It’s safe to say the bottom has fallen out of the 2012 Indians season. After being swept by the lowly Minnesota Twins, trade speculation is swirling and the Indians appear poised to be sellers yet again, with the usual names like Chris Perez and Shin-Soo Choo being thrown around as the bait.
But on Sunday, a new name was thrown into the ring, one that doesn’t make as much sense at first glance, but could be a telling sign of how far away the team really thinks they are: Justin Masterson is now apparently on the block.
At 26, Masterson should be the epitome of what the Indians want on their roster: a good, young, controllable player. Yes, he’s arbitration-eligible, but the Indians avoid arbitration like the plague anyways. He was their Opening Day starter and the ace of a surprising staff last year. He silenced doubters (including myself), who loved to snark that the team traded Victor Martinez for three young relievers by posting encouraging numbers (3.21 ERA, 1.28 WHIP in 216 innings) in the rotation last year; FanGraphs valued his performance at 4.9 wins above replacement.
This year, the results have not been there as he holds a 4.47 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP in 139 innings pitched. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story as he’s striking more guys out (6.9 K/9 in 2012, up from 6.6 K/9 in 2011), but his wildness is costing him. He allowed 65 walks in all of last year for a 2.7 BB/9 rate; this year he already has 58 walks already, for a 3.7 BB/9 rate.
Part of the reason for the wildness might be Masterson’s pitch selection. In 2011, 84 percent of Masterson’s pitches were fastballs, usually around 93 MPH. He threw sinkers and sliders 14.9 percent of the time, and mixed in his changeup in less than 1 percent of his pitches. But things have changed in 2012. Masterson is using the fastball less (79 percent) and the sinkers and sliders more (21 percent). Part of that is a loss in velocity on Masterson’s fastball— it’s down about 1 mph this year, so he’s been forced to rely more on his secondary pitches. And so far, they haven’t been working.
Masterson is trying to become a complete pitcher rather than a bullpen guy who starts, and it seems the rest of the league has caught up to him. For the record, Masterson hasn’t been awful; he’s still amassed 2.1 fWAR. That’s not bad, but it’s certainly not what you want for the ace of your supposedly contending staff.
Now, the choice the Indians face is this: Do they try to ride it out with Masterson and hope they were right all along that he could start and that this is just a growing pain for him? Or would they rather trade him now to avoid getting stuck holding the bag when the league figures out he just can’t overpower opposing hitters every start?
There’s more to this question than just the Indians’ faith in their ace. if the team admits they made a mistake on Masterson, the whole “window of contention” we’re supposedly approaching is slammed shut. They won’t replace him with anyone better via trade, and even if they could get a top-notch pitching prospect like Shelby Miller or Dylan Bundy in return the deal wouldn’t start paying dividends until at least a couple years down the road.
The key here is not to look at the Tribe’s’ flirting with the idea of trading Masterson as crying poor. The Dolans are usually the fans’ scapegoats for unpopular moves like this would be, but the issue here is far more troubling than the owners’ alleged willingness to pay for talented players. By dealing Masterson for future help, the Indians would be admitting that they screwed up—the guy they told us could be the ace of the staff for years to come is really more of a bullpen arm, and the team’s postseason ETA is much later than 2012 or 2013. And that idea is incredibly disheartening.
I understand the economic system baseball works under nowadays. I get that the Indians are basically hung out to dry by Major League Baseball and I’m fully sympathetic to the difficulties of running a small-market team. You’d have to look hard to find a bigger supporter of the front office than I am. But dealing Masterson would be a tacit admission that things haven’t worked out the way they were supposed to.
When the Indians traded Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for Ubaldo Jimenez last year, the message was that this team was ready to compete. Regardless of what you thought of the players involved, trading two of our top prospects for a proven ace signaled that this front office felt this team was close to contending. But if you don’t believe Masterson is an ace, why trade near-MLB-ready guys who could be anchors in the pitching staff?
The problem isn’t that the team took a chance and it didn’t pay off. The problem is the implicit confession that the front office doubled down on a team they didn’t really believe in.
I’m not sure what the Indians should do with Masterson. But I am sure that the following statements are true:
- Trading Masterson is an admission that we were wrong about him.
- Trading Masterson is an admission that we were wrong about this team.
- Trading Masterson means we have no “window of contention” in 2013.
This next statement I also believe to be true, but I can’t confirm it: If the Cleveland Indians trade Justin Masterson, it will create even more apathy towards the team. Beyond the fact that they’d be trading a fan favorite (I’m never against trading a guy just because he’s a “fan favorite,” but it’s something to consider), it doesn’t really matter how great the return package is. Most fans wouldn’t see past the symbolism.
The bottom line is that if Justin Masterson is traded this season, we as Indians fans will have been misled about two important things: that this team is a contender, and that the front office waited to gear up for a playoff run until the team was really ready for it. And if that’s the case, we’re in for a long period of misery at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.