Justin Masterson: From Sexy To Barely Ruggedly Handsome

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Aug 2, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Justin Masterson (63) throws to Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Ryan Braun (8) during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As the Indians build their roster for the 2015 season, Wahoo’s on First will be breaking down players that the Indians could target into one of three categories – Ugly, Ruggedly Handsome, and Sexy.

An Ugly player (easy to spot warts) is a player that will be signed to a minor league contract that is coming off poor performance or has battled injury.

The contract will more than likely be a minor league deal with an invite to spring training but could also include a major league salary if the player makes opening day roster.

The Ruggedly Handsome (multiple teams will be targeting) player is defined as a player that doesn’t have a qualifying offer attached to them, is more than likely going to sign a 1-2 year deal ranging anywhere from $7MM for a 1-year deal to over $20MM for a two year deal.

 The Sexy player (top-tier free agent) is a free agent that will command a multi-year deal and may cost a draft pick. These players are considered franchise changers or the last piece of the puzzle depending on your view of where the Indians stand heading into the winter.

Free agent list: Ruggedly Handsome

Contract Status: Free Agent

Why Cleveland?:

Let the record show that it takes just six months and one knee injury for a ballplayer to fall from definitely sexy to just barely ruggedly handsome.

It’s almost not worth retreading how awful Justin Masterson was in 2014 as Indians fans had front row seats (or at least 18,428 fans per game did) to the downfall. A 63 ERA+ across two teams in two leagues and a nagging knee injury don’t make for an especially appealing free agent profile.

There are also lingering concerns, concerns that have surrounded Masterson ever since he entered pro ball; that his unorthodox three-quarters delivery leaves him susceptible to severe platoon splits against lefties and an overall inability to consistently command his pitches, especially his heavy sinker. While as an outsider it’s impossible to know the extent of Masterson’s knee troubles, his .400 wOBA allowed against lefties and 4.88 walk rate in 2014 further advance those concerns.[recent-category]

But as bad as Masterson was in 2014, he was just about equally great the year before that. The 2013 version of Masterson posted a 3.45 ERA supported by a 3.35 FIP, a 58.0 percent groundball rate, and a healthy 14.8 percent strikeout to walk ratio. He was so good in 2013 that the Indians, who are notoriously cautious with regard to signing pitchers to extensions, were at the very least willing to guarantee Masterson approximately $28 million over the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He was so good in 2013 that the St. Louis Cardinals, a team firmly placed in the phylum of “generally know what they’re doing,” were willing to give up a solid prospect for three months of Masterson’s services, even after he had been terrible the first three months.

Masterson’s poor 2014 season obviously should influence any thoughts about what he might do in 2015; but so to should his strong 2013 campaign. Even his 2012 and 2011 seasons play a role, although that role diminishes the further back we go in Masterson’s career. Adding it all up, there’s still reason to believe the 2013 version of Justin Masterson is still lurking somewhere in that 6’ 6” frame, and there’s even more reason to believe that Indians are the right team to bring it to the forefront.

Let’s start with the Tribe’s perspective. The Indians front office has to be excited about the prospect of lining up Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and T.J. House for the 2015 rotation. But they also understand that an MLB club can never have too much pitching depth, and that while the above rotation is exciting, it’s still somewhat unproven, with Cy Young winner Kluber the only guy to pitch more than 153 big league innings. Bauer and Carrasco were the other only two to throw more than 110 innings. That’s not to say all five guys can’t pitch well over a full season, but it’s not a given.

However, for the Tribe to make a significant commitment (i.e. a major league contract) to a starting pitcher, it would have to be for a high-variance option. Or in other words, it would have to be for a pitcher who could conceivably be an upgrade over T.J. House. The beauty of having the five starters listed above plus Zach McAllister means the Tribe can take a chance on a pitcher who carries the possibility of contributing nothing but also carries the upside of being an above-average to great starter. We’ve seen the Justin Masterson who produces very little, but we’ve also seen the one that can pitch at the top of a playoff rotation.

There’s also a separate, hidden benefit to going after Masterson: the potential downside of Masterson not being able to stick in the rotation is somewhat mitigated by his ability to shift to the bullpen. Many in the industry have viewed Masterson as a reliever long-term due to his platoon splits and tough-to-repeat delivery, and he has experience coming out of the ‘pen. So if he does struggle in as a starter, or the Indians simply decide coming out of spring training that House is a better rotation option than Masters, they still have a good shot of getting some return on what would likely be a modest investment. So while Masterson’s upside is that of a rotation headliner, he can still become a solid bullpen upgrade if the whole starting pitcher thing doesn’t work out.

Of course, it takes two to tango in free agency, and from Masterson’s perspective, the best place to rehabilitate his free agent value is on the shores of Lake Erie. We already know that Masterson has a good relationship with manager Terry Francona dating back to their days in Boston, and he’s obviously aware of the track record and reputation pitching coach Mickey Callaway has built up over his time in Cleveland.

Sep 25, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona (left) and relief pitcher Justin Masterson celebrate a 7-2 win over the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

But it goes even deeper than that. As mentioned above, Masterson has what can be generously described as a “funky” delivery; there’s a lot that goes into helping him repeat his delivery 100+ times over a single start. If you were Justin Masterson, wouldn’t you want to refurbish your performance and free agent value with a coaching staff that already has a working knowledge of your mechanics? Why start over with a new group of coaches when you don’t have to? Beyond that, there are the little things that will make a return to Cleveland easier than finding a new destination, such as familiarity with the Cleveland area and having standing relationships with a lot of the players already here.

This is far, far away from a lock. Perhaps the Indians knowledge of Masterson’s mechanics will lead them to believe he’s a lost cause, and there figures to be many suitors for his services. But there are already reports that the Indians are back in on Masterson, and 2015 is a crucial year for his career earnings. If he craps the bed again it will be exceedingly difficult to find that lucrative offer even if he does eventually turn things around down the road.

But if he does have a bounce back year, he can restore nearly all the earning power he had after the 2013 season. He’s a great fit for what the Indians need and can afford, and with so much riding on this season, Masterson should look for the situation that affords him the best opportunity to have a great season. That opportunity lies with the Cleveland Indians.

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