Oakland Athletics’ Should Sign Pitcher Justin Masterson to Minor League Deal in 2016

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When baseball players are offered a big multi-year contract from their long-time team, they typically have two choices: take less than what they’re worth, or gamble on themselves in free agency. Former Cleveland Indians ace Justin Masterson did the latter, and it backfired in a big way. However, there’s still plenty of talent left in the tank, and the Oakland Athletics should consider giving the big right-hander a second chance.

[Editor’s Note: Full disclosure – on Saturday, I proposed this same signing on Wahoo’s on First. The Athletics and Indians have fairly similar rotations, and I believe Masterson would be a great fit for either team due to their current needs and the way they construct their rosters.]

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It wasn’t long ago that Masterson was an All-Star pitcher, perhaps even in consideration for the Cy Young Award, right up until he was sidelined with an injury at the end of the 2013 season. The Cleveland Indians just barely clinched a Wild Card spot, thanks largely in part to Masterson’s effort. Since the minor league season had long been over, Masterson couldn’t exactly rehab and get stretched out, so he became the Indians’ impromptu closer after the departure of reliever Chris Perez. Fittingly, he was on the mound in the ninth inning of the Tribe’s last game of the season, when they defeated the Twins for a tenth straight win and clinched the top AL Wild Card spot.

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Heading into the 2014 season, the Indians tried to lock up their ace to a long-term deal, but Masterson saw the size of contracts signed by similar pitchers like the Reds’ Homer Bailey and wanted more. He claimed that as a union rep, he felt that he would be a disservice to other players to accept the deal the Indians had offered, but it’s entirely possible that he just got a bit too greedy and decided to gamble.

Masterson was heralded as the ace of the team heading into next year, but his Spring Training struggles persisted and he was soon usurped by future-Cy-Young-winner Corey Kluber. The Indians dealt him to the Cardinals, where he only got worse. This season, he signed a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox that ended with his release on August 9th.

That backstory might make Masterson sound like someone whose career has already ended, but there have been plenty of instances where pitchers have rebounded from much worse. Having an extra two months to recover may allow any lingering injuries to heal, and that in turn could make him a valuable asset to a team.

The Oakland Athletics’ will have Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman and Chris Bassitt next season, but the fifth spot remains fairly fluid. If Jarrod Parker or A.J. Griffin return, the A’s will have a full rotation, but otherwise they will be depending on an inexperienced starter to carry the team. Masterson could provide a veteran presence in a very young rotation, and he has a good reputation as a great clubhouse personality and mentor to young pitchers.

Even if he doesn’t make the rotation out of spring training, the A’s should consider offering him a Barry Zito-like deal. There won’t be much competition in the bidding for the right-hander, as his 5.61 ERA this season has scared away most potential teams.

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Masterson’s peripheral numbers suggest that he can turn it around. His strikeout rate – while not what it was in his stellar 2013 campaign – is actually higher than it was during his prior seasons with the Indians. His walk rate has remained consistent as well, and although it is higher than average, it isn’t so abnormal that he can’t still be an effective starter.

What has changed? The dreaded BABIP – batting average on balls in play. Masterson’s BABIP has been .339 in each of the last two seasons, an increase of nearly 30 points over his career average, and 45 points higher than his BABIP in 2013. More of Masterson’s pitches are going for hits instead of finding defenders, and it’s having a dramatic effect on his results. He isn’t allowing any more hard contact that he has in the past, nor have his softly-hit balls decreased. Hitters are getting lucky against him. He’s given up home runs a little more often, which hurt him more because of the walks, but he’s also continued to have a ground ball rate over 50 percent.

All of these signs point to a turnaround, and whichever team claims him cheaply over the off-season could find themselves with a hidden gem if he can put it together. The Oakland Athletics need to take that gamble.

Next: A's Defects Are Costing Gray the Cy Young

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