Cleveland Indians Should Sign Former Ace Justin Masterson For 2016

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On August 9th, the Boston Red Sox released Justin Masterson from his one-year, $9.5 million deal. Masterson had his chance to sign a long-term contract with the Cleveland Indians after the 2013 season, but he chose not to – a decision that he probably deeply regrets.

However, Masterson may be the match the Indians are looking for. Although the top four pitchers in the rotation are firmly cemented in place for a while, Cleveland has struggled to find a consistent fifth starter. While it might be odd to consider their former ace as a veteran depth signing, this could be a very good move for the Indians.

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Masterson posted a 3.45 ERA with the Tribe in 2013, going 14-10 and finishing out the season as the team’s closer, after an injury removed him from the rotation down the stretch. He was on the mound when the Tribe clinched their AL Wild Card spot on the last day of the season, after winning 10 straight in a streak of sheer luck.

When Masterson turned down the Indians’ deal heading into his free agent season, he was dreaming of a much better deal due to his success as the team’s ace. What happened instead made those dreams come crashing down. After a rough start to 2014, though, Masterson was traded to St. Louis – where he struggled even more – and he wound up with no real deal to speak of. The Red Sox, who drafted Masterson out of college, gave him a one-year contract, but he continued to put up a 5+ ERA and they eventually felt they needed to release him.

Cleveland loves to pick up the scraps from other teams, which makes him a great fit. Assuming Terry Francona doesn’t exercise the option on his contract and head for the hills if Mark Shapiro jumps ship to Toronto, Francona and Masterson have always had a very good relationship. Returning to a manager and a ballpark that he knows might help settle Masterson down and give him the opportunity to return to the pitcher he used to be. He has a reputation as a great clubhouse guy, and it seemed like the team was genuinely sad to see him leave.

There is also plenty of hard evidence as to why the team should try to get him back. Although he posted a 5.61 ERA this season and a FIP north of four, there are other signs that he’s still the same pitcher.

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2013 was an anomaly, but the rest of his numbers have been fairly consistent throughout his career, especially after he was traded to the Indians. And they’ve remained consisted throughout this season, as well.  His strikeout rate for 2015 is actually higher than it was during his prior seasons with the Tribe, and his walk rate hasn’t increased at all. While Masterson has always had a high walk rate, he was able to work around control issues before, so there’s no reason for this to be a deal breaker.

So what is the big difference? Masterson’s BABIP has jumped nearly 30 points higher than his career average in each of the past two seasons, to .339. Although his hard-hit balls haven’t increased, more balls are going for hits, which is running up his ERA and causing him to look like he’s pitching extremely poorly.  Even his groundball rate is over 50 percent, something that has been consistent throughout his career.

Masterson is hardly a guarantee, but if he was going to work out somewhere, it would be on a team like the Indians – someone willing to give him a second chance at the back end of their rotation. Whichever team signs Masterson will be fortunate to have him, as he could very likely be a surprise comeback candidate next season. An extra month and a half of rest – if no team picks him up before the end of the season – could do him some good, too. It certainly wouldn’t hurt the Tribe to make an off-season gamble on their former ace, and if he’s smart, he’d take whatever deal they’re willing to offer him this time.

Next: Wroundtable: Which Call-Ups Should the Tribe Pick Up?

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