CLEVELAND — After his discount long-term contract offer was rejected this spring, Justin Masterson probably felt his days in Cleveland were numbered.
Wednesday, the Indians traded the right-hander to the St. Louis Cardinals for minor league outfielder James Ramsey, bringing an end to Masterson’s tenure with the Tribe — a stint that began when Cleveland acquired him from the Red Sox at the trading deadline in 2009.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Masterson, who was at Progressive Field when the trade was announced and met with the media shortly after. “I’m sad to leave the fellas, but excited to get to St. Louis and looking forward to what they have got going.”
Masterson, 29, has been the Indians’ Opening Day starter the past three seasons. He was an All-Star last year and has been a veteran clubhouse leader, while holding down the title of ace since 2012.
“It was an extraordinarily difficult decision for us,” general manager Chris Antonetti said of the trade. “It’s a little bit of a unique situation, but one that made sense for us. It will give Justin the opportunity to start every five days for the Cardinals, and for us, we’re able to get back a young outfielder that we feel will help us on the major league level moving forward.”
Second baseman Jason Kipnis, a teammate of Masterson’s since 2011, tweeted: “The business side of this game can suck sometime #bigfella #bearhug.”
After his contract proposal was nixed, Masterson, who agreed to a one-year deal worth $9.7625 million to avoid arbitration, proceeded to produce the worst season of his big league career.
Though he is expected to be activated this weekend to start for St. Louis, Masterson has been on the disabled list with right knee inflammation since July 8, and has posted a 4-6 record and 5.51 ERA over 19 starts.
“The year has not unfolded the way any of us anticipated for Justin,” Antonetti said. “It’s been a struggle.”
“This year statistically has been pretty difficult,” said manager Terry Francona, who was the manager in Boston when Masterson was traded to Cleveland. “We kept trying to get him to a point where he could get hot and it really never happened.”
Masterson has displayed a lack of command — 56 walks and 11 hit batters over 98 innings — and his velocity has been down, with no explanation from him or the Indians.
“What has hurt the most is not being where I want to be, should be and where everyone wants me to be,” he said. “It frustrates me as a competitor and as a man.”
Antonetti and Francona were quick to point out that Masterson’s trade does not mean the Indians have switched the focus to next season as today’s deadline approaches.
“We’re not,” Antonetti said when asked about the perception the Indians are raising the white flag on the season. “Clearly, our focus is to continue to try to win as many games as we can in the second half. We continue to believe in the guys in the clubhouse. We’re currently in the midst of conversations to bring players in that will impact our major league team.”
“We will never raise the white flag. That’s not an option,” Francona said. “We’re gonna play.”
The Masterson trade does free up money to assist the Indians in other potential endeavors.
“I’m not sure economics have ever been a limiting factor as we look to try and improve the team this year,” Antonetti said. “Obviously, a move like this helps, because it creates additional flexibility, but I think it’s more based on, ‘Is there the right player at the right player value?’ And if there is, then ownership has encouraged us to pursue those.”
The Indians have reportedly shown interest in Boston right-hander John Lackey, who is expected to be dealt by today’s deadline. San Francisco is also reportedly interested in Cleveland shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who is in the final year of his contract and is not expected to return next season. The Giants reportedly want him to play second base.
If Masterson does not sign an extension with the third-place Cardinals, who trailed NL Central leader Milwaukee by 1½ games through Tuesday, he could return to Cleveland as a free-agent acquisition this offseason.