Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How Lowe can you go: Braves Overpay for Starter

The Atlanta Braves, already in the midst of an underachieving offseason, are on the verge of significantly overpaying for Derek Lowe. Make no mistake, Lowe is an excellent pitcher who has enjoyed considerable success in seven years as a starter; however, he’s not worth the four-year/$60 million contract he’s about to sign.

We’ve already implied how much we like Lowe. In fact, in this very column we argued strongly that the lanky right-hander would be a perfect fit for the Red Sox (a better fit, in fact, than slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira). But what works for the Red Sox obviously doesn’t work for the Braves. With studs Josh Beckett and Jon Lester fronting Boston’s starting five, Lowe would have slid very comfortably into the middle of the Red Sox’ rotation, where his durability and groundball-inducing sinker would have made him an ideal #3 starter on a championship caliber team.

The Braves, on the other hand, are asking Lowe to be their ace. And given the type of pitcher the lanky right-hander is, that just won’t work. A proven workhorse who has not missed a single start over the last seven seasons, Lowe is perfectly capable of posting quality start after quality start over the long haul of a 162-game season. However, what he is not capable of doing is outdueling Cole Hamels or Johan Santana in the heat of a pennant race. And that’s exactly the elixir Atlanta needed this offseason.

The Braves began the offseason by almost acquiring Jake Peavy from the Padres. Peavy, still only 27, is just the pitcher who could have stuck a dagger in the Phillies’ or Mets’ hearts come August or September. He has averaged a strikeout per inning during his career, posted an ERA under 3.00 in four of the last five seasons and won the CY Young in 2007. Plus, at $56 million over the next four years (not counting the $22 million club option for 2013), he represents a fixed cost well within the Braves’ budget. However, negotiations collapsed in the 11th hour and Peavy remains a Padre.

The Braves were also close to inking A.J. Burnett to a long-term deal. When healthy, Burnett might even have better stuff than Peavy. He also would have been aided by a move to the weaker National League. But the Yankees’ $82.5 million offer was too much for the 32-year-old righty to pass up and he’ll be donning Pinstripes for the next five years.

Along the way, GM Frank Wren traded for Javier Vazquez and signed Japanese free agent Kenshin Kawakami. Both pitchers’ m.o. is similar to that of Lowe – innings eaters who will provide quality innings, but will never be mistaken for the ace of a staff.

So with Spring Training just five weeks away, Wren found himself in a quandary. With the acquisitions of Vazquez and Kawakami, he had committed nearly $20 million to the Braves ’09 payroll, yet still had no ace. And with Peavy and Burnett off the table, his options were dwindling. Thus, Wren panicked and gave Lowe and his agent, Scott Boras, whatever they wanted, which appears to be a king’s ransom.

But the question remains. Could Wren have done anything differently?

The answer is a resounding yes.

He had two options. The first we discussed in this column on December 31st and would have entailed acquiring Zack Greinke from the Royals. It would have likely cost the Braves standout shortstop Yunel Escobar, but Escobar is replaceable and in Greinke Atlanta would have obtained a young ace still two years away from free agency.

The other option would have been far more controversial but carried with it more potential upside – signing free agent Ben Sheets to an incentive-laden one-year deal.

When healthy, Sheets’ stuff is right up there with Peavy and Burnett’s. However, staying off the disabled list has been a monumental task for Sheets since 2004. He was actually well on his way in ’08 until he tore a muscle in his forearm and had to miss some time in September as well as the postseason. The seriousness of the injury has been a point of contention around baseball.

Sheets’ agent, Casey Close, claims his client should be 100% recovered by Spring Training and has been willing to share Sheets’ medical reports with potential suitors. Various executives, however, have their doubts and cite Sheets’ lengthy injury history as reason enough to steer clear of a long-term deal (Sheets has missed 32 starts – the equivalent of one full season – since 2005).

The Braves should have taken advantage of this stalemate by offering Sheets a one-year/$8 million deal with another $8 million in innings-based incentives, as well as a $16 million option for 2010 that would have vested after 200 innings. This would have made sense for both sides. If Sheets pulled up lame, he’d be off the Braves books in a year. But a healthy Sheets would have surely propelled the Braves into contention, because when he pitches the fireballer is lights out. In fact, Sheets’ lifetime 1.20 WHIP is nearly identical to Peavy’s 1.19 mark and is better than Lowe’s (1.27) and Burnett’s (1.28).

This contract would have been a no-brainer for Sheets as well. With no other serious pursuers, Sheets would have had the opportunity to earn up to $16 million in 2009 and 2010 and re-enter the free agent market in the winter of 2010-11 while still just 32. Now, he’s left to try and find a job in the worst free agent market since collusion more than two decades ago.

And the Braves are left to fend for themselves without a bona fide ace in a division that has two of the game’s best in Hamels and Santana. It should be another disappointing summer in Dixie.


Billy said...

It is pretty easy for anyone to say they could have done this or could have done that. Former GM John Hart said he had Lowe listed as the 3rd starter on his free agent list. Burnett got 16 mil and Lowe was next and got 15 mil. Seems inline to me. Overpay is what the Yankees did on CC, AROD AND Tex.

No, the Braves did not over pay. They were right in the market ballpark in terms of what the going rate was. By the way, I had Lowe listed at #2 in the free agent market as did many many others.

integritydc_net said...

Have to keep in mind that the Braves lost (by my count) three hundred and twenty one pitchers last year to injury last year. The idea of counting on Ben Sheets to head the pitching staff would seem to be a bit much in light of recent history. As it stands we have a solid and boring rotation that will at least make things interesting. Maybe Jair will become the ace this year....

Rick said...

I'm glad the Braves spent the money on Lowe and not Burnett and certainly not Sheets, even on a short-term deal. Given the injuries the Braves pitchers suffered last year, 2009 was no time to gamble IF they're going to spend some money.

And how often do aces pitch against one another, anyway? Teams typically don't adjust their rotations a lot during the season (especially the early months) just to get the matchups they desire.

So it's possible Lowe will go against Santana or Hamels six times, or not at all.

nathan118 said...

Can't outduel Hamels or Santana? As a Dodger fan, I have to disagree. Did you not watch Lowe in the playoffs?