What can you say about the Brewers right now?
Despite an absolutely decimated roster, the Crew somehow managed to win again in extras, downing the Cardinals 5-4 in 11 innings. The bullpen was its usual outstanding self, allowing only one run in five innings of work. Kyle Lohse wasn’t at his best early, giving up a 3-run homer to Yadier Molina in the first. He quickly settled down, though, and ended up striking out nine and walking one in six innings of work. It was the Brewers 22nd “quality start” of the year in 27 games played, the best in the majors.
The biggest change for Lohse this year has been a big increase in his strikeouts, now 40 in 40 innings pitched. He’s also seen a slight rise in his walks, which is a product of batters swinging at his pitches outside the zone about 5% less than they did last year thus far. His .255 batting average on balls in play is low and will probably go up, but Lohse has shown an ability over the past half decade to sustain somewhat lower BABIP’s than most pitchers.
So how is he doing it? Adam McCalvy had this quote from Padres’ manager Bud Black after Lohse’s last start:
“It was total pitching,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “He used both sides of the plate extremely well, changed speed and was up in our hands. It was a veteran pitcher making pitches. It was Pitching 101. You can see why he is where he’s at now.”
Overall, Lohse is probably not quite this good, but his ERA is 2.70 and his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 2.96, so he’s a long ways from “smoke and mirrors” territory. We’ll probably see a pretty decent drop in the number of strikeouts per nine innings as the season goes on, but also a drop in his walk rate going forward. Even if he regresses somewhat, it’s hard to see him completely collapsing, which means the Brewers will probably get at least two very nice seasons from Lohse in return for the three year and 33 million dollar investment they made in him during spring training 2013.
Of course, that wasn’t the only cost associated with signing Mr. Lohse. The Brewers also had to part with the 17th pick in the 2013 draft, a decision that was often criticized at the time, especially here on DoU. Our own JP Breen had this to say in his writeup of the deal.
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 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.
That was the crux of the argument against signing Lohse. It wasn’t clear how the Brewers were planning on actually contending in the life of the contract, and if a move doesn’t substantially increase the team’s chances to contend for a playoff slot it’s hard to see how giving up a draft pick makes sense. When the Brewers flopped around helplessly to a 74-win season in 2013, this question only loomed larger, even though Lohse himself was the best pitcher in the rotation. If the Brewers weren’t going to win with him, then the signing still didn’t make much sense.
Things are obviously rapidly changing on this front with the Brewers off to a remarkably hot start and with Lohse playing a key role in all of it. Not only has Lohse produced on the field, but he’s also actually brought some leadership to the table as well. Those sorts of things are impossible to quantify, but if he really has helped in areas like Wily Peralta’s development and Yovani Gallardo’s “reinvention,” then his value is much more than just what he’s done on the field of play itself.
So just how good do the Brewers need to be for the Lohse deal to be considered a “good” move in retrospect? Do the Brewers have to actually make the playoffs this year to justify the signing, or has he already done enough?
Everyone is going to answer those questions differently. It seems hard to make much of an argument that they’re much worse off than “close” at this point to justifying it, especially if the intangible stuff is really as valuable as it seems. If the Brewers do manage to find their way into the postseason tournament, especially as division winners, it would be practically impossible for me to make any argument that says the signing was still a bad one. I was one of the biggest critics of the move out there, even more so than JP, but the way things have unfolded is making that skepticism look worse and worse every day.