In 2009, the Indians traded Victor Martinez, one of the franchise's most popular and well-liked players, to the Boston Red Sox for three pitchers: Nick Hagadone, Bryan Price, and Justin Masterson. Masterson was the headliner of the deal, as he was already a major-league contributor, albeit out of the bullpen. Now Justin Masterson is the one leaving, in a trade to St. Louis for outfield prospect James Ramsey.
The Indians saw the potential for Masterson to be a starter, and immediately placed him in the rotation. To say there were some growing pains would be an understatement. Justin's stuff was undeniable, but nobody knew whether he'd be able to keep his mechanics under control through an entire game. And there was his vulnerability against left-handed pitching that for a time seemed to doom the experiment. Teams would load up their lineups with left-handed batters, and even if the left-handed batters weren't all that good, they'd have success against Masterson.
But then everything started to fall into place. Masterson learned to pitch inside to left-handers so that they couldn't just look away, and while he never dominated them, he pitched well enough against them to succeed. For against right-handed hitters, his sinker/slider combination was deadly. In fact, at times his slider may have been the most unhittable pitch in the majors.
And so the Indians had themselves a durable, at times erratic, at times dominating starting pitcher. Even in his best years I don't think many would have placed him among the elite in baseball, but he was in the tier right below the best pitchers in the game. Beyond the performance on the field, Masterson was, like the player he was traded for, one of the most well-liked players in the game. However bad he was going (and sometimes bad was really bad), his attitude never changed. Last night his teammates honored him by wearing their socks high, which says more about what they felt about him than any words could.
As Cleveland fans, we know the career life-cycle of a major-league player all too well. We've seen many players come to the club as inexperienced rookies or prospects, we've seen the growing pains that come with learning to play at the highest level, and when that player has his first success, we feel a bit of pride. And we've seen those players leave, most often because of pending free agency, poor performance, or, in Masterson's case, a little of both. Even though you know that the end was coming, it still pains you to see it arrive, because it marks the abrupt end of a relationship.
Yesterday's trade reminds me a bit of a trade the Indians made in 1996. The club was rolling on its way to another Central Division title, but on July 29, Carlos Baerga, a player who was a core player from almost the beginning of the Peters/Hart rebuild, was traded to the New York Mets. Baerga, like Masterson, was unversally liked by his teammates, but he'd had a sub-par season and the team got better by making the trade. There was a sense of shock that Baerga was gone, but the team moved on and cruised to a 99-62 record.
Before the season, if you'd tell me that the Indians would trade Justin Masterson at the July trade deadline, I'd think that the team would be throwing in the towel. But that's not what this trade represents. Already the Indians have been mentioned as very interested in John Lackey, and I'm sure he isn't the only the pitcher the club is trying to acquire. If they can pull off an acquisition tomorrow, today's trade would represent a nice set of deadline moves. But even while we look forward to what trade the Indians pull off later today, we would be remiss if we didn't pause to remember Masterson the player and Masterson the person.