A Kyle Lohse Back-and-Forth

Below, a back-and-forth.

Jeff Sullivan
Michael Bourn finally got signed, right before the start of spring training. Bourn’s signing leaves only Kyle Lohse among available free agents of consequence. Lohse, of course, is going to sign somewhere eventually, if only because spring training means starting pitchers will get hurt, but it’s hard to identify a destination, as no one’s — publicly — a sweepstakes favorite.

A big problem is that people don’t seem to trust Kyle Lohse. Another big problem, and maybe a bigger problem, is that Lohse was extended a qualifying offer, meaning he’d cost a signing team a draft pick. Teams this offseason have been highly protective of their draft picks, and the Mets, for example, decided they’d rather have a first-round pick than Michael Bourn. I’m curious, then, about a Kyle Lohse hypothetical. Let’s say that Lohse were available at the league minimum for the cost of a first-round draft pick. He’s not, presumably, but: would you do it? In other words, how highly do you value that early selection?

Dave Cameron
For some teams, this is an absolute no-brainer. Texas, for instance. Their highest pick is #24 overall, and their #5 starter is currently projected to be Martin Perez, who wasn’t even a good Triple-A starter last year. They’re at the prime spot on the win curve where each marginal win is maximized, and Lohse is probably a +2 to +3 win upgrade over their internal candidates for the spot. A league minimum Lohse is worth at least $10 million to Texas, and probably more like $15 to $20 million because of their specific situation. You’d have to have an incredibly aggressive valuation of the #24 pick in the draft to expect $15 to $20 million from that spot, even if you think you could redistribute some of the bonus pool towards other picks as well.

So, yeah, if Lohse announced he’d sign for the league minimum, I’d imagine a team like Texas would sign him in a heartbeat. But, I think you could make a pretty decent case for almost every team to sign Lohse at that price, even the non-contenders.

Think about how much trade value Lohse might have in June as a league minimum hurler. Last summer, Ryan Dempster brought back a pretty solid prospect in Christian Villanueva. Paul Maholm brought back Arodys Vizcaino. These guys aren’t flame-throwing aces, and they weren’t making the league minimum, and they still had enough trade value to bring back real prospects, certainly guys closer to the Majors than anyone you’d take in June’s draft.

Even for a team with an unprotected pick in the 11-20 range who might not expect to be a contender, I think you could make a pretty strong case that Lohse’s mid-season trade value should bring more in return than whatever player you’d select with that first round pick this summer, especially if Lohse is making nothing in salary. A draft pick is valuable, certainly, but the idea that there’s no price at which Lohse on a one year deal is more valuable than a first round pick seems particularly myopic.

I was going to say that the strongest test might be looking at the Mets, since they currently have the first unprotected pick in the summer. It’s the pick they refused to surrender in order to sign Michael Bourn. But, looking at the Mets, they in particular don’t seem like a great fit for Lohse, depending on what you make of Dillon Gee. There would be the opportunity for the Mets to sign Lohse and trade someone else, but. Easier to look at this with the Mariners and Padres, who have the next picks after the Mets.

Those are high picks that would be surrendered: 12th and 13th overall. Every draft pick has a certain value, and these slots are almost as valuable as you’re going to get when it comes to picks surrendered for players. Both the Mariners and Padres have obvious room in their starting rotations for a pitcher like Lohse. Both the Mariners and Padres are also close enough that signing Lohse might not necessarily be a move to have a trade piece for later. Lohse could boost them toward the win curve sweet spot, by providing an upgrade over the in-house options, and if the teams still weren’t successful enough, then trading Lohse could be considered.

One can’t tackle this question without thinking about Lohse’s 2013 value, and the last two years, he’s been worth six wins by one measure and 8.5 wins by another. This correlates to a huge increase in first-pitch strike rate, and Lohse seems like he should be at least a 2-3 win pitcher next season. That gives him $10-15 million in value, and where this gets confusing is thinking about the short-term value of 2013 Lohse versus the long-term value of a good draft pick. Teams absolutely love the idea of years of team control, but to get so protective of draft picks is to express an awful lot of faith in your amateur scouting and player development. How safe are these draft picks, really? You don’t know what you’re going to get around 12th or 13th, but you can think of that guy as a low-level prospect. There will be zero value for at least a year or two, and then maybe, just maybe, the prospect starts advancing and making a difference.

It’s great to think about the long-term. It’s important. It’s critical. But near value is of greater value than distant value, and Lohse could provide immediate value on the order of a few extra wins. He could suck, but the draft pick could bust, and the odds are greater of the latter than the former. I don’t know, exactly, the value of a draft pick in the teens, but I can’t imagine it’s greater than $10 million. I can’t imagine it’s actually close to $10 million. That’s what Lohse could deliver in one stretch of six months.

