Indians fans collectively blew a gasket last night when news broke that the team had turned down an offer from Masterson and that negotiations are now (supposedly) put on hold.
We’re all sick of seeing our favorite players leave and all signs point to Masterson being the latest fan favorite to depart Cleveland. Most fans jumped to the conclusion that the Dolans were being cheap and turning town a reasonable offer from a fan favorite.
But if you can keep a cool head for a few minutes, I’ll explain why this is absolutely the right decision.
$17M is a lot of money.
Pitchers are expensive, but Masterson’s asking price is getting into an elite range. According to Ken Rosenthenal on Twitter, Masterson’s agent offered a deal of three years and less than $17.5M per year.
In 2014, only 10 pitchers will earn more than $17M.
Some fans have pointed to Ervin Santana’s recent $14M deal as proof that Masterson is worth $17M. But that’s looking at things a little too simplistically.
For starters, the Braves ponied up $14M out of desperation when Kris Medlen suffered a season-ending injury. Just because someone overpaid for Santana doesn’t mean the Tribe should do the same for Masterson. Secondly, it was a one-year deal. It’s a lot easier to knowingly overpay for someone when the contract comes off the books in six months.
In order to pay Masterson $17M, the Indians would have to feel as though he was a top-10 pitcher, or at least close to it… which leads me to my next point.
Masterson is a model of inconsistency.
Fans love Masterson because he turns in a few gems every year. These are the games fans remember, but they’re quick to forget the painful 100-pitch, five walk, five inning outings which are just as plentiful.
Let’s take a look at a visual display of just how unpredictable Masterson can be, by using his 2013 game scores (click on the image for a larger view).
Not only is Masterson no where close to a top-10 pitcher – which is the range he would enter with a $17M contract – but he’s barely above average.
ERA+ is a statistic which normalizes ERA based on the league average. An ERA+ of 100 is equal to the league average, and it allows us to compare players across eras. Over the past three seasons, Masterson’s ERA+ is an even 100, which perfectly sums up his roller coaster performance.
To put that 100+ ERA into context, consider some other Tribe pitchers who have posted similar numbers over the same time frame:
- Mark Clark – In his three years with the Tribe, Clark posted an ERA+ of 103. Like Masterson, he had his moments, highlighted by seven complete games in that span, but he also struggled with control and was bounced early just as often.
- Chuck Finley – Ironically one of the most hated underachievers in recent Tribe history compares favorable to Masterson, with a 102 ERA+ in just over two years in Cleveland. Finley was earning roughly $8M per year, which likely put him among the top 10-15 pitchers of that era and significantly contributed to the fans distaste for his performance.
Obviously we weren’t happy paying Finley like a top-10 pitcher. And we certainly wouldn’t have felt good about giving Clark that type of contract. So why should we treat Masterson any differently?
The Indians don’t have money to waste.
It would be great if the Indians had $125M to spend however they like, but they don’t and they never will.
During the late 1990s the Indians payroll ranked among the highest in the league, but only because Dick Jacobs was willing to spend his own money. I won’t get into the details, but if you’re interested I highly recommend reading Terry Pluto’s book Dealing which offers some insight into the Indians financial situation in that era.
But to summarize the situation, they were losing money. Jacobs wanted a winner and he was willing to spend money to make it happen. It was great for the fans, but it wasn’t a sustainable model. Ultimately, baseball franchises are businesses and they need to turn a profit in the long run.
In this era, money in sports is tied almost exclusively to television. And television money is limited by viewers. Among the 30 baseball teams, Cleveland ranks 21st in terms of television market size.
Think that stat doesn’t matter? Well, take a look at the list of the highest payrolls for 2014 and their TV market rank:
- Los Angeles Dodgers – No. 2 TV market
- New York Yankees – No. 1
- Philadelphia Phillies – No. 4
- Detroit Tigers – No. 11
- Boston Red Sox – No. 7
- Los Angeles Angels – No. 2
- San Francisco Giants – No. 6
- Texas Rangers – No. 5
- Washington Nationals – No. 9
- Toronto Blue Jays – No. 1 in Canada
20 baseball teams play in a TV market larger than Cleveland, which almost perfectly corresponds to the Indians 23rd rank in payroll for 2013.
The Indians have a budget, and it’s already been spent.
The fact that the Indians are even willing to negotiate with Masterson shows that the Dolans are willing to spend at least a little extra money to keep their own guys.
The Indians have been trying to operate around $70-$80M. The Masterson deal would likely force them to push closer to $85 or even $90M. Percentage-wise, that’s a pretty significant jump. They’re at $77M right now, boosting it to $90M would be a 17 percent increase – now imagine adjusting your spending by 17 percent. It’s easier said than done.
The reason adding Masterson would be so difficult is due to the fact that Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn are already earning roughly $15M per year. If the Indians signed Masterson for $17M, they would have $43.5M wrapped up in those three players in 2015, and the number would rise in the following years.
That would be roughly 50 percent of their payroll tied up in three players and that’s not a model that works. It would shoot down any possibility of bringing in other free agents or re-signing others.
Cabrera would be gone for sure (he probably already is). Kipnis wouldn’t be able to get his new deal. As well as anyone else who may emerge (Kluber? McAllister? Chisenhall?).
The Tribe would be tied to Bourn, Swisher and Masterson for the next three years, and if any of them didn’t produce there would be no wiggle room in the payroll to make adjustments.
So we’re just supposed to let our players leave?
It sucks. But there’s nothing we can do about it. Baseball doesn’t have a level playing field.
Teams like the Indians have to operate in a constant state of rebuilding, while hoping to catch lightning in a bottle three or four rookie contract players hitting their stride at the same time.
It’s not productive for us fans to complain about the front office and ownership. Our ire should be directed at Bud Selig and the other 29 owners (or, more realistically, a small powerful group of them) who allow this unbalanced model to exist.