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12/20/12 10:17 AM ET
Lohse brings talent -- and risk -- to the table
As market thins, pitcher gains value, but is hardly a sure thing
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
In a picked-over market starved for starting pitching sits Kyle Lohse -- tempting in that he's been a reliable pitch-to-contact innings-eater, alarming in that his cost threatens to exceed the value of those abilities. Tough to say, then, how the market for Lohse shakes out in the coming days. Even as Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, Dan Haren, et al. have come off the board, little has been written or said about Lohse's potential destination. But now that Edwin Jackson appears close to finding a new home, Lohse is the last remaining prominent starter available in free agency -- by a long shot. The slowness with which Lohse's situation has developed is somewhat typical of Scott Boras clients. "It's pretty shockingly quiet," a National League evaluator said of the Lohse market. "Seems like he's waiting out the market, but it could be a dangerous route for an older guy like that." Perhaps Lohse is seen as something of an emergency option for those still shaking the branches of the trade tree, hoping some net positive lands in their lap. But at some point soon, somebody is going to dole out the dollars it takes to slot Lohse into the middle or front end of their rotation. The question, of course, is what they'll be getting for that investment. Give Lohse tons of credit for a keen sense of timing, for his walk-year performance did wonders for his own value and the hopes of a Cardinals team that had quite a bit of instability in its starting rotation. Lohse went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 211 innings over 33 starts for the Wild Card winners, finishing seventh in the NL Cy Young voting. And if we stop right there, he's looking pretty spiffy, right? Back it up just a little bit, and we see that Lohse is 30-11 with a 3.11 ERA in 63 starts over the last two years. Baseball Reference states that he pitched 22 percent better than the league average in that span. So now we have some semblance of a track record, some proof that this is no fluke. Just for fun, do you want to hear the names of three guys who had a slightly higher ERA in that same two-year spurt? CC Sabathia (3.17), Roy Halladay (3.21) and Felix Hernandez (3.27). Oh, and Zack Greinke? The Dodgers' $147 million man? He's at 3.63. The surface-level examination of Lohse certainly provides that aforementioned temptation. Naturally, though, there are other issues at hand here, and they could hurt the length of any commitment to Lohse. For one, there is Draft pick compensation tied to Lohse. The Cards made him a qualifying offer of one-year, $13.3 million at the end of 2012, and Lohse rejected it. So now any team that signs him will forfeit a Draft pick in order to do so. Then you have to look at Lohse's career track record before he arrived in St. Louis in 2008: A 63-74 record and 4.82 ERA, averaging 166 innings per year and registering an advanced ERA five percent below league average, according to Baseball Reference. Clearly, then, Lohse found a comfort zone in St. Louis. He really revived his career after having a rare forearm surgery performed in May 2010. (Lohse had been hit by a pitch in the forearm and was experiencing numbness as he went deep into his outings, so doctors cut a slice of sheath surrounding the forearm to allow his muscle to expand). It is up to the would-be buyer to guess whether Lohse can find that same footing elsewhere, and it is certainly worth keeping in mind that Lohse hasn't pitched in the American League since 2006. Lohse's age -- he turned 34 in October -- further complicates his case. He's already getting by with a fastball that sits around 90 mph, offset by an 85-mph slider that Lohse turned to roughly 23 percent of the time in 2012, according to Fangraphs.com. He doesn't have strikeout stuff. And so if any of that fastball velocity atrophies with his advancing age, he could be in for a bruising, particularly if he doesn't have as strong a supporting defensive cast surrounding him. We know which clubs are on the hunt for starting pitching, and, just as importantly, we know which clubs have the money to make it happen. Yet Lohse remains a particularly difficult target to predict. The Red Sox have the need and the funds. But what would the move from Busch Stadium to Fenway Park do to Lohse's home run rate, which was 0.8 per nine innings last year? The Rangers also have the need and the funds. But they, too, have serious park factors to keep in mind, and the rotation spot doled out to Lohse might be better served on young options from the system like Martin Perez or Justin Grimm. One team that looked like a particularly intriguing fit was the Angels. No park factors to worry about there, and their defense can certainly turn Lohse's pitch-to-contact styling into a strength. But after the Angels acquired Jason Vargas from the Mariners on Wednesday, it appeared they're set in the starting five. What about the Indians? Their aggressive offers to Shane Victorino and Nick Swisher make it clear they actually have the money to woo players in free agency, and they were also after Jackson. Their starting five, even with the addition of top prospect Trevor Bauer, is noticeably suspect. It could be that Lohse's best bet is to stay in the very place where he's had the best years of his career. The Cardinals have notable flexibility this winter. But with questions about how well Chris Carpenter will hold up over a full season, whether Jaime Garcia's shoulder soreness will become a major issue and whether Lance Lynn has the stuff to sustain a full-season role in the rotation, Lohse could have appeal to them, after all. And obviously the Draft compensation in this particular case is not an issue for the Cards. We'll watch with interest to see how it shakes out. Because while the advanced analysis makes it clear that a team would be buying high on Lohse, the temptation, along with the price, is steep.