The St. Louis Cardinals are reportedly standing on the sidelines of the free-agent pitching marking, taking an "opportunistic" approach. If a No. 5 starter or swing man type is left behind by the market come January, according to FOX's Ken Rosenthal, the Cardinals might sign him as Carlos Martinez insurance. For now, though, they are doing more observing than bidding. And the developing market for former Cardinals righty Justin Masterson might give us a clue on what January St. Louis opportunism could look like.
Faced with a rotation weakened by injuries, the Cardinals acquired righthanded starter Masterson from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for outfield prospect James Ramsey at last season's non-waiver trade deadline. At the time, the 24-year-old Ramsey was batting .300/.389/.527 (.411 wOBA, 161 wRC+*) in the hitter-friendly Texas League while playing his home games in the left-handed hitter's haven of Hammons Field. Masterson, who was on the disabled list with a knee injury, had just thrown 108 pitches over 6 2/3 innings for Columbus while on a rehab assignment with Columbus, allowing five earned runs on five hits and six walks. The Cardinals traded six (or seven, as is often the case) years of cost-controlled Ramsey for two months of Masterson.
*Remember that Fangraphs' minor-league wRC+ is not park-adjusted. It is only scaled to the player's league so that 100 is average, with every point above 100 being a percentage above average and every point below 100 representing a percent below average.
The trade was a wager, made by the Cardinals front office, that the Cardinals coaching staff could help Masterson rediscover the form he had shown during his All-Star 2013 season. That year, Masterson struck out 24.3% of opposing batsmen while walking 9.5% and posting a 3.45 ERA (89 ERA-) and 3.35 FIP (87 FIP-) over 193 innings. But Masterson had experienced health problems and ineffectiveness in 2014. His K% had dropped to 20.6% while his BB% rose to 12.4. Master's ERA and FIP followed his BB rate's lead, rising to 5.51 (148 ERA-) and 4.08 (111 FIP-) with the Indians.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz tweeted that the Cardinals felt they had diagnosed what was ailing Masterson—a mechanical issue—and the club felt confident that, with an adjustment, Masterson would be performing like his old self again. After two lackluster starts, as reported in the Post-Dispatch by beat writer Derrick Goold, Masterson, Adam Wainwright, and unnamed members of the coaching staff reviewed video of Masterson and believed they discovered an adjustment that would help his bread-and-butter pitch, the sinker, be more effective:
During the days since the start, Masterson scoured video and convened with Adam Wainwright and the pitching coaches to dissect. Masterson said they saw his backside collapsing instead of remaining tall — as he is — through the delivery. Masterson was on the disabled list with a knee injury when the Cardinals acquired him, and it’s common for mechanics to erode to compensate for soreness or weakness. What Masterson described about his mechanics dropping instead of driving to the plate would complicate his command, his sinker’s movement, and even his velocity.
How the mechanical diagnosis specifically impacted Masterson's delivery is unclear. But however "remaining tall" and "driving to the plate" manifested itself, the positive effect on Masterson's pitching results was short-lived. The veteran's mechanics ultimately became such a mess that the Cardinals had him try pitching only out of the stretch in attempt to simplify his delivery tot he plate. That adjustment didn't work either.
The Cards wound up relegating Masterson to the bullpen. St. Louis did not include him on the active roster for either the NLDS or NLCS. The Cardinals were not reported to have expressed any interest in signing Masterson to a return engagement in the birds on the bat after he filed for free agency.
By season's end, Masterson had posted a 5.88 ERA (160 ERA-) and 4.50 FIP (123 FIP-) over 128 2/3 innings between St. Louis and Cleveland in 2014.
Now, according to a Jon Heyman tweet, the Rangers and Red Sox have reportedly offered Boston's one-time second-round draft pick and farmhand a contract. The offer from the Red Sox is reportedly a one-year deal. I haven't seen any details on the Texas offer.
One thing is clear: the Winter Meetings pitching market is no longer waiting on the drawn-out Jon Lester talks. Francisco Liriano inked a three-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates worth $39 million. Now the Rangers and Red Sox had made offers to Masterson, a lower-tier free agent who seemed most likely to get a one-year, make-good contract this offseason. This development is an interesting one as it relates back to the Cardinals, who are standing on the sidelines of the pitching free-agent market with an opportunistic posture. A late-winter signing of a No. 5 starter type might look an awful lot like the deal Masterson ultimately winds up getting.