Indians' decision to decline Masterson's offers perplexes rivals

The Indians smartly locked up emerging second baseman Jason Kipnis to a six-year deal, but people familiar with the situation say they still haven’t shown any signs of softening and giving ace pitcher Justin Masterson the two- or three-year deal he sought, a stance of rejection that’s perplexing to rivals.

The smartest teams have learned to lock up their better players before they hit the free-agent market, and going back to the John Hart-Dan O’Dowd era, the Indians were at the forefront of this trend, if not the trendsetter. And it’s fair to say they’ve continued to pick worthwhile young players to keep long-term in the Mark Shapiro-Chris Antonetti regime, with Kipnis, who signed a $52.5-million, six-year deal, and outfielder Michael Brantley ($35 million, four years) before that being the latest examples.

What shocks rivals in the case of Masterson is that he has conceded the years issue in a strong effort to remain with manager Terry Francona, teammates he loves and a coming team, to no avail. It's rare that an ace pitcher aims for deals so short in length. “What’s the hardest commodity to find? By far it’s an ace pitcher,” one rival GM said, like many surprised the Indians haven’t acted on Masterson’s proposals.

As first reported, Masterson proposed deals of three years and even two, at about $17 million per year, several weeks ago, and even his continued excellent pitching, through a dominating spring training and a strong seven shutout innings in his 2014 debut against the A’s didn’t move the team.

Cleveland is said to have countered at a deal for two years and close to $30 million in total, which seems to be way under market for an ace pitcher. Masterson was 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA last year.

And if Masterson isn’t exactly Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields, consider that 1) Masterson led the American League in slugging percentage against last year at .312, 2) he had the fourth worst run support in the AL two years in a row, making that 14-10 record look much better, and 3) his ratio of strikeouts and groundballs to flyballs of 63 percent also led the AL, ahead of second place King Felix Hernandez.

The Indians don’t comment on negotiations that are unsettled, and of course aren’t about to explain why they’ve said no to any one of their own players, especially their Opening Day starter. People who have spoken to them suggest they’ve said there are two issues at play here. One is that some more veteran players they’ve locked up in the past, such as Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook, didn’t always work out, and 2) internal financial issues are at play.

While Cleveland hasn’t been a team to throw money around in the Larry Dolan era, their revenues are said to be up significantly coming off their nice playoff season last year. No surprise, executives with other teams are still stunned the Indians aren’t making a bigger effort to lock up a No. 1 pitcher who just turned 29, leading to speculation as to what could be the matter.

 Masterson has been out with nothing worse than an oblique injury in his career, and he’s been a consistently positive force for the Indians, a guy who’s been a plus in the clubhouse and a willing pitcher to go to the bullpen if necessary (he did that last year even though he led the AL with three shutoutts).

The Indians told Masterson they couldn’t repeat what their cross-state rival Reds did in giving Homer Bailey a $95-million, five-year extension and $105-million, six-year overall deal, and Masterson tried to accommodate them with the short deals. So the mystery continues.

The Indians do deserve praise for keeping some of their better players, including Kipnis, who wanted to stay, as well, and did well to top the $52-million, six-year deal for Matt Carpenter, who actually did slightly better than Kipnis last year, finishing fourth in the NL in MVP voting, to 11th for Kipnis in the AL. The Indians had tried previously with Kipnis and Brantley at much lower levels, but are undoubtedly pleased to have those players under control.

It should be no shock Kipnis, who was to make $554,900 for 2013 before he took a deal that guaranteed nearly 100 times more than that. And the Indians have done well keeping their best position players longterm, though Shin-Soo Choo interestingly was one who turned down a similar-type offers at a similar stage and it paid off when he signed a free agent deal few years later, getting $130 million for seven years, from Texas after earning about what he was offered on a per-year basis through the arbitration process.

The Indians can’t sign up everyone as small-to-mid market team in terms of revenue, and generally they’ve done a good job of trying to lock up the right guys. But the case of Masterson continues to mystify folks.

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