28-year-old starting pitcher, and impending free agent, Justin Masterson has turned the tide on the Indians, reportedly proposing a three or four year extension with the club that could pay him between $40 and $60 million, writes the Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes. The deal, which was supposedly proposed on Sunday, has a reported expiration date of March 31st (Opening Day), at which time the two sides plan to break off negotiations until after the season. Chris Cotillo first reported the extension talks last week.
Masterson's interest in signing a shorter-term deal was reported by CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman earlier today. According to Heyman, both sides appear optimistic about coming to an agreement. If Masterson, who is represented by agent Randy Rowley, can net $60 million (a sum which seems light compared to what he would get in free agency), it would make him the highest paid Indian ever, surpassing Travis Hafner, who signed a four-year, $57 million contract back in 2007.
The obvious comparison to Masterson is the recently extended Homer Bailey, whom the Reds gave six-years and $105 million (he could earn up to $130 million with a 7th year mutual option) to last month. While the soon to be 29-year-old Masterson is just over a year older than Bailey, he arguably has the stronger track record of success, pitching at least 190 innings in each of the past three seasons while accruing a 9.6 WAR. Bailey has been similarly strong over the past two seasons, netting a 5.7 WAR in a total of 417 innings pitched.
Another strong comparable would be fellow impending free agent Jon Lester, who is also currently discussing a contract extension with his respective club. Lester, a similar caliber pitcher to Masterson (albeit with a much longer track record and history of ace-level performance), could be in line for a $100+ million payday.
Masterson first arrived in Cleveland (by way of the Red Sox) as the centerpiece in the Indians' trade of Victor Martinez at the trade deadline in 2009. A former top-100 prospect (he was ranked 64th by Baseball America in 2008), Masterson immediately earned a gig in Cleveland's starting rotation, though he posted sub-par numbers in both 2010 and down the stretch in 2009. He finally broke out at the age of 26 in 2011. In 216 innings, he posted a 3.21 ERA (122 ERA+) and 4.3 WAR, while also notching a 2.43 SO/BB ratio and 55.1% groundball rate.
His performance dipped in 2010, as he posted just a 4.93 ERA in 206.1 innings, though his FIP was slightly better at 4.16. Last year, Masterson missed some time due to injury, but largely returned to his 2011 level of performance as he put up a 3.45 ERA (3.35 FIP) and 3.4 WAR in 193 innings. His peripherals were at a career-best, with his 9.1 SO/9 besting his previous career high by over two strikeouts over a nine-inning game (this is excluding his 2009 season when he had a 8.3 SO/9, but spent a majority of the season in relief). He also posted an absurdly high 58% groundball rate, which led the majors handily. With his ground-ball skills and increasing ability to strike batters out, it's possible that Masterson could get even better as he enters his 30's.
If Masterson were to reach free agency, he would join Lester, Max Sherzer, and James Shields in a crowded starting pitching market, though it will presumably thin out as Lester and Sherzer (and now Masterson) appear to be good bets at landing an extension.