There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog over the winter about a potential extension for Justin Masterson. Once Masterson expressed willingness to sign a three-year deal, rather than a six-year deal like Homer Bailey, it seemed possible that he’d reach an agreement with the Indians. Probable, even. It now seems like talks have completely fallen apart and there will be no extension. The Indians did not accept Masterson’s terms, which are rumored to be three-years at roughly $17.5 million per year. In just a brief amount of time scanning the Internet, I saw anger…LOTS of anger. People are absolutely livid that the Indians appear willing to let Masterson walk, particularly when he was willing to stay for a “hometown discount.” Are the Indians crazy like a fox, or just plain crazy?
One of the reasons that Masterson was likely willing to take the shorter deal is that he didn’t happen to fall off the turnip truck yesterday. He saw Ubaldo Jimenez wait until the cusp of spring training to sign his deal with the Baltimore Orioles. He saw Ervin Santana, a man who originally thought he’d get closer to $100 million over multiple years, settle for just one year with the Atlanta Braves. And this was a winter where there weren’t a ton of top-tier pitchers on the market. The top 3 were Santana, Jimenez, and Masahiro Tanaka – one that had never pitched in the United States and two that had their share of ups and downs in their careers. You’d think the laws of supply and demand would drive their prices through the roof; in the end, while Jimenez and Santana won’t exactly be begging for change outside of the stadium, Tanaka was really the only one to rake in an absurd contract. Teams are valuing their draft picks, more than the available free agents. Masterson realizes this. The current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2016; there are theories that the next agreement may tweak the qualifying offer situation. A three-year deal would carry Masterson into the new CBA, where he could hope for changes that would benefit free agents. He’d still be in his early 30s and could hope for some team to massively overpay.
At the end of the 2014 season, Masterson won’t be the only available marquee name on the free agent market. Barring extensions with their current teams, Max Scherzer, James Shields, and Jon Lester will all hit the free agent market as well. With so many big names out there, plus the weight of the qualifying offer around their necks, it’s likely to drive their prices down. The Indians could be gambling on the fact that Masterson’s asking price could come down. They could hope that his apprehension about hitting the market with a Cy Young winner and two other top of the rotation guys, bring him back to the table. Maybe they just don’t want to allocate $17.5 million a year for him, or think that the eventual asking price will be much lower. Regardless of what happens, Masterson has played his position brilliantly. He offered a home town discount, knowing it was a win-win for him. The Indians take his offer, he likely makes more per year than he would in a longer deal, plus he’s back on the market in three years in what could be a more welcoming environment for free agents under a new CBA. The Indians reject his advances and they become the bad guys; the ones too cheap to give Masterson the measly three-year deal he was ready to take just to stay in town. The Indians took a huge gamble on this, because they’re likely to get A LOT of fan ire from shutting down talks with the popular pitcher. We’ll see if this was insanely brilliant, or just insane.