Making Sense of the Kyle Lohse Signing | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

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.

[snip]

… [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.

Year BB/9 ERA FIP
2008 2.21 3.78 3.89
2009 2.75 4.74 4.55
2010 3.42 6.55 4.42
2011 2.01 3.39 3.67
2012 1.62 2.86 3.51

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.

Year O-Swing% SwStr%
2008 41.4% 13.7%
2009 41.0% 13.6%
2010 41.2% 16.9%
2011 48.5% 16.5%
2012 49.2% 18.1%

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Ryan Topp says: March 26, 2013

    Bravo!

  2. John says: March 27, 2013

    Did Mark A. do this to win or to just make more money from ticket sales?

    • Nels says: March 27, 2013

      I get the feeling that he did it to avert a collapse and keep the seats full. Owning a ball club still has the facade of a business so he does have to keep his revenue up. But I still think it is suspect.

  3. Jason says: March 27, 2013

    I’d feel more comfortable with this deal if it were 2 years with a vesting 3rd.

  4. Bob says: March 27, 2013

    IMO The owner and GM realize that this team has a 3 year window to actually win a ring! Lohse will be a good pickup because he’s a vet that knows how to pitch. Schaffer is a great looking talent and the young arms will benefit from this pick up because they can now have time to LEARN how to pitch! Look how good the Davis kids have been in camp,,, We will be fine after Cory, Rickie and Ram are gone and with Lohse we will have a real one two punch! COME ON BREWER FANS,,, We have a owner who actually cares about having a winning team!! We have been stuck with Kohl and Bud so why chirp about a guy who gives a dung? TRUST me… This team actually has a chance to win the division with Lohse and two days ago we were lucky if we were in the wild card race! The suckpan, Wolf deals hurt a lot but lets have some faith and see what happens before we start yelling the sky is falling!

    • Dave says: March 27, 2013

      Yea, I completely agree. I understand that it sucks to give up a draft pick…but how is our team different than when we traded for greinke and marcum? Our offense proved to be one of the best last year (and should be better this year with segura), our bullpen has some new faces, and our lineup proved to be pretty scrappy last year. I really think our second half last year was no fluke, and lohse just gives us a higher probability of success around our strong offensive core (which won’t be this good forever…)

      • SecondHandStore says: March 27, 2013

        Wow. You guys didn’t read the article at all, did you?

        • Dave says: March 27, 2013

          I was referring to this portion of the article:
          “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.”

          And I disagree with that comment..that’s all. It’s a big article, did you read all of it?

  5. Cale says: March 27, 2013

    My thoughts are this. Losing the draft pick sucks. But there are other ways to get cheap young talent to carry the club. Look at Segura. We got him via trade and expect him to anchor the infield for years. Hypotheically, if we trade Hart at the deadline, we could garner another 2 prospects that in essence replace that lost draft pick and gives us a higher probability of a guy who will contribute. Its not so black and white to me.

    • Kyle says: March 27, 2013

      The issue with suggesting they trade Hart is that it means they’re out of contention if they go that route. At which point the Lohse deal starts to hurt even more.

      • Chase says: March 27, 2013

        Or it suggests Hunter Morris is rakeing in the minors.

        • Ross B says: March 27, 2013

          You can rest assured that Hunter Morris will rake at Nashville, whether or not he is ready to play in the bigs.

      • Cale says: March 27, 2013

        Trading Hart doesn’t guarantee they are out of it. If you think you can get close to equal production with someone else, maybe Morris, you take the prospects and have made moves to win now and win later. I’m not going to hate and dismiss a signing on a missed draft pick and say our future of the team is in doubt now. Lets let it all play out.

  6. Kyle says: March 27, 2013

    I’d have less issue with this deal if the Brewers were known to be a savvy drafting team or a team that maximized their international budgets on an annual basis. However, neither of those seem to be true. As long as Braun continues to put up MVP numbers, I fear they’ll chase this dream and leave the franchise looking very rough a few years down the road.

  7. Jeff says: March 27, 2013

    1. Brewers have 29th-ranked farm system (made up mostly of people they’ve drafted).

    2. Brewers shot themselves in the foot by signing Lohse and losing the draft pick.

    These two things do not really go together. If you suck at drafting, you suck at drafting.

    Maybe the old conventional wisdom about small-market teams isn’t valid anymore. Maybe you can succeed by signing and then wheeling’n'dealin’. It’s not like the Brewers were doing very well with most of those draft picks, people.

    • SecondHandStore says: March 27, 2013

      I really hate it when people say ignorant things like this. We still have yet to see how Jungmann, Bradley, Coulter, Haniger, Taylor, Roache, Arcia, etc. are going to turn out. A lot of those guys haven’t even had a full year to perform. Draft picks keeps teams like the Brewers alive and that’s just common sense.

