Indians are in a tough spot with Masterson

Justin Masterson says he wants to stay with the Indians.

The fans like that.

Masterson is willing to sign a three-year deal for $17 million a season.

The Cleveland ownership probably doesn’t like that.

Masterson is the ace of the Indians staff. He’s 28 years old, and he’s entering his free agent season. He was, without question, a big part of Cleveland making the postseason in 2013.

So when he says he wants to stay, fans – burned by everyone from Albert Belle to Jim Thome to LeBron James – are on board.

When the news broke Thursday night that contract talks had broken off, lots of fans took to social media and complained about the Indians’ ownership.

I don’t want to defend or blame anyone here, but I do want to inject some reality.

The Indians won’t be able to win consistently by re-signing their free agents. The only way the Tribe can become a consistent force is through player development and being aggressive in replenishing its organization.

When I think of the Indians now, they remind me of the Orioles of the 1970s and ’80s.

The Orioles at that time were led by General Manager Hank Peters, a man who later took over the Indians and began their renaissance in the ’90s.

Peters oversaw the Orioles at a time when free agency was becoming a big factor in baseball. He also had the misfortune of competing in the same division as the New York Yankees, who spent more money on free agents than just about anyone.

Peters knew the Orioles couldn’t compete with the Yankees in revenue or payroll. So he relied on his minor league system and his own trading ability.

Players like Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray came up through the minors. Meanwhile, Peters enacted a strategy when it came to free agents. When a player’s deal came up, say, Don Baylor and Mike Torrez, Peters would deal them. He acquired Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman from the A’s in that deal, then traded Holtzman and let Jackson walk. He rarely signed big-name free agents – only White Sox pitcher Steve Stone was brought in by that method.

And yet, the Orioles excelled. From 1976-1983, the O’s won 90 games or more every year but one – and that was in the strike-shortened 1981 season, when Baltimore finished 59-46.

They won the American League pennant in 1979, and the World Series in 1983.

My belief is that the Indians have to follow that formula to be successful.

The Indians are not competing in a fair marketplace. But that’s life.

Their payroll may approach $80 million, while the Detroit Tigers have a payroll of higher than $150 million.

The Indians have to make their $80 million count. Had they signed Masterson at $17 million a season, more than half of their projected payroll on three players: First baseman Nick Swisher, outfielder Michael Bourn and Masterson. Only Masterson still is in his 20s.

And as good as Masterson was last year – 14-10 with a 3.45 earned run average – he’s coming off an injury and for his career is 53-63.

Honestly, I’d have traded Masterson this offseason, in the hope that Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar and Cory Kluber would pick up the slack. The Indians would have been able to replenish their system with prospects while saving money on Masterson’s deal. Then they could have used some of that money to lure a veteran third baseman or starter.

I know, I’m making it sound easier than it is.

But it’s better than getting nothing for Masterson, which is what the Indians risk if they don’t trade him before the July deadline (and if they’re in contention, they won’t). That’s not a good idea either for a franchise that has struggled with the amateur draft.

I think about the two other teams fans in this area follow, and how they have been active, or inactive depending on what they had.

The Reds didn’t do much this offseason. They let Shin Soo Choo go to Texas because uber-prospect Billy Hamilton was deemed ready to replace him. They let dependable starter Bronson Arroyo bolt for Arizona because Tony Cingrani was waiting in the wings.

They gave starter Homer Bailey – whose recent numbers are comparable to Masterson’s – a six-year extension. The deal was enormous, but the Reds could afford it because, aside from Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, they don’t have too many huge contracts to pay off.

The Reds have drafted well. Votto, Bruce, Bailey and shortstop Zack Cozart are all homegrown.

Plus, the Reds draw fans. That gives them flexibility.

The Tigers, who also draw fans, made two major trades this offseason. They sent Prince Fielder to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler, not only getting a solid player in Kinsler but saving some money.

They also parted with reliable starter Doug Fister, shipping him to the Nationals for three young players.

Of course, the Indians did extend Michael Brantley and sign David Murphy. But the Masterson non-deal is what people will talk about this season, especially if the latter has a great season.

Sometimes I wonder what the Indians would have done had they managed to hire Peters five years before they did. What if Peters had been around to not just start the rebuilding, but be there for the success.

Peters retired in 1991. The Indians had lost 105 games that season, but so many of the names were there. Albert Belle. Carlos Baerga. Charles Nagy. Jim Thome. Manny Ramirez had just been drafted.

When team president Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti make decisions, I hope they ask a simple question:

What would Hank do?