It has seemed clear that, if the Indians reached a point where it became clear that they were not going to contend and that they had no chance of resigning Justin Masterson, they would begin to entertain trade offers. The question that has popped into my mind lately is whether they want to wait that long.
The Indians have four options with Masterson: offer him enough money to prevent him from getting to free agency, let him pitch this season then walk as a free agent, give him the one-year tender offer which would guarantee them either another year of his services or a first round pick if he signs with another team, or trade him at some point before the July 31 trade deadline. The impasse that was reached during offseason negotiations seems to take the first option off the table, especially given Masterson’s struggles so far this season. The options of whether to let him walk or give him the tender offer are decisions that do not need to be made until after the season. That leaves the decision of whether to trade him before that point.
The natural assumption has been that the Indians would keep Masterson for the entire season if they remain in contention. That has been based on the assumption that their chances of making the playoffs would be enhanced with Masterson on the roster. However, that is only the case if his last three starts prior to his excellent outing on Monday turn out to be an aberration and not a trend. Excluding his previous start in Chicago, which was short-circuited by rain, in that span Masterson allowed 32 baserunners in 15.1 innings, a level of performance which could be likely matched by any random pitcher plucked from the Columbus roster. Granted, the most recent start was on three days’ rest, so we would be justified in giving him a pass for that one, but in looking at his game log for the season prior to Monday there are only three starts where he has been truly effective: the opener against Oakland; a six inning, two run performance against Toronto where he gave up eight baserunners but struck out nine, and the seven innings of shutout ball against Chicago on May 3.
So, do the Indians cut their losses and get something now for Masterson? This would be an easier question to answer if Zach McAllister was healthy and Danny Salazar had been effective. A rotation of McAllister, Salazar, Tomlin, Bauer, and Kluber, aside from being the likely 2015 rotation, has the potential to be effective enough to keep the Indians in contention, without Masterson, provided those two come around. It would, however, leave the Indians with little depth for their rotation, a situation brought into stark relief with the recent promotion of T.J. House for a spot start. Even with his shaky start, Masterson would net at least a pitcher who could provide rotation depth for the immediate future, whereas they would have nothing but a hole to fill if he is allowed to leave as a free agent. This could be crucial for next season, since the farm system lacks anyone who resembles a candidate for the rotation at this point.
So what should Chris Antonetti do? The reality is that he won’t deal Masterson until he decides that the chances of a playoff bid are all but eliminated. Riding their recent hot streak, the Indians are only 3 games out in the AL Central and even closer in the wild card race. You can either view this as a team that has remained in the race despite not really jelling yet, or as a team with too many flaws to make a sustained run. The reality is that you can mask a lot of deficiencies if you get consistent starting pitching. To me that means at least four guys in the rotation who are putting up quality starts more often than not. Corey Kluber (nine QS in twelve starts) and Josh Tomlin (three in five) look like they fit that criteria. If you think Trevor Bauer can maintain what he has shown in his first four starts, you would only need one more consistent starter to reach a point where the Indians could sustain some momentum.
Therein lies the quandary facing the Indians. If they keep Masterson and he begins to struggle again, they have little chance of contending. However, trading him leaves a hole in the rotation that would be too big to overcome even if McAllister makes a complete recovery from his back issues.
My guess is this will sort itself out a bit in the next month. If Masterson continues to pitch the way he did on Monday, and
McAllister can return to the rotation within the next week as is currently projected, the Indians would have the most stability in their rotation that they have had all season. That would be the best chance all season to put together a sustained run and get into real contention. If the Indians still can’t make up ground under those circumstances, it seems logical to conclude that this just isn’t their year. In that case there would be nothing to lose by dealing Masterson, sooner rather than later so as to get him on the market well before the trade deadline, when the market will be saturated and teams can offer less to get what they want.