On Monday, the Brewers shocked the baseball landscape by signing 34-year-old Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million deal. It’s a signing that has caused some to celebrate the Brewers’ commitment to winning, while others have lamented the organization’s willingness to sacrifice a first-round draft pick for a non-elite pitcher.
Here’s an attempt to bring some clarity to the Lohse signing:
CONTEXTUALIZING THE DEAL
The issue has never been whether Kyle Lohse is worth the three-year, $33M contract. In a vacuum, that’s a reasonable contract for the right-hander. After all, right-hander Jeremy Guthrie — who posted a 5.10 FIP last season — signed a three-year, $25M contract earlier in the winter with the Kansas City Royals. Guaranteeing the third year is admittedly worrisome for an aging Lohse, but the Brewers are essentially paying him to be a two-win pitcher and he has compiled +6.1 WAR over the last two seasons. The contract itself isn’t out of line and certainly won’t sink the organization.
Instead, the real downfall of this contract goes beyond the monetary value. Milwaukee will lose the 17th-overall selection of the upcoming MLB Draft due to the current draft-pick compensation system, as Lohse turned down the Cardinals’ one-year, $13.3M qualifying offer in November.
Losing the first-round draft pick stings. The Brewers’ farm system currently sits in the bottom-third of Major League Baseball — ESPN’s Keith Law ranks it at #29 — and small-market organizations (like the Brewers) find sustainable success through cost-controlled talent that’s built through the draft. Simply discarding a first-round pick to chase an unlikely playoff berth is a dangerous way to do business, especially if it becomes a trend. That’s how the Houston Astros got ensnared in their current mess.
With that said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with occasionally cashing your chips and chasing the goal. Doug Melvin illustrated that point in 2011 with the Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum trades. Flags fly forever, and the Brewers won their first pennant since 1982. That matters. There’s nothing wrong with sensing an opportunity to grab a championship and taking the necessary steps to do so.
However, that’s not the case with the Kyle Lohse signing. The Brewers are most likely not one pitcher away from competing for the NL Central, so the organization effectively sacrificed a first-round draft pick (and its allotted slot money) for an opportunity to chase one of the two Wild Card spots. While anything can transpire in the MLB postseason, subtracting from future talent to maybe have a shot at a one-game play-in isn’t exactly inspiring.
It comes down to Mark Attanasio and his commitment to winning in Milwaukee. He’s brought excitement and a higher payroll. He’s also helped establish a culture of relevance on the national scene. The Brewers are no longer a doormat in the NL Central. At the same time, small-market organizations must tread cautiously when prioritizing postseason contention over long-term sustainability. Once in a while, trading prospects for veterans or sacrificing a draft pick for that one extra pitcher won’t do considerable damage. When it becomes an overarching trend, however, it becomes an issue.
As Buster Olney said in his recent piece:
But there is a price to be paid for all of that aggressiveness, and that credit card bill is going to land in the mail sometime soon.
… [T]o me, the signing of Lohse feels like a tipping point, when Milwaukee pushed forward at a time when it really needed to take a step back.
This is the concern. The Brewers have placed such a high premium on annual contention that they’ve gotten dangerously thin in their minor-league system. Draft picks don’t always pan out, but sacrificing the opportunity to acquire high-end talent for an outside shot at a Wild Card berth doesn’t project as a sustainable business model.
THE NEXT JEFF SUPPAN
On December 24, 2006, the Milwaukee Brewers inked right-hander Jeff Suppan to a four-year, $42M contract. I remember my father celebrating the new deal on Christmas, toasting to the Brewers’ triumphant transition to baseball relevance. The organization would no longer serve as a feeder team for larger-market teams. Instead, free agents now viewed Milwaukee as a desirable landing spot, and the Brewers could finally afford the talent thanks to Mark Attanasio.
That sentiment was widespread amongst Brewers fans that winter. It was to be a watershed moment for the franchise, and in some ways, it was absolutely true. The Brewers now regularly sign mid-tier free agents and have the payroll flexibility to retain homegrown stars.
Unfortunately, as we all intimately know, Jeff Suppan didn’t pan out in Milwaukee. He compiled a 5.08 ERA with an ungodly 1.596 WHIP in 577.0 innings before being unceremoniously released during the 2010 season. Instead of being remembered as the moment when Milwaukee became legitimate players in free agency, the Suppan signing has become the go-to archetype for an ill-advised free agent signing.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t be a shock to learn Jeff Suppan’s name has surfaced time and time again when referencing the Kyle Lohse contract. It probably doesn’t help that Lohse is an aging former Cardinals pitcher with a career 4.45 ERA and 4.34 FIP, but many fans are lamenting the Kyle Lohse deal as “another Suppan” signing.
