realistically, though, it might not be any more of a risk than they’d be taking by inking a $50 million extension with a guy whose numbers have, on measure, been pretty much Jake Westbrookish over the last three years.

The PR hit hurts, both in public and clubhouse perception. But it is, of course, the public’s reluctance to embrace last year’s efforts that only encourages the long-standing need to get bang for the buck. And as we’ve seen many times over — with the Westbrook deal or the Travis Hafner deal or the Ubaldo trade, to name but a few — public perception is a moving target.

~AC

PS: In case you missed my piece on the spunkiness of this Indians squad, check it out here.

16 Comments

A team like the Tribe, with such an iffy farm system (I know their drafting is getting better, but still) really can’t stick to small-risk, club-friendly deals and expect to compete. They need to take on some risk with contracts. They showed they can do that with Bourne and Swisher (who are older than Masterson, though I get that there’s a different mindset between pitchers and position players). I typically don’t like to be a Dolan-is-cheap basher, I get the way they have to operate in a small market world, but this just seems like a big wasted opportunity, put in the context of how the 2015 rotation is set to look. Really puts a lot of pressure on Salazar and especially Bauer.

AC- please remind yourself and others that this is no longer 2007. Rather it is 2014 an we have seen inflation in baseball. Guess what, jake Westbrook in 2014 goes for $15-17M. Just complete crap. I really do hope the fans stay away in droves.

KT,
Indeed, there’s been inflation here and everywhere, but (and understand I’m just playing devil’s advocate here) do you chase a pitcher of this particular ilk at his perceived cost given your obligations elsewhere? If you pay Masterson $17 million and the payroll remains somewhat static (and aside from the usual inflationary bump, there’s really no reason to anticipate a significant rise at this point), you could be committing nearly 20% to a pitcher with — all clubhouse influence aside — No. 2 or 3-type numbers and the potential, like all pitchers, to blow out at any moment. So I get the head-and-heart battle at play here. I get the frustration of the fans, and I get the hesitancy of the front office. It’s a fascinating dilemma.

But as far as the “fans staying away in droves,” uh… that already happens.

Strong stuff, Anthony. I actually wrote about a similar post on Masterson earlier this week that does a similar breakdown. At the end of the day, just because Masterson is the “Ace” of the Indians, doesn’t make him an “Ace” across the rest of the league. Tribe fans spend too much time with obsessing over mediocrity. They need to step back and be more objective. Paying Masterson $17mil+ a year is a mistake and the Indians front office should be applauded (for once) for not giving in on a pitcher with a career ERA north of 4.00. It’d be better spent elsewhere in my opinion.

“I’d be better spent elsewhere in my opinion.”…..but I think part of the point is that it is not being spent at all.

Got no guts…get no glory.

It takes time to develop a pitcher.
This is an investment in a potential ‘ace’ which is what you need on a championship caliber team. Masterson has proved pretty durable, has a great attitude and has improved steadily. Most of his ‘lower’ numbers were acculminated while he was learning to pitch on sub-sub .500 teams. And if not Masterson, Who?
It is one thing if you think there is no window of opportunity, but if there is one, it is the duty of the owner to step up and make it happen. Why? because second place sucks! This was as team friendly as a deal gets.
C’mon, Paul.

Masterson’s potential is way higher than Westbrook’s ever was. With Masterson, it’s more about what he WILL become than what he’s been.

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Anthony:

I agree totally. My feelings are, I hope they sign Materson….but…..if they don’t I understand and will not be shouting “Cheap Dolans”. Its unfortunate that we won’t know until late in this season if Masterson has finally turned the corner and put two solid seasons together, something that is missing from his resume. By that time it will likely be too late as his value will have risen markedly. If he has a poor to average year, well then its a good thing they didn’t commit the big bucks.

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