Justin Masterson is locked with the Cleveland Indians in an arbitration battle.
What is not known is whether or not the current arbitration battle between Masterson and the Indians foreshadows a 2014 trade.
At the heart of the situation is money. According to MLB.com, the Indians ace is looking for $11.8 million in his final season of arbitration eligibility while the club has offered $8.05 million. Now those figures represent the first step in the negotiating process, but if the two sides do end up on opposite ends of an arbitration table, it could get ugly.
After all, the Indians will be forced to provide examples of how Masterson was unable to pitch out of trouble last season, how he didn’t finish the year in the starting rotation because of a rib cage injury and how he is not as productive as Yu Darvish ($10 million) or a healthy Johnny Cueto ($10 million).
Masterson’s camp will argue that he had a 3.35 FIP, 3.4 fWAR and averaged 9.09 strikeouts every nine innings, according to FanGraphs. They will also point to the four-year, $50 million deal that Matt Garza just signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, via Dayn Perry from CBS Sports.
And looking at the comparisons between the two, Masterson’s agent, Randy Rowley, would have a point.
Three-year splits taken from player pages at Baseball-Reference.com
So based on market value and performance, Masterson is certainly worth $11 million. That means that any argument the Indians make to back up their initial offer could be met with indignation. After all, it is going to take quite a bit of digging to argue that a player who is on the verge of sustained dominance isn’t worth the going rate.
And make no mistake; Masterson could be poised for greatness, according to ESPN.com’s Dan Szymborski (subscription required). Among other things, Szymborski cited “a 30 percent boost” in his strikeout rate from the previous season as an indication that the big right-hander is set to make the leap into the upper echelon of American League pitchers.
The question remains, though. Will the resulting animosity that stems from the arbitration process force the Indians to trade their ace in 2014? Maybe.
See if Masterson reaches free agency, it figures that there will be no shortage of potential suitors willing to offer a four- or five-year contract worth in excess of $50 million. Another thing to consider is that if the right-hander has another All-Star season, inserts himself into the American League Cy Young conversation and leads the team back into the postseason, his price will go up substantially.
Prudence also dictates that a franchise does not let a player reach the open market if they feel they are unlikely to sign him, and Masterson could land them a few top-flight prospects in return. Now it will be a hard sell to their fanbase, especially if the Indians find themselves in the middle of the playoff picture for the second season in a row.
Another factor to consider in weighing Masterson's value is the status of Ubaldo Jimenez. If Jimenez elects to sign a contract elsewhere this offseason, the top of the Indians’ rotation will be woefully depleted if the Indians make a move during the season.
That puts the Indians in a tough spot. They may not want to pay him the money, but they don't really have a choice.
Yes, Trevor Bauer is ready to take the ball every five days. That doesn’t mean the front office can expect the team to contend on an annual basis without two legitimate front-end starters. And no offense to Scott Kazmir or Corey Kluber, but Masterson is a pitcher who the team may not be able to succeed without.
To be sure, this may be premature. There is still a chance that the two sides can reach an extension agreement similar to the one worked out between Adam Wainwright and the St. Louis Cardinals last year. Granted, Wainwright had better numbers at the time he signed on for five more seasons than Masterson does now, but the fact remains that the Cardinals did the right thing.
It would certainly be in the Indians’ best interest to figure something out. Not for $97.5 million, of course, but locking Masterson up for the foreseeable future is a good idea nonetheless.
So will the arbitration battle currently being waged between the Indians and Masterson force a trade midseason? If the front office tries to make a point, then yes.
Like it or not, the economics of baseball are what they are. And for a franchise that gave Nick Swisher a four-year, $56 million contract last offseason, it seems a bit incongruous to hold such a hard line with the team’s No. 1 starter.