Why the Cleveland Indians Must Sign Justin Masterson to a Long-Term Deal

Cody Norman@@Cody_GainesCorrespondent IMarch 23, 2014

Cleveland Indians' Justin Masterson signs for fans before a spring exhibition baseball game against the Colorado Rockies Saturday, March 22, 2014, in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Mark Duncan/Associated Press

The news broke on Thursday, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Cleveland Indians have tabled contract extension discussions with staff ace Justin Masterson.

Typical Cleveland.

No matter the reason, perception beats reality here. Again, Tribe management is frustrating fans who call them cheap.

According to Jim Ingraham of The News-Herald and The Morning Journal, Cleveland’s inability to retain Masterson poses a more serious credibility concern. He writes:

Willingly losing your No. 1 pitcher to free agency less than two years after signing two expensive free agents—Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn—smacks of an “OK, we’re going for it—never mind, no we’re not,” duplicity that could potentially damage an organization’s credibility.

The only loser in this round of negotiations is the Indians’ front office. Masterson is one of the most well liked guys in the clubhouse and among a dwindling fanbase. While signing Masterson may not bring more fans to the park, it does give the Tribe a better chance of winning over the next three years. It sends a message to the clubhouse that Cleveland is willing to bend to market realities, and ownership is more than willing to meet players halfway.

Cleveland can thank their in-state brethren the Cincinnati Reds for their biggest problem: Homer Bailey.

Bailey received a $105 million guaranteed contract over six years after accumulating a modest 11-12 record with a 3.49 earned run average in 2013. While he is a capable arm, Bailey is not likely to become an ace and owns a 49-45 career record in a league without the designated hitter.

The Indians have maintained that Bailey’s contract should not drive the market, and fortunately for the Indians, Masterson is not leveraging the $105 million number too heavily in his negotiations. Instead, Masterson has acknowledged that he will accept a shorter term deal worth $17.5 million annually, the same annual average given to Bailey in his contract.

Masterson, I believe, is being generous. If he is able to duplicate his success from a season ago (14-10, 3.45 ERA), teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will not bat an eye at offering Masterson upward of $20 million annually for his services. That number, undoubtedly, is way outside of the Indians’ price range.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the youthful arms in their current rotation, Cleveland would be wise to ink the veteran righty to a deal now, but they do have some very real concerns with Masterson’s production moving forward.

General manager Chris Antonetti and the Tribe may be pumping the brakes on offering the extension because the last time the Tribe gave a big extension to a pitcher was Jake Westbrook in 2008. After inking Westbrook to a three-year $33 million deal, Westbrook had elbow surgery and won just seven games before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals late in the 2010-11 season.

According to Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com, the comparison between Masterson and Westbrook is a bit eerie. In three seasons with the Tribe (2011-13), Masterson has thrown 615.1 innings and compiled a 3.86 earned run average with a 2.24 strikeout-to-walk ratio. From 2004-06, Westbrook threw 637 innings and compiled a 4.01 earned run average with a 2.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Is Justin Masterson a bit of a gamble? Yes. But Cleveland cannot underestimate the power of perception.

The lack of an extension early into the season sends an unfortunate message to fans that, fair or not, paints the Tribe as a team unwilling to spend the money necessary to win a World Series. Cleveland must take a leap of faith and keep Masterson with the organization. There is a more than a bad contract or poor performance at stake.

No matter how Antonetti or president Mark Shapiro carves this up, the idea of Masterson failing to perform up to his contract for the next three seasons pales in comparison to the prospect of losing the faith and trust of an entire fanbase.