Over time, teams should be getting better at drafting, in theory. Teams should also be getting better at developing the players they drafted. But there’s a difference between a big leaguer and a minor leaguer, and there’s a difference between a minor leaguer and a draft pick. It’s right to highly value young talent and cost-controlled players, but somehow I feel like people are underestimating the bust potential of a mid-round selection. When did this start?

It’s funny that some writers have pushed the idea of this off-season as being the end of teams overrating prospects, pointing to the Shields/Dickey trade returns and the Mariners attempted Upton trade, while at the same time we’re seeing what appears to be a growing reluctance to surrender a draft pick to sign a free agent. Those things can’t really both be true, right? Teams can’t be devaluing prospects while increasing their valuations of draft picks, which are basically just the prospect of a prospect. I mean, they could be, but it wouldn’t make any sense.

Some of it certainly seems like a reaction to the inability to redistribute the money that would have gone to the pick towards other picks. In the past, a lost pick meant that you’d just overpay someone later, or spend more on the international side. A team could compensate for the lost pick, and lessen the impact of the forfeited selection. They can’t do that anymore. So now, losing a pick is more harmful than it used to be, at least in terms of prospect acquisition.

But you’re right, the prospects themselves aren’t becoming any less risky. We’re still talking about a draft that has massive diminishing returns after the first few selections, and this draft class apparently isn’t very exciting after the top few college arms. I think both the Mariners and Padres should at least be willing to consider signing Lohse to a cheap deal, knowing that the outcome is either surprise contention or flipping a decent trade chip in a couple of months. The league minimum is unrealistic, but what about $5 million? Shouldn’t Lohse look at a $5 million paycheck to play in an extreme pitcher’s park for a few months before likely being traded to a contender — thus nullifying any chance of his getting a qualifying offer next year — be a pretty appealing outcome, given his current circumstance? It sure seems like this could be an out for everyone involved. It would just take one of these teams to give up on the idea of a first round pick being so much more valuable than the prospect they could acquire in a few months when they trade Lohse.

Maybe the real best option here is Cleveland. The next pick they’d have to surrender is around #100 or so. It’s not worthless, but it’s not worth a lot, and the Indians staff could use the help. Boras just steered Bourn to Cleveland. Maybe the Indians should be scrounging through the couch cushions to find money for Lohse too.

The Indians definitely seem like they’d be a pretty good fit, although now we’re straying from our first-round-pick hypothetical. In some small way, the new CBA incentivizes teams to sign multiple compensation free agents, because the picks you surrender get progressively less valuable, allowing you to put more money into the actual contract itself. For the Indians, the value of the next pick they’d give up is such that it’s almost like they’re not giving up a pick at all. The value of that pick would be, what, $1 million? Considerably less than $1 million? That’s hardly anything worth worrying about.

A big part of this has to be the inability to redistribute money in the draft. I can’t forget the Mariners giving up a mid-round pick a decade ago in order to sign Greg Colbrunn, who was essentially a pinch-hitter. That’s just one example, and it’s an extreme example, but teams didn’t used to be nearly so afraid of this. It is undoubtedly a factor, but it seems to me — without having any personal access — that teams have overreacted. They’re erring on the side of trusting amateurs more than trusting established veterans. That’s simplifying too much, but there’s a lot of faith being put in guys who haven’t yet played professionally, and who aren’t among the top 10 or 20 draft-eligible players.

It’s a prospect. A first-round draft pick is a prospect. You can’t spend to get first-round talent in the second round anymore, really, but you can still get second-round talent in the second round, so losing that first pick doesn’t cripple the rest of the draft. It just makes it worse, by a certain amount. I don’t want to start repeating myself.

There’s a sense that some teams don’t want to give up a first-round pick in exchange for one year (or two years) of service. It’s noble — teams want to think long-term — but wouldn’t you almost prefer to have Lohse for one year instead of three or four or five years, just given what we know about him? Doesn’t talking about years just confuse the issue, when the issue is, very simply, the value of Lohse versus the value of a pick? If you have two things that might be worth $10 million, wouldn’t you rather have the one that could provide that value sooner? These picks seem like they’re being evaluated by their potential ceiling, which is the worst mistake.

All this agreement is getting boring. I’m going to stop talking now so you can go post us congratulating each other on being so smart. High five, us.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

I don’t think you really addressed the situation from Lohse’s point of view. I’d bet there are half a dozen or more teams who have 1 year/$5m offers on the table like you suggest, but Lohse and Boras are still looking for more years and money. Boras is pretty good at surprising us, so I’d bet he ends up signing for something like 1/$15m or 3/$35 and we all understand why he didn’t jump to sign with someone for $5m.