Masterson will sacrifice to stay, so next move belongs to Indians

Justin Masterson won a career-best 14 games last season.

 

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How can the Indians say no to right-hander Justin Masterson?

Unlike a number of recent Cleveland stars — CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, even LeBron James –€” Masterson is willing to make a financial sacrifice to remain in the city.

Masterson’€™s sacrifice would be in length of contract, not average salary; he has proposed a three-year extension on top of his current one-year, $9.7625 deal, according to major-league sources.

Thus, the Indians could buy Masterson out of free agency for considerably less than the Reds paid righty Homer Bailey, who recently agreed to a six-year, $105 million contract.

Masterson, who turns 29 on March 22, is about a year older than Bailey, but the two are statistically comparable. Bailey will average $17.5 million in his deal, and that includes a lower salary for his final year of arbitration. Masterson, the Indians’€™ player rep and a member of the union’€™s executive council, has indicated he would seek market rate over a shorter term — say, $17 million to $18 million per season.

Such an annual salary would represent about one-fifth of the Indians’ current payroll –€” a sizable chunk. The team already is paying first baseman Nick Swisher $14 million per season and center fielder Michael Bourn $12 million, both through 2016. And remember, position players generally are less risky than pitchers.

Then again, what message would the Indians send if they were unwilling to extend Masterson, who is from Beavercreek, Ohio, and speaks openly about his affection for manager Terry Francona and his teammates?

If anything, Masterson might be more valuable to the Indians than Bailey is to the Reds, given the relative strengths of the teams’ rotations. None of the Indians’€™ other returning pitchers made more than 25 starts or threw more than 150 innings last season. The Reds have two other pitchers who exceeded those totals, Mat Latos and Mike Leake, and a third, Johnny Cueto, who has done it before.

Masterson’€™s asking price, too, is relative.

The combined values of the qualifying offers for free agents over the next three years likely will be in the $45 million to $50 million range. Masterson’™s proposal likely is not much above that, and if the Indians dove into the open market next offseason, they probably could not find a comparable pitcher at a similar price.

AROUND THE HORN

Of course, no one will ever confuse the Indians with the game’™s financial behemoths, though recent developments on the revenue side have improved the team’€™s financial position.

The Indians sold SportsTime Ohio to FOX for $230 million in December 2012 and negotiated a 10-year deal with FOX worth at least $400 million, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Last September, the newspaper reported that the team’€™s ticket revenues increased 20 percent from 2012 to ‘€™13. And, like all 30 clubs, the Indians are receiving increases from baseball’s new national television contracts.

Still, the Indians anticipate only a slight bump in season-ticket revenue coming off their first postseason appearance since 2007. The signing of Masterson would take their payroll to an even more uncomfortable level, and perhaps compromise future flexibility.

The Indians could always decide that they simply do not want to spend on Masterson –€“ that would be their choice, a baseball decision. But their public position is that they want to keep him. And if that is the case, it would be difficult for them to ask Masterson to make much more of a compromise, assuming that he is not asking for some ridiculous number.

Masterson might never again possess this much leverage, yet he is willing to postpone his free agency until he is 32, a less-than-ideal age to hit the open market.

How can the Indians say no?

When a potential free agent wants to stay in Cleveland, the proper response is to jump.

BIG MARKET FOR BIG GAME JAMES?

Speaking of the 2014-15 free-agent class, Royals right-hander James Shields seems almost a lock to hit the open market. The two sides are not currently negotiating, sources say, and likely will not negotiate anytime soon.

The only thing working against Shields in free agency would be his age –€” he turns 33 on Dec. 20. But according to baseball-reference.com, his No. 1 statistical comparable is right-hander Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147 million free-agent contract with the Dodgers in Dec. 2012.

The difference, of course, is that Greinke was 29 when he signed his deal, or four years younger than Shields would be when he hits the open market.

Only two pitchers, Sabathia and Justin Verlander, have thrown more innings than Shields over the past seven seasons, and some might perceive such a workload as ominous. On the other hand, Shields is more reliable and accomplished than anyone in the most recent class of domestic free-agent starters.

