There can be no doubt that if you’d asked folks a few weeks ago which three impending free agent starting pitchers were virtual locks to reach free agency, 99% of pundits would have said Homer Bailey, James Shields and Justin Masterson. Maybe that would be considered a shot at the small market Reds, Royals, and Indians, but that sure felt like the appropriate set of responses, based not only on the financial realities of the game, but also on various reports about the distances between the pitchers’ desires and the teams’ offers. Other top would-be free agent starters have either already been locked up (Clayton Kershaw, for example), have expressed a strong desire to extend (Jon Lester), or have a team that seems to be moving financial mountains to be in a position to extend (Max Scherzer).
Well, this weekend, word broke that the Reds and Homer Bailey were close on an extension, and all comments from the team and the pitcher since then strongly suggest that the deal is going to happen soon enough.
Is it possible that, among the erstwhile huge class of free agent starters, only Shields and Masterson will actually make it to market? As someone who hopes that the Cubs will put some of their unspent funds into securing a pitcher or two next offseason, I’d certainly like to see at least one other guy gets there. With a bevy of positional prospects potentially set to start contributing as soon as 2015, together with what could be rebounds/improvements from Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Welington Castillo, it sure would be nice to have a quality rotation with which to pair the offense.
At least, for now, it sounds like Justin Masterson and the Indians aren’t too close on an extension. They did manage to avoid arbitration for 2014, today, but, according to Jordan Bastian, a long-term deal isn’t the focus for the two sides right now.
“I’m here for this season, man,” Masterson told Bastian. “We’ve got plenty of time to work on [an extension]. It’s just working through it, what the value is, what’s reasonable pay, how things work. It’s a different system, especially when you’ve got to be really smart about how you move your money around and you want to make sure you’re making a good investment. You’ve got to truly believe in the guy. Not that they don’t truly believe in me, but it’s what you’re working through in that process. It’s easy for us when it’s not our money to throw it around and say, ‘Just do this.’ When it’s your own money, you say, ‘ I think we’re going to think about this a little bit more.’ It doesn’t bother me.”
If a long-term deal isn’t reached, Masterson, who turns 29 this year, could position himself for a huge score with another solid season. Quietly, he’s posted 2.1, 4.3, 1.9, and 3.4 WAR seasons with the Indians, and sports a 3.81 FIP for his career. Masterson is an excellent groundball pitcher, and actually saw his strikeout rate spike last year to 24.3% (19.3% career), while keep his walk rate in a passable range (9.5%). If that uptick in strikeouts holds over the course of 2014, the discussion about Masterson as a true front end option could change quickly. (It looks like there wasn’t any flukey velocity changes for Masterson in 2013. Instead, he used his slider quite a bit more, to devastating results. Perhaps the improvement is, indeed, sustainable.)
That is all to say … I’d really like to see Masterson, among others, make it to the free agent market after the season.