When pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training earlier this week, there remained one notable player who had no place to go. With spring games scheduled to begin on February 21, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse is still looking for the team he will play for in 2013.
Lohse is the last major free agent on the market that remains unsigned. While agent Scott Boras has stated that calls from teams inquiring about Lohse have increased since the start of Spring Training, several factors have gone into Boras’ inability to find a proper suitor for the veteran right-hander’s services.
First and foremost, it’s likely that Boras’ asking price is far too high for the role that his client ultimately will fill. Lohse is being pitched as a No. 1 starter based on his last two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Lohse was 14-8 with a 3.39 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in 2011. As an encore, he went 16-3 in 2012 with a 2.86 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP.
But generally, the overall numbers on the back of a player’s baseball card provide a more accurate projection of future production than does a few seasons of statistical outliers. Excluding his final two seasons with St. Louis, Lohse is a career sub-.500 pitcher (88 wins and 98 losses), and including those final two seasons with the Cardinals the 34-year-old has a career 4.45 ERA. Those simply aren’t top-of-the-rotation numbers, so teams are hesitant to offer top-of-the-rotation money to Boras’ client.
The asking-price problem is exacerbated by the compensatory draft pick system that went into effect this offseason. Lohse declined a qualifying offer from the Cardinals early in the winter, electing to explore free agency. Under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, this means that any team signing Lohse must give up a first-round draft pick unless it possesses one of the top 10 picks or has already given up the pick through another signing (in which case the team gives up its next selection in the draft). The Cardinals, in turn, will gain a sandwich pick at the end of the first round as compensation for the loss of its former player.
Added to the financial situation is the fact that Lohse is a fly ball pitcher. The starter has relatively low strikeout rate and for his career has just a 0.78 ground ball to fly ball ratio. During his seasons pitching at the hitter friendly Great American Ballpark and Citizens Bank Park in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, respectively, Lohse was just 17-27 with a 4.93 ERA.
So what kind of team presents a good fit for baseball’s last major unsigned free agent? Because Boras is marketing his client as a top-of-the-rotation guy, the club would need to have money to spend. And the club needs to be in a position to win immediately to justify giving up a high draft pick in this year’s draft. Ideally, the team would be one that plays in one of the league’s more pitcher friendly parks and one that has an above average outfield defense that would maximize Lohse’s effectiveness as a starter.
According to MLBTradeRumors.com, the most recent rumors indicate Scott Boras is working hard to sell the Los Angeles Angels and Milwaukee Brewers on Lohse. But indications are that the Angels are not interested, as they have already maxed out their payroll at $160 million and are concerned about how the right hander might perform in the American League. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio has suggested that the club would be willing to give up a first round pick to sign Lohse if the price was right, but money is the big stumbling block. At least for now, Milwaukee does not seem interested in handing out a multi-year deal at the price Boras is seeking.
So where will Lohse end up? Seeds All Day has come up with the three most likely destinations.
The Odds-On Favorite – The New York Yankees
I don’t think anyone would argue that the Yankees are perennially in the “win now” (and usually at all costs) position, and 2013 is no different. New York returns the same nucleus of talent that has taken them to the postseason the last four seasons. When one considers the pressure to win in the Bronx, it seems highly unlikely the front office would have any qualms sacrificing a first round pick in order to increase the team’s chances of winning a 28th World Series Championship.
The need for starting pitching depth is not blatantly obvious, but it’s there. The current starting rotation is unsettled, and there are questions of durability and continuity among the staff. The Yankees have expressed concern about ace C.C. Sabathia’s elbow. Michael Pineda is recovering from a torn labrum in his right shoulder and is not expected back until June, at the earliest. Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are only signed to one-year contracts. Phil Hughes is a virtual lock for a slot in the rotation, but the fifth spot on the staff is still up for grabs. Ivan Nova and David Phelps will be competing for that spot during Spring Training, barring any further free agent signings, but neither starter has shown much consistency at this point in their respective careers. Signing Lohse would help solidify the rotation for this season, ensure depth in the event of injury, and provide continuity upon the likely departure of Pettitte and Kuroda at the end of the season.
New York has an above average outfield defense in Ichiro, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Anderson. And Yankee Stadium is relatively pitcher friendly, with the exception of the short porch in left field. However, Lohse has had pretty good success against left-handed hitters during his career, which should help mitigate the dangers of the left field longball.