An eighth straight 200-inning season, combined with his usual above-average performance, would make Shields highly attractive –” particularly if Masterson and Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester sign extensions, leaving Tigers righty Max Scherzer as the only bigger prize on the open market.

THE ATHLETICS’€™ NEW BLUR

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Perhaps the most intriguing player in Athletics camp is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound burner named, appropriately, Billy Burns.

The A’€™s acquired the former 32nd-round pick from the Nationals in December for left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins, who is under club control for this season and next. The Nats had other outfield prospects ahead of Burns –€” Brian Goodwin, Michael Taylor, Steven Souza, Eury Perez –” and projected Burns as more of a left fielder than a center fielder.

One thing, though, stood out for the A’s.

Burns, 24, was one of only three minor leaguers last season with more than 50 stolen bases and an on-base percentage higher than .400. The others: Twins outfielder Byron Buxton, the game’s consensus top prospect, and Astros outfielder Delino DeShields Jr.

As if that is not impressive enough, Burns actually cleared both thresholds by comfortable margins –€” he finished with 74 steals and a .423 OBP at Class-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg.

Speed is by far Burns’ best tool –€” he has hit only one homer in 945 minor-league at-bats, and his arm is below-average. But scouts rave about his instincts as a leadoff man. He bunts. He works counts. And in the words of one scout, "€œhe hustles like Pete Rose."€

Might Burns evolve into a latter-day Brett Butler? Or might he prove little more than the Athletics’ version of Tony Campana? It remains to be seen. For now, Burns is simply a fun blur, with seven stolen bases in the A’s first eight spring games.

BLAST FROM RECENT PAST

Right-hander C.J. Edwards was the most highly regarded prospect the Cubs acquired for righty Matt Garza last July. The entire perspective on the trade will change, though, if third baseman Mike Olt returns to form.

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Could happen — Olt, 25, has looked good in camp, and hit a two-run, pinch-hit homer on Tuesday. Lest anyone forget, he was the 49th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and the Rangers would not trade him straight up for Garza in 2012.

Olt, hampered by concussion/vision problems, batted .197 with a .671 OPS at Triple-A with the Rangers and Cubs last season. But those issues seemingly are behind him, and his current ailment, a sore right throwing shoulder, is expected to be short term.

Ideally, the Cubs would love for Olt to win their third-base job rather than return to Triple-A. They have third-base prospects lined up for virtually every minor-league level –€” Christian Villanueva at Triple-A, Kris Bryant at Double-A and Jeimer Candelario at High Class A.

FRANCISCO COULD BE ON MOVE … AGAIN

Might the Tigers take a look at the Brewers’€™ Juan Francisco, who is out of options and could be squeezed out of Milwaukee by Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay?

The loss of left fielder Andy Dirks to back surgery leaves Alex Avila, Don Kelly and switch-hitters Victor Martinez and Steve Lombardozzi as the only left-handed hitters on the Tigers’€™ roster.

Francisco, 26, is playing third as well as first this spring and also could serve as a DH. A trade would put him on his fourth team in six seasons. But for his career, he has 32 home runs in 709 at-bats and a .731 OPS.

Why would the Brewers keep Overbay over Francisco as their left-handed hitting alternative at first? Defense. Brewers first basemen combined for 21 errors last season. No other team had more than 14.

AND FINALLY …

One executive says of the starting-pitching market: "What’€™s lost in all this is just how well (Scott) Feldman did with perspective. And that the (Tim) Lincecum deal is even crazier."

The Giants re-signed Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million deal before he became a free agent, and his $17.5 million average salary turned out to be the highest that any domestic pitcher received this offseason — not bad for a guy who had a combined 4.76 ERA in 2012 and ‘™13.

Feldman, meanwhile, signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Astros despite a career ERA-plus of 96 (the average is set to 100). And how about Ricky Nolasco? Four years, $49 million from the Twins with a career ERA-plus of 94.