Justin Masterson is entering his final year of arbitration and if nothing else, is due a monster raise over the $5.7M he made in 2013. He was given that after a sub-par showing in the previous season, so it is scary to think what he will make in 2014 after a great year. That adds to the toughness of this decision. With Ubaldo Jimenez leaving for free agency, the Indians don't have a secondary option at ace, so they may be interested in trying to lock up Masterson for the long haul.
If the Indians don't sign him long term this offseason, he most certainly will not be back. Unlike Kipnis, who being pre-arb, still has multiple chances to sign long term, this is Masterson's final opportunity. The Indians don't play around on the free agent market for players of Masterson's caliber and have not re-signed an important player after getting to this point at least since Jim Thome left in 2002. Thome leaving was a kind of wake up call to the Indians front office that told them, if a player doesn't sign by the season before his contract is up, he never will. Since then, Shin-Soo Choo, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, among many others, have all been traded prior to the end of team control over them. The Indians hate losing something for nothing although, for extenuating circumstances, this situation could be different.
The most similar player named to Masterson was Sabathia in 2008. Like Masterson, he was the team's ace, but not the only decent starting pitcher. Also similar, the Indians had just made the play-offs and expected to again the following year. The Indians knew C.C. wanted to be a Yankee (or at least a multi-millionaire) and wouldn't be able to re-sign him, but kept him around until the trade deadline, when the Indians knew they were out of the chase. By holding onto him, they limited the amount brought back, but Michael Brantley has still made that deal worthwhile, turning into a great defensive and average offensive outfielder. Had C.C. been traded during the off-season, there is no knowing the kind of haul he could have brought in.
Obviously, Masterson is not as talented as Sabathia and doesn't have his track record. One big difference then was that Sabathia had already signed a contract with the Indians and it was ending, rather than arbitration ending, so he had quite a few more years of experience. However, pitchers are being paid more than ever. Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez (probably the two best pitchers in the AL) signed contracts worth more than $25 million a season just prior to the 2013 season. According to Baseball Reference, Masterson's most similar pitcher through his age 28 season is the Rangers Matt Garza, who signed a $10.25M one year deal with the Cubs prior to 2013 to avoid his final year of arbitration. This is most likely in the range that Masterson could expect (or even a little less) for going into 2014.
When looking at the value that the money represents, it is important to note that the Indians got his previous great season for half the price of next year. The past season was in Masterson's top two as an Indian, along with 2011, but in 2013 he set career bests in K/9, K/BB and WHIP. It is hard to filter out how much of this was luck and how much was talent. Generally, the increase in strike outs is from real talent, although there was an increase in strike outs all over the league and many Indians set career bests in K/9. According to one judge of luck, BABIP, Masterson had his luckiest season ever with just 29% of batters reaching safely on balls put into play. His career average, including the past season, is still .305, significantly different from last year's .288.
Of course, different style pitchers will have different average BABIP with those giving up more line drives generally giving up more base hits. Ground ball pitchers like Masterson should have a below average BABIP just by having more of the balls in play hit to infielders. Not surprisingly, 2014 was Masterson's best year as far as ground balls to fly balls, with 1.45 ground balls to every fly. This may show that his decrease in BABIP was not completely luck and may have had more to do with a better sinker, forcing more players to ground out. While not considered in BABIP, the increase in strike outs is also promising as those are essentially the batters gotten out without putting the ball in play. He set a career high in 2013 with 195 total strike outs, more than 24% of the batters he faced (also a career high).
There is enough information out there now to prove that his success was not a fluke, but the real decision will still be made according to a balance between risk and cost. Starting pitchers are much more prone to injury than any other type of player, especially the season or career ending type. Would the Indians be willing to give any pitcher a seven year deal, like those recently signed by Sabathia, Verlander and Hernandez? Especially considering that the deal would likely be for more than the Indians entire current payroll (maybe around $105M for seven years), it certainly wouldn't seem to fit with the Indians present mind-set. That being said, the Indians have a good shot to compete for the play-offs for the next four years based on the rest of the roster without Masterson. He would be incredibly difficult to replace for less money than they already have to pay him. While Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber are promising young players, they will probably have to go through the same struggles every starter sees, a point that Masterson has already passed. Of course, without that hefty long term deal, it is unlikely that Masterson would remain after 2014 as there are at least ten teams out there that would be willing to give him that kind of money.
This brings us back to C.C. Sabathia. If the Indians think they can win the World Series in 2014 (all evidence points to the fact that they do), $10M for their ace would be a good deal. They could sign him for a one year deal prior to arbitration and allow him to lead the team to victory in his contract year. If, however, there ever becomes a time where that ultimate goal seems out of reach, don't be surprised if the Indians jettison another ace for parts. If the Indians can't get him to agree to a long term deal (of if they themselves don't want to), it is the only move that will make sense.
Is the Indians ace here to stay, or will he go the way of the last two?