Let’s make something very clear: over the last two seasons, Kyle Lohse has been a better pitcher than Jeff Suppan ever was in his career. Admittedly, he’s outperformed his peripherals and Brewers fans shouldn’t expect him to orchestrate a repeat performance of his 2.86 ERA from last year, but his FIP was 3.67 and 3.51 the last two seasons, respectively.
To put that in perspective, Lohse compiled a 98 and 92 FIP- in 2011 and 2012. His expected performance has been better than league average over each of the last two seasons. Jeff Suppan, on the other hand, posted a FIP- below 100 (league average) just once in his career, and that was in 2003 with the Pirates and Red Sox. To say Lohse is fundamentally the same pitcher as Suppan misses the mark on many levels.
It’s fair to say Lohse has improved dramatically the last two seasons. Despite his career 4.45 ERA, he had a 3.39 ERA in 2011 and 2.86 ERA in 2012. The improvement is not necessarily a fluke, though. He’s improved in two key areas: (1) he’s lowered his walk rate, and (2) his changeup has recently transformed into a true out-pitch.
Simply looking at his walk rate and ERA / FIP, it’s not difficult to ascertain that much of his effectiveness stems from limiting free passes.
The 34-year-old veteran has shown marked improvement in his control, and it’s paid off with improved results. His carer first-pitch strike percentage is 62.0% and his last two seasons have seen his first-pitch strike percentage jump to 67.7% and 68.6%, respectively. He’s working ahead more, attacking hitters, and limiting his walks.
He’s also featuring a more effective changeup over the last two years. Opposing hitters are swinging at more changeups out of the strike zone and are whiffing more often than in previous seasons.
His changeup may not have necessarily changed. He may not be utilizing a different grip or getting better depth, but it is becoming more effective. It likely has much to do with him working ahead in the count more often, allowing him to get to his changeup more often with a hitter forced into a defensive approach at the plate.
Furthermore, ZiPS projects Lohse to post a 3.63 ERA and 3.60 FIP this upcoming season with a 6.08 K/9 strikeout rate and a 1.92 BB/9 walk rate. He should be a solid mid-rotation starter for the Milwaukee Brewers and provide plenty of innings, which is something the Brewers sorely needed.
The Kyle Lohse signing is not Jeff Suppan Part Deux. The Brewers didn’t overspend on a below-average starter and market him as a difference maker. Instead, the Brewers actually acquired a useful mid-rotation starter and are marketing him as such.
Many Brewers fans have gnashed their teeth over Kyle Lohse. Some of the vitriol spat in the direction of the veteran right-hander has been overstated. The Milwaukee Brewers are 100-percent a better ballclub today than they were on Monday morning, prior to signing Lohse. It would be almost impossible to argue otherwise.
But, then again, the concern surrounding the Lohse signing doesn’t have much to do with his talent level or his projected performance. It’s what this move says about the decision-making process that has many — including myself — worried about the future of this organization.
An occasional free-agent deal on an aging veteran or an occasional free-agent deal that sacrifices a first-round pick will rarely derail a franchise. When it starts to become a trend, though. When the overall tendency for a small-market organization becomes sacrificing a sustainable, long-term vision to create a slim possibility of contention on a year-to-year basis, that’s a serious problem. That’s how the talent pool dries up. And with the increasing cost of premium talent on the free-agent market, the Brewers cannot afford to let their pool of talent dry up.
Mark Attanasio and Doug Melvin didn’t derail the organization’s future by signing Kyle Lohse. They did, however, illustrate that contending in the present is more of a priority for the organization than potentially sacrificing a year or two of postseason contention to create a more sustainable window of contention in the future. Instead of taking a step or two back to build the minor-league system in a way that it can support a small-market franchise, they will continue to stay aggressive and worry about restocking the farm down the road.
As Buster Olney mentioned in his article above, that strategy could lead the Milwaukee Brewers to rack up a credit card bill they can’t afford in a couple years. Granted, I’ll enjoy a better Brewers’ team in 2013 and I’ll enjoy potentially meaningful games in September, but I’d feel much better knowing I didn’t have to wonder every year how the Brewers would get to those meaningful games … if at all.
The organization isn’t stuck. The Kyle Lohse signing hasn’t damned the franchise into the doldrums of the NL Central for years to come. It does represent a strategy that could, though, and it would be wise of Doug Melvin and Mark Attanasio to recognize that fact and make meaningful steps to increase the talent pool in the minor leagues. Otherwise, the Milwaukee Brewers will be forced to continue to walk a tenuous tightrope, and a false step or two could cause the organization to lose its balance and tumble into a full-scale rebuilding project — something the organization clearly wants to avoid at all costs.