Mensching: 'Pillow' deal could make Justin Masterson, Tigers comfy

By Kurt Mensching, Special to The Detroit News
Justin Masterson has a career record of 60-72 and an ERA of 4.25.

A season removed from making the All-Star Game, free agent starting pitcher Justin Masterson needs a place to lay his head next season. A pillow, if you will. Maybe the Tigers can provide him with one.

Some years ago agent Scott Boras explained the term "pillow contract" like this: It's a comfortable deal, but a short one. "It's soft, it's there," Boras said. "But it's not with you all the time. That's a one-year contract. Your pillow ... you leave it, you come back, it's there."

Comfortable.

The Tigers, too, feel comfortable, or at least Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski has said they are. They're comfortable with their bullpen, which has been the subject of gnashing of teeth by fans but little action by the team's front office. They're comfortable with the options bubbling up to the rotation, if in fact Max Scherzer is not re-signed and David Price not traded.

Their definition of comfort may be fudged a bit for public consumption.

But for as much as this organization is known for making big splashes and stacking its roster with marquee names, the Tigers don't mind trying to find a bargain or two along the way.

Look no further than J.D. Martinez, who the Tigers brought to Detroit for a song and who turned into the team's most consistent and least troublesome outfielder last season.

Or look at Joba Chamberlain, whose cost was low following injuries to his ankle and arm, and who turned into a steady reliever fans were all but begging to be given closer's duty when the more expensive Joe Nathan faltered.

Nathan, mind you, came to Detroit off a pillow contract of his own in Texas while rebuilding his value after Tommy John surgery.

We know how that turned out his first year in Detroit, but it worked well for the Rangers, who got 80 saves and a 2.09 ERA out of Nathan on a two-year, $15 million deal in 2012-13.

Masterson is this year's pillow candidate following a 2014 season that saw his ERA climb to nearly 6. This is a player who turned down an offer from the Indians reportedly in the $14 million per year range earlier this year. The 29-year-old (he turns 30 before next season) right-hander will get nothing near that today.

He is not without an injury concern of his own, but Masterson's recent woes lie in his knee rather than his pitching arm. He hit the disabled list this summer with inflammation in his right knee. The knee pain, and subsequent change in mechanics, might explain the drop in his fastball velocity and some of the poor results he got not just in Cleveland but in St. Louis as well.

Outside that you can find two key areas that Masterson struggled: The rate he walked batters rose by several percent, while the rate of runners stranded on base fell to a career low.

In short, everything was going wrong, which is why he's looking for a pillow and not a luxury suite this offseason.

Teams, though, would be wise to look beyond the ERA and offer Masterson just the kind of one-year comfort he needs while he rebuilds his value.

His strikeout rate remained high at 8.11 Ks per nine innings, or about 20 percent of the batters he faced.

Two indicator statistics -- ones that help you predict what will happen better than ERA -- both point to a better pitcher than his results. His xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching stat, calculated on a similar scale as ERA) of 4.08 may not be gaudy, but it's fine for a bargain at the back end of an already strong rotation. His SIERA (skill-interactive ERA, which uses strikeout rate, walk rate and ground ball percentage) of 4.03 tells a similar tale.

A check on health and maybe a tweak to the mechanics may be all that a team like the Tigers need to feel confident that Masterson will reverse his luck in 2015.

Masterson may never return to the 3.45 ERA he had a year ago with the Indians, but a veteran pitcher like that gives you more confidence than the mix of youngsters the Tigers tried out last year, including lefties Kyle Lobstein and Robbie Ray. Watching Ray's starts was the antithesis of comfortable.

Masterson might be just the kind of pillow the Tigers need.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.