The Cardinals fortified their rotation on Wednesday, though not via a blockbuster deal for Jon Lester or David Price. Instead, the team acquired sinkerballer Justin Masterson from the Indians in exchange for Double A outfielder James Ramsey.
Almost certainly, it's a lower-impact move than acquiring either southpaw, and one guaranteed to raise some eyebrows because of the level of risk that it carries. The 29-year-old Masterson, an All-Star as recently as one year ago, may have been the most established pitcher in Cleveland's rotation, but he's been torched for a 5.51 ERA through 19 starts, just seven of which were quality. While his strikeout and home run rates have been strong (8.5 and 0.6 per nine, respectively), he's walked a career-worst 5.1 per nine while being strafed for a .355 batting average on balls in play, the third-highest mark in the American League among pitchers with at least 90 innings. Meanwhile, his 58.5 percent groundball rate ranks second among the same set.
Masterson is eight innings short of qualifying for the official AL lead in those categories because he's been on the disabled list since July 8 due to inflammation in his right knee, and it's fair to wonder the extent to which the injury has been the cause of his declining velocity and subpar results. Via BrooksBaseball.net, the average speed of his sinker, which he's thrown 53 percent of the time this year, has fallen from 91.2 mph last year to 90.0 this year, while that of his four-seamer, which he's thrown 27 percent of the time, has plunged from 94.1 mph to 91.4; meanwhile, his changeup is down 2.7 mph as well.
The Indians planned to activate Masterson on Friday following two rehab starts, the most recent of which saw him walk six and allow five runs in 6 2/3 innings for Triple A Columbus. While the results weren't as good as his previous start (five innings, two runs, two walks), Masterson did increase his pitch count from 71 to 108 and was happier with his performance, telling Fox Sports Ohio's Joe Reedy, "I thought it was good and better than the last time, which is what you are looking for. I felt pretty good. For the most part, I'm happy with it."
Masterson will join a Cardinals rotation that has featured a whole lot of uncertainty beyond the strong performances of Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn. Jaime Garcia is out for the year due to surgery to alleviate his thoracic outlet syndrome, while Michael Wacha hasn't pitched since June 17 due to a stress reaction in his shoulder and likely won't be back until early September. Joe Kelly has been rocked for 12 runs in 14 2/3 innings across three starts since returning from a nearly three-month absence due to a hamstring strain, while Shelby Miller (4.20 ERA, 87 ERA+) has been unable to recapture his rookie form. Though the unit's 3.34 ERA ranks fourth in the league, that figure rises to 4.10 beyond the Wainwright/Lynn duo.
Masterson is a pending free agent who's making $9.7 million this year and was said to be seeking a multi-year deal worth around $17 million per year when he broke off talks with the Indians. He will benefit at least somewhat by leaving behind one of the AL's worst defenses. The Indians' .688 defensive efficiency ranks 14th in the league, 20 points below average, while their −66 Defensive Runs Saved is the league's worst total by a whopping 21 runs. By comparison, the Cardinals' .700 defensive efficiency ranks fourth in the NL, nine points above average, and their 57 DRS is the league's highest total. All of which is to say that even if Masterson's walk rate doesn't improve substantially, his performance — if he's healthy, that is — should more closely resemble his 4.08 FIP. If he can trim that rate, he'll revert to being what he's been for the bulk of his career, the fabled League Average Innings Muncher (LAIM).
Masterson's arrival does carry an additional benefit by allowing the team to keep Carlos Martinez in the bullpen, a role in which he flourished late last season but one where his results had fallen off earlier this year. In relief, the 22-year-old righty has been tagged for a 4.67 ERA while striking out 7.3 per nine in 34 2/3 innings, while in the rotation he's yielded a 4.45 ERA while whiffing 9.5 per nine in seven starts totaling just 32 1/3 innings.
Going the other direction in the deal is Ramsey, the Cardinals' first-round pick (No. 23 overall) in 2012 out of Florida State. The 24-year-old Ramsey has hit .300/.389/.527 with 13 homers in 281 plate appearances at Double A Springfield while splitting time between centerfield and rightfield. Prior to the season, Baseball America ranked Ramsey as St. Louis' No. 8 prospect, calling him "a gamer with great makeup," albeit one lacking standout tools. Ramsey profiles as a gap hitter with above-average speed but not tremendous power (Springfield's ballpark has been described as "cozy"), with strong instincts, good range and a solid arm. In a system where Oscar Taveras, Randall Grichuk and Steven Piscotty are struggling to break into the big club's outfield, he's surplus, and the Cardinals aren't likely to miss him greatly.
Ramsey should provide a near-ready option for the Indians' outfield, and dealing Masterson alleviates the the awkward question of whether or not to make a qualifying offer to an underperforming, banged-up pitcher who's clearly capable of better. But beyond that, while the deal should help the playoff push for St. Louis (56-49, two games out in the NL Central and half a game back in the wild card race entering play on Wednesday), its implications are less clear for the Indians (52-54, 6 1/2 out in the AL Central, five back in the wild card). Cleveland has lost seven out of its last nine games, and in a seven-day span, the team's playoff odds (via Baseball Prospectus) have plummeted from 26.8 percent to 12.7 percent.
Masterson was the only Indians starter who had previously spent a full year in the rotation — of the remaining starting five (Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Zack McAllister, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin), only Kluber has an ERA below 4.25 or an ERA+ above 90. The other four pitchers have all spent time in the minors as well as the majors; it may take the rest of this season to figure out which of them are truly capable of helping the team in 2015, given the extent to which some of them, such as Salazar (4.96 ERA, 1.4 HR/9) and McAllister (5.65 ERA), have disappointed this year.
If that's the case, Cleveland may have more moves ahead of it, and for all we know, the Cardinals could still be in on Price or Lester. With just under 24 hours to go before the non-waiver deadline, we may not have heard the last from either team.