Would trading pitcher Justin Masterson make the Indians a better team in 2014? Considering how starting pitching wasn't a strength this past season, it's difficult to see how trading the staff's best arm helps matters.
Yet according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, rumors of the Tribe listening to offers for Masterson made their way around baseball's winter meetings on Monday night. The key word there, of course, is "listening." It doesn't mean that Indians general manager Chris Antonetti is shopping his ace around in Orlando. But keeping all lines open for whatever offer may come his way means he's doing his job.
Antonetti is also keeping his ears cupped for any inquiries on shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, as tweeted by Rosenthal's colleague, Jon Paul Morosi. However, Cabrera's availability makes more sense, given that the Indians have Mike Aviles already on-hand to play shortstop in the short term. More importantly, top prospect Francisco Lindor could very well be ready for major-league duty at some point during the 2014 season. (Optimistic Tribe fans may hope the 20-year-old phenom wins the job in spring training.)
Masterson, 28, went 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA in 32 appearances (29 starts) for Cleveland, striking out 195 batters in 193 innings. However, the right-hander was unavailable for most of September due to an oblique injury. He pitched two scoreless innings of relief during the Indians' wild-card playoff game versus the Rays.
Of most concern to the Indians, presumably, is that Masterson has one more year of arbitration eligibility in 2014 and can thus become a free agent after next season. If Masterson is looking for a five-year deal in the $75 million range and Cleveland's front office doesn't want to meet that price, then perhaps it's in the team's best interests to explore dealing him for some players — preferably pitchers — that would be under club control for multiple seasons.
In that regard, a Masterson deal could be similar to the Tigers' recent trade of Doug Fister. Detroit received Robbie Ray, a pitching prospect who could help them in the near future, in addition to reliever Ian Krol and utilityman Steve Lombardozzi.
Of course, there are some key differences. The Tigers could afford to trade Fister with Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer (at least for one more season) in their rotation. Plus, Fister wasn't Detroit's No. 1 pitcher. The Indians would surely seek a bigger haul in return, despite Masterson being in his walk year.
And unless one of the players acquired by Cleveland is ready to pitch in the majors, trading Masterson would leave a major hole at the top of the rotation. The Indians have already lost Scott Kazmir to free agency during this offseason and also face Ubaldo Jimenez signing elsewhere.
Is Masterson expendable? Danny Salazar looked like a pitcher capable of taking that No. 1 spot in the Indians' rotation with his performance this past season. In 10 starts, he compiled a 3.12 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 52 innings. He'll be 24 years old by the time Cleveland reports to spring training in February. Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zack McAllister could be the top three starters for the Tribe, but who fills in those last two spots on the starting staff?
Trevor Bauer would hopefully take one of those openings. Could Carlos Carrasco take the other? Antonetti could also look for a fifth starter still available before or during the spring. Banking on Bauer and Carrasco could be taking a chance Antonetti doesn't want to risk. But it could be argued that the Indians might have the depth to help cover Masterson's loss if he's traded.
Trading Cabrera carries fewer questions. He can also be a free agent after next season, but as mentioned, Cleveland has Aviles and/or Lindor to take over at shortstop in light of a deal. Cabrera's 2013 performance doesn't help Antonetti out, however. Though he missed some time with a quad injury, Cabrera is coming off the worst season of his career. He batted .242 with a .700 OPS, 35 doubles 14 home runs and 64 RBI in 562 plate appearances. Between that and his contract status, the Indians likely wouldn't get as much in return as hoped.
Surprisingly, one team that appears to be an ideal trade partner for Cabrera isn't interested. According to the New York Post's Joel Sherman, the Mets aren't in on any such discussions right now. While Cabrera would be an obvious upgrade at shortstop, Mets GM Sandy Alderson may prefer to pursue him next winter as they'll likely have a stronger club with Matt Harvey recovered from Tommy John surgery for the 2015 season.
Other teams that could be interested in Cabrera include the Yankees, Dodgers and Pirates. Antonetti might be better off waiting until midseason to see if demand increases for a shortstop, however. A contender in need of someone at that position might be more willing to deal for Cabrera and risk him leaving after the season if a playoff spot or World Series bid is at stake.
The same could apply to Masterson. The Indians are smart to listen to any and all offers for two of their best players, each of whom might leave after the 2014 season. But demand could be higher at the July 31 trade deadline. Perhaps Antonetti will take note of who shows the most interest this week in Orlando and get back in touch with those GMs six or seven months from now.