By Nathan Petrashek
If we lived in a reality in which the Brewers were expected to win 89 games and a wild card, I could perhaps understand the Kyle Lohse signing. He makes the Brewers better in the short-term, but only marginally. Pencil him in for an extra couple wins over, say, Chris Narveson.
That’s not the reality we live in, though. The Reds are the clear frontrunners in the division, with the Cardinals close behind. Under the guise of giving their young pitchers an opportunity to showcase their stuff, the Brewers had cut costs dramatically from a 2012 payroll approaching $100 million. It was supposed to be something of a rebuilding year.
That approach was completely thrown out the window on Monday, when the Brewers signed 34-year-old RHP Lohse to a 3-year, $33 million deal.
The dollar value is shocking enough. Lohse is coming off career-bests in just about every category: wins, ERA, WHIP, hits per nine, walks per nine, strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was pretty good in 2011, too. Before that? Over a 10-year career, Lohse sports a 4.79 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, and averaged just 157 innings per season. Even with the extreme improvement of the last two years, Lohse sports a career 4.34 FIP. If you like the Lohse signing, you believe Lohse suddenly figured things out as a 32-year-old. And you must also believe his stuff (which includes a high-80s fastball, with a decent slider and change) will play well in hitter-friendly Miller Park.
But Lohse isn’t just a liability on the payroll sheet. The Cardinals made Lohse a qualifying offer last year, meaning he costs the Brewers a draft pick to sign (#17 overall). Even more damning, the Brewers also lose the slot money associated with that pick, around $2 million. Conversely, the Cardinals will gain a pick in the late first round, adding about $1.5M to their draft pool. The Brewers don’t just lose a high pick; they potentially lose the ability to snag a player later who falls due to signability concerns, and help out a division rival whose farm system is already stocked.
Even Lohse’s salary structure is puzzling. The Brewers apparently remain intent on cutting costs in 2013, as they’ll pay Lohse just $4M of his $33M deal this year. The remainder of the deal will be paid between 2014 and 2018: $11M in 2014 and 2015, and $7M over 2016-18, when Lohse won’t even be pitching for the team.
I’ve heard a few arguments in favor of the deal, but they all fall short. Some say Lohse will help the team immediately; that’s true, but they really weren’t expected to compete anyway, and Lohse doesn’t push them over the top. Some say Lohse is a veteran innings-eater. Maybe. Lohse has surpassed 190 innings pitched in 5 of his 12 seasons. That doesn’t exactly classify as “reliable.” You could flip a coin as to whether he’ll surpass 180 innings in any given year.
Some point to the fact that the young rotation has struggled in spring. If anything, that’s a reason for caution; why go out and spend $33 million amid such uncertainty? And it isn’t as if Lohse is an ace, riding in on a white horse to save the day. Indeed, even in the formal press conference, Doug Melvin used buzz words like “experience” and “competitiveness” to describe Lohse’s primary attributes. That’s pretty lukewarm praise.
It’s hard to fault Melvin for the signing. For all outward appearances, he’s seemed disinterested in forfeiting a high pick to sign Lohse. Instead, Lohse’s agent, Scott Boras has reportedly been courting Mark Attanasio personally. This looks for all the world like meddling by the Brewers’s principal owner. If that’s true, Attanasio should be prepared to pay the price for ignoring his baseball minds, a price that the team will feel all the way into 2018.