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White Sox can go short or long with free agent starter

Rotation vacancy might last multiple seasons, but Sox have reasons to try a one-year deal

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

While Jon Lester enjoys the open-market courtship process and Max Scherzer waits in the wings, the second and third tiers of free-agent starting pitching are more or less stuck on the tarmac until they're given clearance.

The rumors look like they're limited to vague calling and checking in, and the White Sox popped up in one of these murmurs through a Cleveland Plain-Dealer story.

Justin Masterson, 30, has received inquiries from the four other teams in the AL Central – Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota and Chicago.

This isn't surprising, nor does it mean anything at this point. Masterson sits on the level of free-agent pitching most of us expected the Sox to explore, and they're lumped in with numerous other teams showing interest.

But there's one aspect of this story that's worth breaking out and chewing on:

Some teams have talked about a two-year deal for Masterson, but he seems to prefer a one-year contract, which would allow him to re-establish his value and re-enter the free agent market after the 2015 season.

I've been an advocate of Masterson, or at least what he represents as a guy who has thrown 200 innings and gets both grounders and strikeouts. The hedging is because he looked nothing like his best self last season, with a replacement level-at-best 5.88 ERA with Cleveland and St. Louis over 128⅔ innings, and I don't have the combination of scouting and medical reports to have any real clue about his chances of returning to form.

The story during the season was that knee problems screwed up Masterson's mechanics, but same reporter, Paul Hoynes, wrote in an earlier story that the knee was a cascade injury from a different problem:

In September of 2013, with the Indians driving toward a wild-card appearance, Masterson strained his left oblique muscle. He came back at the end of September and pitched out of the bullpen.

In spring training this year Masterson's ribcage area was still tender, but he never told the Indians. He was the opening day starter, leader of the staff and trying to get a contract extension.

Randy Rowley, Masterson's agent, said the injury caused a change in his mechanics, which led to soreness in his right knee. Masterson didn't talk to the media about his sore knee until late June. When he did, he said he'd been dealing with it since his second start of the season.

Masterson had rejected a three-year, $45 million extension from the Indians, and the idea is that he was trying to outperform that. His year-long flop in 2014 puts him behind that pace, and that's why a one-year contract might appeal to him more than a two-year compromise.

A one-year deal could be appealing to the White Sox, too. They can pretty much work any kind of contract into their plans with that spot, which is why some fans clamor for Max Scherzer against all odds. That's also why I'm cool with them waiting to see what happens with Kenta Maeda. The only thing the Sox need to do is field five starters who aren't Carlos Rodon when Opening Day rolls around. That's partially for plausible deniability, but more because they'll need to run six deep in the rotation if they really want to contend no matter how ready Rodon is.

The perfect contract for the Sox with a Masterson type would be a one-year deal and a team option for 2016. If the pitcher warranted the option, they'd still have that spot open for Rodon, they'd have some flexibility if Frank Montas and Tyler Danish knocked at the door, and they might be in a better position to shed John Danks' last year if that ends up being as onerous as it seems.

If the Sox truly believed in Masterson's health, you could see why a two-year deal at a buy-low price is more desirable, because they'll need a good starter past 2015, and he could very well earn the whole contract in the first year.

On the other hand, if Masterson truly believes in his health, then a one-year deal would help the Sox in another respect -- the chance at getting an extra draft pick afterward. I wrote last year about the Sox's lack of qualifying-offer candidates for the forseeable future, but a pitcher who thinks he can do better than a three-year, $45 million contract would be the Sox's best bet for extracting a compensatory pick. And having one of those makes it easier to pursue top-flight free agents more aggressively.

I can't say with much confidence what Masterson is truly worth, because he wasn't worth much of anything last year. But he serves an example of just how many routes the Sox can go, and that's why I'd expect more rumors like this one with other pitchers over the next week or three.