Indians made right move with Masterson

MastersonSelfishly, I didn’t want Masterson to get traded. I wanted the Indians to sign him to a long-term contract and give him whatever kind of money that required. That’s selfishly, as a reporter, because Masterson was as good as it gets in that regard.

Good or bad, he’d put on a smile, always have a quip readied and never turned down an interview or a casual chat. Whether we were talking about his outings, his pitching mechanics, his charitable endeavors, his wife’s cookie business or about people helping people, Masterson was a joy to cover for media members.

I wish nothing but the best for Masterson, but the Indians made the right decision by trading him to the Cardinals for Double-A outfielder James Ramsey on Wednesday afternoon. This was a business decision and it was the right one and, really, it wasn’t a move that screamed “seller” if you take the time to examine it.

What the trade signifies is that Cleveland — rightly so — already made the determination that it was not going to extend Masterson a Qualifying Offer this coming offseason. That price tag was $14.1 million last winter and will probably jump to in the neighborhood of $15 million this coming winter.

The Indians have two reasons for not extending such an offer. First, Masterson’s performance simply isn’t worth that type of salary. Second, there’s a risk that Masterson accepts the deal to use 2015 as another chance to net a larger, long-term deal in the following offseason. Cleveland surely doesn’t want to risk the latter, because the point of extending the qualifying offer is to gain Draft pick compensation for the player leaving via free agency.

So, once the Indians determine that a QO simply won’t be a part of the equation in the offseason, they’re essentially accepting that Masterson would have the ability to leave without the organization receiving any type of compensation. That makes a trade right now a sensible move, because Cleveland completes a one-for-one rather than a one-for-none, and there is a reduction in risk by taking a high-level Minor League prospect instead of rolling the dice on a high-round Draft pick.

On the surface, this looks like a white flag move. Masterson is, after all, the No. 1 starter, or at least he was when the gates opened for the 2014 season. He helped chew up innings over the past several years and helped the Tribe to the postseason a year ago. He was an All-Star. He’s not a Cy Young winner, but certain Cleveland fans might see this as another move to shed salary and plan for next year. Take a look at where Masterson currently fits in the rotation. Is this really a white flag?

Corey Kluber has clearly unseated Masterson as Cleveland’s No. 1 starter. Righty Trevor Bauer is arguably the No. 2 on the staff at the moment. Would you slot in Masterson as the third arm right now? I’m not sure I would. Unfortunately for the Indians, Masterson, Zach McAllister, Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar and T.J. House have almost become interchangeable in terms of reliability and value.

So, you’ve got a group of arms under control who are giving you the same level of performance (or better) than Masterson, who is a free agent at year’s end, unlikely to net the team compensation on the open market and currently coming back from a knee injury. Dealing him right now doesn’t upset the rotation. It was already operating without him for much of the past month, and keeping Cleveland on the edge of the postseason discussion.

jramsey13toppsherminorsAccording to Fangraphs.com’s WAR, Masterson ranked third among Indians rotation members this year with a 0.9 rating. Bauer (1.0), McAllister (0.8), Tomlin (0.8) and Salazar (0.7) are all right in the same range and each have fewer innings than the big fella this season. According to Fangraphs’ monetary value calculation, Masterson has been worth $4.9 million to date this season. Cleveland’s already paid him roughly $6.5 million, while St. Louis will be on the hook for the near $3.2 million that remains on his contract for 2014.

We all know what Masterson can do — it was evident in his strong showing last year — but let’s take a look at what he’s done. Among the 134 starters with at least 75 innings pitched this season, entering Wednesday, he ranked 133rd in WHIP (1.65), opponents’ OBP (.386) and walks per nine innings (5.14). His 68 ERA+ was tied for the third-lowest in that group and his 5.51 ERA was the fifth-highest.

And what did the Indians get in return for Masterson? As one evaluator told me, it was “essentially for Tyler Naquin.”

Naquin is the 23-year-old, left-handed-hitting outfielder that Cleveland took in the first round (15th overall) in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Ramsey is 24, he hits left-handed and St. Louis grabbed him in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2012 Draft, too. Both players have three professional seasons under their belt and they have nearly the same amount of plate appearances (Naquin has 1,085 to Ramsey’s 1,024).

It’s a good comparison, too. Here’s a look at what Naquin and Ramsey have done:

Naquin
2012-14 slash: .283/.353/.408/.760 (238 games)
2012-14 stats: 14 HR, 53 2B, 13 3B, 91 RBI, 33 SB, 154 R, 92 K, 231 BB

2014 slash at AA: .313/.371/.424/.795 (76 games)
2014 stats at AA: 4 HR, 12 2B, 5 3B, 30 RBI, 14 SB, 54 R, 29 BB, 71 K

Ramsey
2012-14 slash: .266/.368/.434/.802 (235 games)
2012-14 stats: 30 HR, 39 2B, 8 3B, 101 RBI, 23 SB, 161 R, 129 BB, 246 K

2014 slash: .300/.389/.527/.916 (67 games)
2014 stats: 13 HR, 14 2B, 1 3B, 36 RBI, 4 SB, 47 R, 31 BB, 66 K

Immediately, you can see that Ramsey has a little more power, but Naquin offers more in the speed department. Ramsey will join Triple-A Columbus on Thursday, getting his first extended look at that level. He played one game at Triple-A in the Cards’ system last year. Naquin, meanwhile, has been out since having surgery on his right hand earlier this month.

It’s certainly plausible that Naquin becomes trade bait, considering the wealth of lefty-hitting outfielders in Cleveland’s system right now. The Indians have shown interest in Red Sox veteran John Lackey, for example. The Indians are trying to balance a mix of buying and selling with an eye on the rest of this season and beyond. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (earning $10 million and eligible for free agency at season’s end) is in a similar boat as Masterson, so don’t be surprised if Cleveland tries to complete a similarly-structured deal.

For now, in examining the Masterson trade, this was a good deal from where Cleveland sits. The best-case scenario would’ve been a dynamic season from the sinkerballer, worthy of a long-term deal or, at the very least, a Qualifying Offer. That did not come to fruition, so the Indians made the right move.

–JB

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