    • Cale says: March 27, 2013

      Jeff, couldn’t agree more. Look at all the failed picks. Our success in trading lately has been much better than drafting.

    • Bob says: March 27, 2013

      Farm system rankings are based on projected prospect ceiling, if everything breaks correctly. As we know first-hand, the best-case scenario rarely happens (let alone for everyone at once). The Brewers, especially recently, have been drafting low ceiling/high floor types that they can push thru the minor league system quickly. Do you see why there might be a disconnect between rankings and actual value?

      A guy like Mike Fiers was never a highly rated prospect, yet ended up with 3 WAR in about 120 innings. There are a lot of teams with higher rated farm systems that would kill to be able to slot in a rookie with that type of production.

  8. Scott says: March 27, 2013

    This article is well written but at the same time is everything that is wrong with the sport. It’s become a numbers-crunch, bean-counter hobby. The numbers DO LIE a lot…the ball does take weird bounces and the smallest guys do clear the fences almost EVERY day in MLB. The future isn’t guaranteed for any of us, and being able to spend $100 million a year does mean we can put a contending team out on the field EVERY season. As long as Braun and Gallardo are on this team, surround them with a chance. If the cupboard is empty when they hang it up, so be it, that’s called a cycle. But don’t look back on their 15-20 year playing spans regretting not surrounding elite talent with at least a chance. Kudos for the signing, if he goes 15-8 this year we’ll all be ecstatic, if not, we’ll all survive.

    • SecondHandStore says: March 27, 2013

      Clearly the Brewers can’t put $100 million into the team every year and that’s why the draft is so important.

  9. Mike says: March 27, 2013

    Losing the draft pick sucks, but I think it assures us that Corey Hart does not get traded anytime during the year and they get the draft pick compensation for him following 2013. Its easy to say ‘oh look at all the draft picks they lost by signing this guy or that guy, but also look at the picks they gained. They gained 2 for Fielder and will gain 2 for Hart. Thats still a net of +3 over a 3 year span. And the 17th pick in the draft is by no means a guaranteed MLB star. from 2000 to 2010, only Cole Hamels and David Murphy ended up contributing significantly at the MLB level.

    • Ross B says: March 27, 2013

      Actually they won’t gain two from Hart should it go that way. The MLB changed the draft comp rules and now the signing team’s pick just disappears and every pick behind it mores up a slot. The Brewers would only get a supplemental pick.

    • Cecil Cooper's Love Child says: March 27, 2013

      WE HAVE A WINNER! Mike gets it.

      We all need to step back….take a deep breath…trace the full history of the team’s performance…and exhale.

      We stunk for so long that we drafted Weeks, Fielder, Braun, Hart and Gallardo. Enjoy that talent pool as long as you can and fill in with the 2 Greinke deals, the Marcum deal etc. Don’t give up in the middle of that cycle.

      As a fan, I appreciate that DM and MarkA want to contend EVERY year. Waiting to sign Lohse probably saved the team $9MM over the 3 years and allowed us to find out more about Rogers, Peralta and Fiers this spring. Pretty clever maneuvering, if you ask me.

  10. 808Brewcrew says: March 27, 2013

    It’s easy to forget that prospects can be had through not just the draft but also through international signings as well. As long as the current system stays in place and Bud doesn’t make the draft a “global draft” there’s still a way to ramp up your farm system by signing FA out of the DR, PR, and Venz. And don’t say that it’s only for big market teams.. Oakland landed Cepedes last year.

    • Cale says: March 27, 2013

      Another good point. Our RF didn’t come through the draft, and I think everyone would agree hes a pretty valuable part of this team.

    • 808Brewcrew says: March 27, 2013

      In fact half of the Brewers current starters are non drafted players. A Gon, Segura, A Ram, Gomez, and Aoki were all signed international players. Our top prospect Wily Peralta was the samething. Quit making such a big deal about losing one draft pick.

  11. Mike S. says: March 27, 2013

    I wonder if Lohse pitches well, but the Brewers are out of contention before the deadline, if he could yield the equivilant of a first rounder in a trade (a la Segura)?

  12. Alex B says: March 27, 2013

    At least we didn’t pay $97.5M for 5 years of Wainwright.

Trackbacks

Websites mentioned my entry.

  1. Changing Expectations: Competing Questions and Narratives | Disciples of Uecker
  2. Kyle Lohse and Miller Park Attendance | Disciples of Uecker
  3. Learning to Lo(h)se | Disciples of Uecker

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