Is Justin Masterson Trade Enough to Steady Shaky Cardinals Roster?

The St. Louis Cardinals have acquired right-handed starter Justin Masterson from the Cleveland Indians, reports Peter Gammons.

 

Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweeted that the Cardinals are sending outfield prospect James Ramsey to the Indians in exchange for Masterson.

With Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha both on the disabled list and Shelby Miller struggling to find himself in the rotation, the Cardinals were rumored to be in the market for starting pitching before the deadline, with Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggesting that the team would make a run at either David Price, Jon Lester or Cole Hamels. However, with the acquisition of Masterson, a deal for either left-handed ace now appears less likely.

But is Justin Masterson the missing piece that the Cardinals need to reach the postseason, or is this just the first of several moves they’ll make before tomorrow’s non-waiver trade deadline?

Masterson, 29, was the Tribe’s ace last season, posting a 3.45 ERA, 9.1 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 in 193 innings spanning 29 starts. The right-hander also established new career highs in wins (14), shutouts (three) and strikeouts (195) while registering a 58.0 percent ground-ball rate. Meanwhile, his strong performance earned him a spot on the AL All-Star team.

In general, Masterson served as the Indians’ top pitcher from 2011-2013, going a combined 37-35 with a 3.86 ERA (3.60 FIP), 7.5 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in 615.1 total innings. He averaged 32 starts and more than 205 innings per season during that stretch.

However, the 2014 season has been a much different story for Masterson.

In 19 starts this year spanning 98 innings, Masterson has pitched to a disappointing 5.51 ERA (4.08 FIP) to go along with a 5.1 BB/9 and a career-worst 1.653 WHIP.

More concerning is the fact that Masterson has dealt with a knee issue for a majority of the season, an injury which currently has him on the 15-day disabled list, though he’s expected to be activated over the weekend.

Besides his poor numbers, Masterson’s injury also has seemingly affected the quality of his stuff, as his fastball has averaged 90.5 mph this season after averaging 93.1 mph in 2013, per FanGraphs.

A strong case also can be made that Masterson’s knee injury also has affected his vertical release points this season.

As a result of his lowered release, Masterson has seen a decrease in vertical movement across the board, which, when combined with his drop in velocity, could explain why he’s been so hittable.

Meanwhile, Masterson’s individual pitch values, courtesy of FanGraphs, show just how much those factors have hindered his success:

As you can see, Masterson has still been effective with his slider and changeup this year, though considerably less than he was in 2013. At the same time, it’s clear that his fastball issues have directly influenced his poor performance this season.

The good news is that Masterson won’t have to pitch like an ace with the Cardinals. Plus, manager Mike Matheny is a firm believer that Masterson still has "it."

Via Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com:

You also can't get too far away from what this guy did last year, not just statistically but look at his stuff a year ago. It was just filthy. You don't lose it that quick, especially when you're 29. Maybe there is a little bit of alterations. I know his previous team was doing the exact same thing, trying to get him back to the pitcher he was in 2013. There are very, very talented people over there. But if we have an opportunity here to put our best foot forward, we'll see how we can help him. Hopefully it brings out the best.

Given the team’s current rotation of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly, Masterson figures to slide in as a No. 3 or 4 starter for the Cardinals. Of course, that projection doesn’t factor in right-handers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, both of whom have endured their struggles in the rotation, as well as phenom Michael Wacha, whom the organization believes will be fully healthy come September.

Therefore, even if Masterson doesn’t meet expectations with his new team, it still gives the organization the flexibility to manage the workloads of its young arms more cautiously.

A deal for either Price, Lester or Hamels would have cost the Cardinals a big piece of their future, as it presumably would have involved them trading at least two young players from a list of outfielders Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty, Miller and Martinez. However, by setting their sights a bit lower and targeting Masterson, the organization only had to part with outfielder James Ramsey rather than its other highly coveted young talents.

Ramsey, the No. 23 overall pick in the 2012 draft, has hit for both average and power since beginning his professional career, with a .266/.368/.434 batting line, 30 home runs, 39 doubles and 101 RBI in 235 games over the last three seasons.

At the time of the trade, the 24-year-old Ramsey, a left-handed batter, was enjoying a breakout campaign at Double-A Springfield—where he played 93 games in 2013—with a vastly improved .300/.389/.527 batting line, 13 home runs and 14 doubles through 67 games. However, despite his impressive numbers this season, Ramsey still projects as more of a fourth outfielder than an everyday player, due to his lack of consistent power and struggles against left-handed pitching.

Additionally, Ramsey was also without a clear path to the major leagues anytime soon due to the presence of Taveras, Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, not to mention the team’s other outfielders at the major league level, ahead of him on the organizational depth chart. As a result, he became perfect trade bait for the Cardinals in their pursuit of Masterson.

Overall, trading Ramsey for Masterson is a great deal for the Cardinals, even if the right-hander fails to regain his form from previous seasons. In addition to offering St. Louis a veteran presence and depth in its starting rotation, the decision to acquire Masterson also means that the organization won’t have to rely on its young arms down the stretch as heavily as it did last season.

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