Is Justin Masterson Worth Considering?

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Could the Indians look to bring back their former ace?

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We all know how fond the Indians are of reclamation projects.  If there is a pitcher out there with a few warts and decent upside who can be had for a million bucks or so, rest assured that Chris Antonetti will kick the tires.  Well, nobody with an expiring contract comes out of the 2014 season with more warts than

Justin Masterson

.  So is it even plausible that the Indians will consider a return engagement with their former ace?

It may be that nobody has ever screwed themselves in a contract year more than Masterson did this year.  After turning down a three year deal rumored to be for 45 million dollars, Masterson was among the worst pitchers in the major leagues in 2014.  Not only is he unlikely to be offered a multiyear deal at this point, he will probably prefer a one year deal so he can try to re-establish his value.  Based on last year’s free agent class, the most similar situations to Masterson are Jason Hammel, (who signed a one year deal for six million), Joe Saunders, (one year, 1.5 million), and Tommy Hansen (one year, two million).   At this point it is hard to imagine Masterson getting more than three or four million on a one year deal.

Aug 2, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Justin Masterson (63) hits a single off of Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Kyle Lohse (not pictured) during the second inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The question is whether he is a worthwhile investment for the Indians even at that reduced price.  Certainly, if Masterson can return to his 2013 form, he would fit in perfectly behind Cory Kluber as the number two starter, which would take a lot of pressure off of the young starters expected to form the remainder of the rotation.   It would also provide the Indians with enough depth to consider including a young pitcher in a trade for offensive help. For reasons nobody has figured out, Masterson has alternated great years and terrible years since he became a starting pitcher; if that pattern holds 2015 should be outstanding.  Certainly nobody knows better than Mickey Callaway what Masterson needs to do to be successful.

The downside is what would happen if Masterson struggles.  Between his previous stature as the Indians’ ace, Terry Francona’s oft-stated preference for allowing veterans to work through problems, and a fear of releasing him and seeing him end up helping another team like Aaron Harang did this year, the Indians will be inclined to give Masterson every chance to succeed, even at the expense of another pitcher (probably T.J. House) who could help more.  That may mean Masterson stays in the rotation until June or July even though it obviously isn’t working out.  The two or three games that may cost the Indians may be the difference between making the playoffs or not.

Jun 8, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA;Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Justin Masterson (63) leaves the game in the sixth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Cleveland beat Texas 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Does Masterson have a rebound in him?  Well, as far as we know his arm is healthy.  The loss of velocity in the past year is concerning, but it should be easy to figure out whether that is a permanent issue.  The biggest issue for Masterson has always been whether he throws strikes.  That seems like it is a mechanical issue, which a good pitching coach ought to be able to work out.  So if Masterson can pass a physical and demonstrate that his fastball is back in the 92-94 range, I think he is worth the risk.

The Indians have the resources, both financial and personnel, to make one serious move this winter.  Just to be clear, signing Masterson would not qualify as the big move that puts them over the top.  Whether the big move is to add pitching or offense remains to be seen.  If they go with a hitter, they will still need to add some depth for the rotation, particularly if Zach McAllister becomes a full time reliever; otherwise Josh Tomlin will be the only guy waiting in Columbus if someone gets hurt.  If you don’t want to spend more than five million on a free agent starting pitcher, you are choosing between guys at the end of their careers, guys who have been hurt, and guys who just suck.  Of the pitchers in that group, Masterson probably has the highest upside.  Assuming he still views Cleveland in a positive light after the past year, the Indians could certainly do worse.

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