The Cleveland Indians vs. Arbitration


Sep 28, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley (23) waits in the on deck circle in the fourth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports The Cleveland Indians won 5-1.

Indians Haven’t Gone to Arbitration Since 1991

The Cleveland Indians are in a bit of a pickle. Six players on their current roster filed for arbitration on Tuesday, but no two loom as large as their number one starter, Justin Masterson, and their everyday starting left fielder, Michael Brantley.

For the Indians, the strategy has always been to avoid going to arbitration with any player. The philosophy being that there is no real way to win in arbitration from the point of view of the team. With the inflation of player salaries as they are along with most players being able to make compelling arguments for raises based on all sorts or numbers and fancy math, it makes it next to impossible for an arbiter’s decision to favor the team. And even if it did, then the organization is faced with slighting the player by underpaying him and thus limiting the chances of signing the player long-term in the future.

So as previously mentioned, arbitration is a definite lose-lose for the organization.

The last time the Indians went to arbitration with a player was back in 1991 with Greg Swindell. In the end, the Indians paid Swindell in excess of $2-million dollars to go 9-16 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 33 starts. Not bad, but certainly not worth the money spent back in 1991.

Now the Indians find themselves in a less than ideal position with two of their primary cogs from the 2013 season. Traditionally, they would make offers to both players before arbitration could begin with the hope that they would agree to sign without the help of an independent third party who is likely to inflate their salaries past a point that they are comfortable spending. Between the two, Brantley’s situation should be the easiest to remedy.

After making a paltry $526,900 in 2013, Michael Brantley deserves a raise. He earned it by posting a .284/.332/..396 slash line with a career high 10 home runs and 73 RBI. His versatility to hit virtually anywhere in the lineup while also playing a solid defensive left field made his salary a bargain. MLB Trade Rumors has estimated that Brantley should expect to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.7 million in 2014. A significant raise no matter how you look at it.

For the Indians, the obvious play is to offer Brantley an extension that would take them through his arbitration years. As it stand now, Brantley is not eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season, meaning that the Indians could choose to try to lock him up for the next three seasons for a much lower price than what he could probably earn in arbitration, provided he continued on his current career path. If they really wanted to get crazy, they could possibly even try to buy out a year or two of Brantley’s free agent years. At the age of 26, he still has several season with which to play at a high level. Either way, we should fully expect them to reach agreement with Brantley before hitting arbitration.

Jul 10, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Justin Masterson (63) delivers in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

As for Justin Masterson, this could get messy. Right now, Masterson is eligible to hit the free agent market following this season. Given his status as a number one pitcher on a playoff contender, he can make the case for a significant raise for the 2014 season and then hit free agency looking to cash in for 2015 and beyond. The Indians need to decide, and soon, whether or not they are all in on Masterson as their ace and whether or not they are willing to commit to him ling-term.

Again, MLB Trade Rumors projects that Masterson should earn somewhere around $9.7-million for 2014. This is an increase from the $5.7-million he earned in 2013. That is a significant raise for a team like the Indians who has to be cost conscious of every dollar they spend.

It has been reported that Masterson is open to the possibility of remaining with the Indians long-term and is willing to talk about an extension. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it won’t come cheap. We’re not talking C.C. Sabathia money, but paying Masterson would require a significant financial commitment from the Indians. Right now, Masterson could expect to make anywhere from $65-$85-million in a five year deal. That of course isn’t taking into account what Masterson might accomplish on the mound this upcoming season or the ridiculous way in which pitchers salaries inflated this past offseason. Right now Masterson’s market value maxes out at $85-million, but if he turns in another season like he did in 2013 it is not outside the realm of reason that someone offers up $100+ million for his services.

Therefore, it becomes that much more critical that the Indians make a decision on Masterson sooner rather than later. The price for quality pitching isn’t going down. It is only going to continue to increase with each and every passing year. If the Indians believe they have a legitimate top of the rotation starter in Justin Masterson, then they need to seriously consider extending him to a long-term deal while they still have the inside track. Otherwise, and we’ve seen this scenario play out before, it may be time to consider alternate moves involving Masterson, the likes of which won’t make the fan base very happy.

It’s hard to say which way the Masterson scenario will play out. At this current juncture there is no telling which way either side is leaning. Are the Indians willing to commit long-term and tie up big money in one player, or will they opt to roll the dice and see what happens after 2014. Likewise, is Masterson more willing to opt for the security of a long-tern extension now, or will he risk playing out the 2014. Another year long performance similar to 2013 is likely going to make him a very rich man, but if he should regress, or even worse get hurt, he could lose it all.

Regardless, this is one of the more interesting plot lines heading into the 2014 season and is sure to cast a black cloud over spring training, especially if a long-term deal isn’t agree upon. Right now I would have to say that both sides are probably more inclined to extend now rather than play the odds, but you just never know. So stay tuned Tribe fans, this is about to get very interesting.