By Jason Ruggiero
I’m going to put this as clearly and simply as I can. By not signing Justin Masterson the Indians are blowing it.
What is it you might ask? Nothing too important, just a chance to keep a clubhouse leader, a front of the rotation starter, a guy that wants to stay in Cleveland and a good role model for young fans. Just an opportunity to prove to a fan base, that about a year ago was on the brink of total revolt, that you are in fact interested in building a winning team.
In case you missed it, it was widely reported today that extension talks between the Cleveland Indians and Justin Masterson have broken off after the Indians balked at giving Masterson $17 million a year. I know, it’s a lot of money, I know Masterson has never had two great back-to-back seasons and I know that contract would take up about 20% of the Indians total payroll but what are the other options?
The harsh reality is that good pitching is expensive. Sure there are doubts that Masterson is a “true #1 starter” but in case you haven’t been paying attention – $17 million a year isn’t true #1 starter money anymore. $17 million for Masterson is just about right and the Indians front office was lucky enough that their best pitcher, on the verge of free agency (and just weeks after Homer Bailey signed a 6 yr./$105 million deal) proposed that he would consider a two or three year contract.
Think for a moment about how often that situation occurs. The correct answer – never.
Right now Masterson is in the top tier of his pending free agent class. In the open market he could easily match Bailey’s deal. But instead he offered his current team a two or three year contract!
I know all about the qualifying offer system and its impact but Justin Masterson is no Ubaldo Jimenez. Someone will make Masterson a rich man next year and they won’t worry about the draft pick they lost.
In spite of all that, the Indians have decided that $17 million is too high for the one guy in their rotation that you can count on . . . for anything. Corey Kluber has awesome stuff, but he suffered a weird finger injury and has one MLB season of experience. Zach McAllister had a weird finger injury too – and he looks awful this spring. Danny Salazar has made ten starts in major league games and has a lot of durability concerns. Then you’ve got Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer and they each haven concerns.
It’s true, imagining next year’s rotation without Masterson could be ugly but that’s not even the most depressing part. The most aggravating and depressing part is that Masterson gave ownership and the front office the chance to look like heroes. He gave them a chance to put a bow on top of all their recent accomplishments and they blew it.
Instead, by not signing Masterson, they will fall right back into the cycle of negativity that they were so close to breaking out of. I don’t know that signing Masterson makes Progressive Field full again but I can’t see how it hurts. I know they got burned on contracts to Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner but so what? They’re never going to sign another player again? If they sign Masterson then all the “Dolanz are cheep” commenters look like even bigger fools and the Plain-Dealer’s focus on all the negatives looks silly. But now? Now those comments look spot on.
Imagine this scenario – a struggling team pulls off a coup by signing an incredibly renowned manager. They back this up by opening up their wallet and signing two upper-level free agents. Then they rattle off a playoff season where their homegrown second basemen goes to the All-Star game and they get to show off their hot new pitching prospect in the playoff push. That off-season they lock up a young outfielder and are discussing an extension with the second baseman. To top it all off they sign their best pitcher to an extension – partly because he likes the town and wants to stay.
Does that sound like the kind of team run by a bunch of polo-shirted hacks? No, that looks like a team that is on its way to building a consistent winner. Too bad this story might end differently.
Now here’s the really sad part – a consistent winner is the one and only way to build a consistent fan base. You can’t count on having 20,000 walk-ups every night. That means the only way to build ticket revenue is to have season ticket holders and season ticket holders aren’t going to pay all that money for a crappy product (unless we’re talking about Browns season tickets of course).
How do you build a consistent winner? Well you build a good farm system, sign young players to long-term contracts and exploit market inefficiencies for starters. But what you don’t do, what you never, ever do, is let your best pitcher expose you as being cheap.
You never talk about mitigating risk because of limited resources and when your best pitcher offers you a contract where he assumes the bulk of the risk you turn him down.
No. No, you never do that because then you just blew it.