Indians Would Be Foolish to Spurn Justin Masterson's Modest Contract Proposal

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 5, 2014

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Judging from the latest reports, Justin Masterson either has no idea what he's worth or is really intent on doing the Cleveland Indians a kindness.

Either way, indications are that the Indians are in a classic Godfather situation right now. They're staring at an offer they can't refuse. Or at least, one they shouldn't want to refuse.

On Tuesday, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that Masterson had named his price for an extension over the weekend, and that the general vibe was that the right-hander was amenable to a more modest deal than one he could get in free agency a year from now.

Later in the day, Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer delivered the goods:

Masterson and his agent, Randy Rowley, have made a three- to four-year proposal to the Indians believed to be in the $40 million to $60 million range. They are waiting to hear back from the team...

If this is true, then...Wow.

A "Wow" is warranted even without getting into the analytics. If you've been paying attention to the prices teams are paying for pitching these days, you'll know why. Even mediocre hurlers are being pelted with money (one of the better things to be pelted with, to be sure).

A "Wow" is even more warranted if we consider the comp most relevant to Masterson's extension candidacy: the six-year, $105 million deal the Cincinnati Reds gave Homer Bailey.

Hoynes brought up the Bailey comp in his report. So did Heyman. And so have a lot of other people. But since I don't recall anyone actually getting into the mechanics of the comp, that's what we're going to do.

The one big thing working against Masterson is that he's a year older than Bailey. He's about a month shy of his 29th birthday, while Bailey is about two months shy of his 28th birthday. To this extent, it's not easy to say with a straight face that Masterson should also get six guaranteed years.

Five years, though, is reasonable. That's either one or two more than Masterson is reportedly asking for, so we've already pinpointed one area where the Indians stand to save some money.

Hoynes' report also makes it sound like Masterson has his eye on an AAV in the range of $15 million. What Masterson and Bailey have done in their careers to this point says that's another point for the Tribe.

Via FanGraphs:

Justin Masterson's Career vs. Homer Bailey's Career

It's not a clean sweep for Masterson, as Bailey's been better at striking guys out and limiting walks.

But Masterson's been the better workhorse of the two, and it looks good that he has Bailey beat both in ERA and the key ERA estimators: FIP, xFIP and SIERA. I'll also note that Masterson also grades as better in the park- and league-adjusted versions of FIP and xFIP: FIP- and xFIP-.

So based on past performance, the $17.5 million AAV of Bailey's contract should be in play with Masterson's extension. If anything, he and his people have grounds to up the ante.

Now, the picture does look a little different if we're discussing future performance, which is an important thing to discuss given that teams seem increasingly uninterested in paying for past performance.

But even though the picture looks different on this front, it doesn't look considerably worse for Masterson.

When you look at Bailey's contract, it's clear that he got paid based on his performances in the past two seasons. They've been easily the two best of his career, and the signs say that the bright portion of his career should continue.

So let's use that as our jumping-off point to look at how Masterson's last two seasons compare:

Masterson's 2012-2013 vs. Bailey's 2012-2013

This time, there is a clean sweep. Bailey has Masterson beat at everything, from workload to strikeouts to walks to ERA to the ERA estimators to WAR. He's been the better pitcher of the two. No doubt about it.

And this is no fluke. Bailey's only 200-inning seasons have come in the last two years. He's also set new career highs in swinging-strike percentage three years in a row and upped his average fastball velocity from the 92-93 range to 94.1 in 2013. These are the big signs that say he's on the up-and-up.

But if you take another look at Masterson's numbers, you'll see that there are large gaps in only two areas: BB% and ERA. The latter might have been a deal-breaker in the past but not so much anymore. As FanGraphs' Dave Cameron has noted, front offices don't seem to care much about ERA anymore.

And there are encouraging things to talk about where Masterson is concerned as well. He posted by far the best K% of his career (24.3) in 2013, and that was largely a product of what was his best swinging-strike percentage (9.2) as a starter.

That Masterson did so while also remaining one of the best ground-ball artists (58.0 GB%) in baseball is something to get excited about. Strikeouts and ground balls are, after all, the two best ways for pitchers to get through life.

As such, it's not overly surprising that the Oliver projection system sees Masterson being just as good as Bailey over the next five seasons:

5-Year Oliver Projections for Masterson and Bailey

I wouldn't take these projections as gospel. I'm not. But since it's supported well enough by what's happened recently, the suggestion that Masterson and Bailey are going to be in the same neighborhood as far as production goes makes sense.

Meaning: Yeah, the Indians are lucky that Masterson is only asking for something in the $15 million-per-year neighborhood rather than $17.5 million per year. A fair contract for him is more like five years and $85-90 million or four years and $70 million rather than three or four years for $40-60 million.

In itself, this is a good enough reason for the Indians to accept Masterson's proposal. And while one's eyes naturally then turn to the club's spending limit, the Indians don't exactly have their hands tied with other commitments.

Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, Cleveland has less than $50 million in commitments lined up for 2015, with the most notable salary poised to come off the books being Asdrubal Cabrera's $10 million. Given that the Indians showed a willingness to push their payroll as high as $80 million without the benefit of new national TV money in 2013, fitting Masterson in at his price isn't unrealistic.

Saying that the Indians should take Masterson up on his proposal is easy for me to say. It's not my money. But since he's offering them a pretty serious discount, it's hard to see how they could justify saying no.


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