Indians Should Consider All Options With Justin Masterson
In a world where Scott Kazmir can parlay ten wins over a three-year span into a 22 million dollar contract, one has to wonder if the Indians will ever spend what it will take to keep an elite pitcher. The risks of a long-term deal for any pitcher are obvious, but any team that wants to enjoy a sustained run of contention needs to either pay successful pitchers to stick around or generate a steady supply of talent from its farm system.
While it is possible to fantasize about a rotation of Salazar, Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco and McAllister being under team control for at least the next four years and being strong enough to keep the Indians in contention throughout that time, the odds of all five of those guys staying healthy and reaching their potential are long, to put it mildly. And there is little depth behind them in the farm system if the need arises.
So the Indians need to do something by the end of the 2014 season to address the rotation or risk the possibility of being doomed to mediocrity because of it.
In my mind, there are three options:
- Sign Ubaldo Jimenez to a multi-year contract.
- Sign Justin Masterson to an extension.
- Trade Masterson for one or more pitchers we can control for several years.
- Bonus: Sign Ubaldo for one year, giving you the leverage to trade Masterson immediately.
Trading Masterson now would give the team that trades for him the ability to receive a draft pick if they lose him as a free agent after this season. If the Indians trade him in June the team that gets him would risk losing him with no compensation. This should increase the quality of the package the Indians receive in return, which is essential, because whoever they get will need to be ready to take Jimenez’ spot by 2015 at the latest.
While it would be nice to have Masterson for one more year, it seems obvious that at the end of that year you will get only a draft pick for him. It would be much better to get a player who is closer to being ready for the major leagues, and could thus blend in with the young pitchers already on the roster to form a strong rotation for the next 3-4 years.
It is, of course, questionable whether Jimenez would take a one-year deal. Doing so would put him at risk of being in precisely the same position a year from now, because there would be no guarantee that he would not be offered a qualifying deal again. Jimenez’ inconsistency is another reason that he would be unlikely to take a one-year deal; it has to be in the back of his mind that he could revert to his 2012 self and end up working for fifth-starter wages for the rest of his career. But if Jimenez doesn’t get the deal he wants within the next couple of weeks, he may decide that his best play is get as much as he this year and try again next year. If that happens, I believe the Indians should be willing to spend up to $15-million to secure him for next year.
Doing this would enable the Indians to flip Masterson for assets that they can control for a number of years. The Oakland A’s have done this several times, moving Dan Haren, Gio Gonzalez and Brett Anderson in recent years for younger pitchers who were in many cases able to step in and keep the team in contention. This is a good strategy for teams that can’t spend 100 million on payroll, because it increases the likelihood of having enough depth in the pitching staff to withstand injuries or lean years of prospect development. If the Indians determine that they cannot afford to keep Justin Masterson beyond this season, they should strongly consider this course of action.
The tougher question would be if the Indians should deal Justin Masterson if they are unable to secure Ubaldo Jimenez or a similar pitcher as a stopgap. My inclination is to say no, unless they can secure in return someone who is ready immediately. Even then, the opportunity to do something special this year would take priority over building for the future. While a general manager gets paid to make sure he can sustain success for the next several years, the reality is that 2014 may be the best shot the Indians have to win anything in this decade. A team lacking a true ace at the front of its rotation starts its season a step behind the other contenders. If I couldn’t acquire someone of similar talent as a short-term replacement, I would hang on to Justin Masterson and go for it this year.