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Laid-back Masterson unfazed by spring contract talks

Right-hander, Indians face arbitration hearing if they can't agree on one-year deal

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There is just something about Justin Masterson that makes people want to smile. It is to the point that Indians manager Terry Francona occasionally has to look away when the pitcher heads off the mound and down the dugout steps during a game.

"I have to kind of reel myself in," Francona said. "I catch myself smiling at him. I just can't help it, man."

It stems from Masterson's easygoing way of navigating through life. The leader of Cleveland's rotation is built like a bear, but acts like a cub, and it takes a lot to strip away the grin that is almost always present on the pitcher's face. It's usually still there even in the wake of bad outings.

Maybe it's Masterson's Jamaican roots, or his upbringing as the son of a preacher. Whatever factors may have helped mold his personality, Masterson might be better equipped than others to handle the kind of contractual distractions that have accompanied him to camp this spring.

Like everything else, Masterson just shrugs it off.

"It doesn't bother me at all," he said.

You believe him when he says it. And, of course, he says it with a smile.

More importantly, the Indians believe it.

Cleveland engaged in long-term contract talks with Masterson over the offseason, but the sides tabled that discussion when it became clear that the middle ground was still at the center of a canyon. For the time being, the Indians and the pitcher's agent, Randy Rowley, are concentrating on hammering out a one-year contract for the upcoming season through the arbitration process.

Masterson, meanwhile, is concentrating on pitching.

"It's not even close to being an issue," Francona said. "He's fine."

The Indians are hoping to avoid an arbitration hearing with Masterson on Thursday, but Cleveland has shown a willingness to go that route twice already this month. The right-hander has asked for $11.8 million and the Indians have offered $8.05 million. If an agreement is not reached before the hearing doors open, an arbitration panel would need to choose between those two proposals.

Negotiating a contract extension for Masterson -- eligible for free agency next winter -- is a trickier matter.

The current climate for free-agent pitching has been clouded by Draft-pick compensation. Two of the top available arms this past offseason -- Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez -- remain unsigned after declining one-year qualifying offers from Kansas City and Cleveland, respectively. Once such an offer is declined, if the team loses the free agent, it receives a compensatory Draft pick from whichever team he signs with.

Once upon a time, arms like Santana or Jimenez would have seemed like virtual locks for a four or five-year contract. The new landscape has instead left them twisting in the wind, leading to a reduction in asking price or term, while camps around baseball are already open. Without an extension, Masterson could find himself in a similar boat next winter.

"It's just the economics of the game," Francona said. "That's a side of it that's difficult, and I'm glad I don't have to deal with it."

Masterson and his agent have maintained that their only interest is finding a fair deal -- in comparison to the pitcher's peers and the marketplace -- in order to keep him in Cleveland.

"It's a difficult, challenging and yet a fun part of the game," Masterson said. "It's different. We're working with the businessmen and having some fun with that. You're trying not to be too stubborn in your own right, but know that you're trying to work for something fair and true."

Cleveland knows what it has in Masterson, who will turn 29 years old in March.

With his lower arm angle and heavy sinker, Masterson has developed into one of the game's top groundball specialists, but he has the four-seamer and slider to also pile up strikeouts. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound righty is a workhorse, logging at least 190 innings in each of the past three seasons. It might have been three straight 200-inning seasons if not for an oblique injury last September.

That injury provided a look into Masterson's team-first approach, though. Rather than insist on returning as a starter for Cleveland's postseason run -- which might have meant that he didn't return at all -- the right-hander embraced a late-inning relief role down the stretch. He threw the first pitch on Opening Day, the last pitch of the season to clinch a playoff berth, and he appeared in the Tribe's Wild Card Game.

"He told me in the offseason, when I went to visit him last year, that he was ready to lead," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "A leader's got to be ready to lead before they do. I think in the past, he's led by example. Last year, he led by example and also was ready to lead as far as being outspoken and taking charge."

When the smoke cleared on Masterson's season, he had 14 wins to go along with a 3.45 ERA, three shutouts and 195 strikeouts in 193 innings. The right-hander was named to his first All-Star team and recieved the Indians' Roberto Clemente Award.

Over the offseason, Masterson went on mission trips to Africa and the Dominican Republic. A couple weeks before Spring Training opened, he and his wife welcomed twins, a boy and a girl. Getting enough sleep and helping out with diapers are two of his top priorities right now.

"He has that anchor away from the field that keeps him the same person," Callaway said. "He doesn't define himself by his outing on the field. It's really refreshing to see, and it's hard to do."

Once Masterson and the Indians move beyond his arbitration case, the plan is to revisit long-term contract talks at some point this spring. That said, the pitcher has made it known that -- if it makes more sense, or the sides need a break -- he is willing to talk about the extension in the regular season, too.

"I enjoy it here," Masterson said. "I have fun, especially with [Francona], and there are a few guys that are here for another couple years at least. It's a great spot to be, leading this potentially young staff and having some fun with it, and going out and last year making the playoffs like no one thought we could. This year, whether or not people think we can, I think we have a great shot to do it again."

Asked if he hopes to have Masterson in the rotation beyond this season, Francona smiled.

"For however long I'm here, I hope he's here," said the manager. "I think everybody feels that way."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.
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