The club does want to get its payroll under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold for next season, but signing Lohse should not hinder New York’s ability to do so. Among the contracts expiring at the end of the 2013 season are those of Robinson Cano ($15 million), Granderson ($15 million), Kuroda ($15 million), Pettitte ($12 million), Kevin Youkilis ($12 million), Mariano Rivera ($10 million), and Hughes ($7.15 million). That should provide enough flexibility for New York to offer Lohse a multi-year deal this season and still be able to get under the luxury-tax threshold for next season.
The Sleeper – The Washington Nationals
This year is World Series or bust for the Nationals, who exploded onto the scene finishing with the best record in baseball (98-64) a season ago. So it is likely the front office would be willing to spend a little extra on a player that already has proven success pitching in October. Lohse was a member of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinal team that won the World Series. Last season, he was 2-1 in the playoffs with a 3.98 ERA. His experience and leadership could prove to be the ingredient needed for Washington to make a World Series run of its own.
The problem is, the projected rotation is already solid, consisting of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler. But again, there are questions. The innings limitation has been lifted for Strasburg, but it remains to be seen if the young phenom can withstand the rigors of a full major league schedule. Add to that the possibility that Gonzalez might face a 50-game suspension for his connections to the Biogenesis clinic, which is under investigation for allegedly distribution performance enhancing drugs to Major League players. Further, Haren was a disappointment for the Angles last season. In 30 starts, the veteran logged just a 12-13 record with a 4.33 ERA. The math shows a clear need for depth at starting pitcher as an insurance policy in the event that either of Washington’s top-tier starters misses significant time or that Haren continues on his downward slide.
The compensatory draft pick is not a huge issue. The Nationals already gave up their first round pick when they signed reliever Rafael Soriano, so the club would only stand to lose a second round pick. Nationals Park ranks in the middle of the pack of pitcher friendliness, as does the Nationals’ outfield defense. The speedy Denard Span will patrol center field for Washington this season, with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper holding down the corner positions. Lohse’s propensity for the fly ball should not hurt him pitching in Nationals Park.
Payroll looks to be the biggest obstacle for Washington, which has already substantially increased its spending from a season ago. If the roster was set today, the Nationals would head into Opening Day with a payroll over $111 million. The 2012 Opening Day payroll was just over $92 million. The main question is whether the front office will be willing to pay Lohse the money Boras is looking for if Lohse will serve to fill out the bottom of the rotation or to serve as a contingency plan. It’s possible the team could talk Boras down on the number of years on a proposed deal to serve as a compromise. But if it’s truly World Series or bust, this would be the year to overpay.
Our Favorite – The Atlanta Braves
Seeds All Day feels that Atlanta presents the best fit for Lohse, despite the fact that we are not aware of any rumors linking the two together.
First, the Braves can afford to pay Lohse’s current presumed asking price of at least $13.3 million per year. Atlanta currently has $82 million committed to its 2013 payroll, down from the $93 million payroll the team carried last season. Signing Lohse would put the club at a payroll of around $95 million, which is less than the team carried in 2008 and 2009.
Second, Turner Field is a shockingly pitcher friendly park. In hindsight, that should come as no surprise, considering the park was built during the mid-90s to suit the club’s then biggest strength – its starting rotation. Consider this: no Brave has hit more than 30 home runs in a season since 2006 (when Andruw Jones and Adam LaRoche did it). Atlanta also put together arguably the most dominant defensive outfield in the game today by adding B.J. and Justin Upton to returning right fielder Jason Heyward. Playing in Atlanta would highlight Lohse’s strengths as a flyball pitcher.
Third, Lohse would provide an immediate upgrade to the Brave’s big league rotation. Aside from Tim Hudson, the Atlanta staff is full of question marks. Can Kris Medlen duplicate his rookie success in year two? What Paul Maholm will show up – the guy who showed flashes of brilliance a season ago, or the career 66-84, 4.26 ERA pitcher? When will Brandon Beachy return from Tommy Johns surgery? How will unknown stop gap Julio Teheran perform until Beachy’s return? Will Mike Minor finally live up to his potential? The opportunity is there for Lohse to step into the type of role he is best suited for. The right hander could fill a middle-of-the-rotation spot on day one and provide stability for a team looking to challenge the Nationals for the division title.
Under their current makeup, the Braves are a playoff team. But their chances at winning a World Series title hinge on the virtual unknowns that exist throughout their starting staff. The cost of a compensatory draft pick is slight when you consider the value a veteran presence like Lohse might provide to the rotation.
As we advance further in Spring Training, expect Scott Boras to send feelers out to more teams as he searches for a landing spot for Lohse. We believe the fit is too good with Atlanta for the Braves’ name not to pop up on the rumor mill in the near future.