CLEVELAND — Despite signing Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis to extensions, there were many who weren’t happy that the Indians were unable to agree to a long-term deal with Justin Masterson.
Four months later, those same people would say that ended up being a blessing in disguise. With a day remaining until the trade deadline, the Indians dealt Masterson to the Cardinals for outfielder James Ramsey.
Masterson said on Tuesday that he wasn’t surprised that his name was being brought up in trade conversations. Besides being in the final year of his contract, Masterson was 4-6 with a 5.51 ERA. For someone who made the All-Star Game the past two seasons, the last thing anyone expected was for the right-hander to have the second-highest ERA in the Majors among pitchers who have started 19 or more games this year.
"What has hurt the most is not being where I want to be, should be and where everyone wants me to be," Masterson said on Wednesday, about two hours after he found out he was traded. "It frustrates me more than any singular person in this world. As a competitor and as a man."
After pitching seven scoreless innings on Opening Night at Oakland, Masterson’s struggles began in his April 6 start against Minnesota when he tweaked his right knee. He gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings in that game but didn’t say until late June that his knee was causing him problems.
Health issues led to mechanical issues, including a noticeable drop in velocity and problems with controlling his pitches as his sinker didn’t have bite and his slider was wild. Mechanical issues then led to more bad habits with delivery that then spilled over into a loss in confidence.
In four of Masterson’s final five starts with the Indians, he made it to the sixth inning just once. He was 0-2 and had a 9.50 ERA, giving up 19 runs in 27 innings while opponents had a .355 batting average. Of his 405 pitches, only 53 percent were strikes.
The nadir came in what would be his final Indians start, which was July 7 against the Yankees. In a 5-3 loss at Progressive Field, Masterson matched his shortest start of the season by going two innings and allowing five runs on six hits with three walks, a hit batter and a strikeout. Of the 54 pitches thrown by Masterson, only 24 were strikes. A day later, he was placed on the disabled list.
"He worked extremely hard and extremely well to get out of the rut he was in. I think he is on the right track," pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "The DL was a good time for him to get his mechanics back and make sure he had his mind right."
Masterson was scheduled to return to the rotation for the Indians on Saturday against the Rangers, but there were questions about whether he was really healthy after walking six and giving up five runs in 6 2/3 innings last Friday in a rehab start with Triple-A Columbus.
"If it were easy to put our finger on it, then we would have been able to work successfully with Masty to turn it around sooner. It’s just, to date, it hasn’t happened," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "Hopefully with him transitioning and getting a fresh start with a new league and a new team that he can have the success he’s had in the past."
The underlying question will always be if the lack of an extension played any role in this year’s struggles. The six-year, $105 million extension that Homer Bailey signed with the Reds during Spring Training served as a benchmark for both sides that was hard to attain. The Indians tried to do a shorter deal that is in the ballpark in terms of average money but that fell apart.
"I don’t know how close and how you put it into words. Technically I was a hundred feet away because they were in the other room," said Masterson when asked about the negotiations. "We were kind of close. It was serious but not crazy serious. We were in kind of a moderate spot."
The dilemma ended up being whether an extension was more about what Masterson accomplished or potential. In the Reds’ case it was seeing Bailey as a future ace while Masterson already was. For those wondering, Bailey is 8-5 with a 4.03 ERA this season.
Added Antonetti about the talks: "It’s hard to say. Again, there is no such thing as close. Either you have a deal or you don’t. I think both sides made an earnest attempt to try to reach an agreement. We just weren’t able to get to the finish line."
With Thursday’s trade deadline rapidly approaching and because Masterson has been on the DL the last three weeks, the Indians rotation remains the same — in flux. They have the third-worst ERA in the American League at 4.40 and second-least wins with 30.
Corey Kluber, who pitched a complete-game, three-hitter in a 2-0 win over Seattle on Wednesday, is the only consistent pitcher at the moment. After that, there are a ton of question marks and a lack of experience.
Danny Salazar had two quality starts last week after spending two months in Columbus, but he has battled control problems for most of the season. Zach McAllister needs to develop another pitch besides his fastball, Trevor Bauer has shown flashes of consistency but can be stubborn at times while Josh Tomlin has given up too many home runs. T.J. House has been a bit of a surprise and can supply innings but is still learning.
"We want to find out about some of these guys. Sometimes you wait until September or spring training you don’t get the real answer. So, having some guys in the fire isn’t necessarily a bad thing," Francona said.
Francona also said that they did that a lot during the second half last year but at least they also had some more veterans with Scott Kazmir along with a strong second half from Ubaldo Jimenez. That’s why if the Indians can find a way to get John Lackey from Boston, that would help out. Besides being a veteran, Lackey has another year on his contract.
The Indians could also offer Boston an outfield prospect, which they seem to have an abundance of. That was even before they got Ramsey in the Masterson deal. Ramsey, 24, was a first-round pick by the Cardinals in the 2012 draft. He has spent the entire season in Double-A Springfield where he has hit .300 with 13 home runs and 36 RBI in 67 games. He was the Cardinals representative in the All-Star Futures Game two weeks ago in Minnesota.
"We have a lot of other conversations there still going. Whether or not that ends up materializing into anything is really difficult to say," Antonetti said. "I think people often look at it like you’re either buyers or sellers. I think teams may take a more nuanced approach to that. You may have different goals heading into the deadline. It could be repositioning your roster, taking advantage of a place where you have some depth to supplement another area. So, I think it’s a little more nuanced than buying or selling."