Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Except Michael Lorenzen’s Contract

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I want to stress how outrageous it is that Michael Lorenzen was not the first former Cal State Fullerton two-way player to sign a free agent contract this winter. The guy who beat him to the punch, J.D. Davis, played 144 games for the Giants last year, starting 116 of them at third base. He’d gone through arbitration. More to the point, on March 1 he was the presumptive starter for a team with playoff aspirations, and he was under contract on March 10.

Then Davis got cut in order to save a few bucks in the wake of the Matt Chapman signing, and he ended up signing for less than half of his original salary with the Oakland A’s. There, he’ll be managed by Mark Kotsay, a former Cal State Fullerton two-way player.

While all of that was happening, Lorenzen was sitting by the phone. Or more likely, given his physique, he was lifting the phone just to get a good pump in, even though the only sound on the other end was a dial tone. Finally, overnight just six days before his team’s first regular season game, Lorenzen has a deal with the Texas Rangers: One year, $4.5 million, with an additional $2.5 million possible in incentives.

It’s a bit puzzling that Lorenzen is signing this late, and for this little money. This is the 32-year-old’s third go-around in free agency. After seven seasons with the Reds, most of it as a highly durable but not-particularly-spectacular reliever, Lorenzen inked a one-year, $7 million contract with the Angels in 2022, with the promise of a shot at the rotation. He posted a 4.24 ERA in 97 2/3 innings over 18 starts, then signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Tigers.

In an offseason that saw mid-rotation starters like Taijuan Walker and Jameson Taillon get four-year guarantees at twice as much money per annum, Lorenzen was a massive bargain for Detroit. He posted a 3.58 ERA in 18 starts with the Tigers and even made the All-Star team, and netted prize infield prospect Hao-Yu Lee in return when Detroit flipped him to Philadelphia at the deadline.

The Phillies acquired Lorenzen for his versatility — he could start or serve as a medium-leverage reliever and reduce the end-of-regular-season workload on high-volume starters like Walker, Zack Wheeler, and Aaron Nola. Most importantly, at the time of the trade the Phillies were one or two minor injuries from having to start Dylan Covey in a playoff game. Lorenzen stood, like a symbolic stone guardian, in opposition to that possibility.

Lorenzen went eight innings and allowed two runs in his Phillies debut, threw a 124-pitch no-hitter in his second start, and was pretty forgettable thereafter. By the third week of September, he was out of the rotation, and his contribution in the playoffs amounted to a pair of scoreless relief appearances.

Nevertheless, he’s coming off a season in which he posted a career high in innings (153 in 29 appearances, 25 of them starts), his lowest BB% since 2016 (7.5%), and an ERA- of 96. I don’t think it was unreasonable for him to expect a two-year deal worth $10 million or more annually.

Free Agent Starters’ 2023 Stats and 2024 Contracts
Player ERA- IP WAR Years AAV
Michael Lorenzen 96 153 1.7 1 $4.5M
Kyle Gibson 113 192 2.6 1 $13M
Jack Flaherty 118 144 1/3 1.8 1 $14M
Kenta Maeda 100 104 1/3 1.5 2 $12M
Sean Manaea 105 117 2/3 1.1 2 $14M
Wade Miley 72 120 1/3 1.1 1 $8.5M
Lance Lynn 133 183 2/3 0.5 1 $11M
Martín Pérez 102 141 2/3 0.5 1 $8M

Maybe Lynn, Flaherty, Maeda, and Manaea have a track record of past success that warrants a bit extra walking-around money, but Lorenzen’s contract seems pretty cheap by contemporary standards for innings eaters.

I suppose that’s what happens when you’re still a free agent after the music stops. And there are legitimate concerns about Lorenzen’s ability to be more than a fifth starter — no-hitter and All-Star appearance notwithstanding. Lorenzen had a 5.51 ERA after his trade to the Phillies, even with those two dynamite outings to start his tenure there. Among the 127 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings last year, he was 111th in K%. He also allowed the highest home run rate and lowest ground ball rate since his rookie year. He tinkered with his repertoire a lot — in September alone, the Phillies had him throw seven different pitch types — without much success.

But for $4.5 million, plus incentives, who cares? Especially the Rangers, who went hog wild on the trade and free agent market in years past but have had a fascinating and pragmatic approach to free agency this winter.

Back in December, Texas signed Tyler Mahle, who’s currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, to a two-year contract. He’ll start the season on the IL with an eye toward returning late in the year, as will both Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. Until then, the Rangers have a hole… well, three holes, really, in the rotation.

For the time being, they don’t need that much out of their starting pitchers. Corey Seager and Josh Jung could be ready for Opening Day, with Nathaniel Lowe not far behind. Tack on returning sluggers Marcus Semien and Adolis García, a full season of Evan Carter, and Wyatt Langford’s rapid evolution into Thagbold the Annihilator, God-Emperor of Smashing Baseballs, the Rangers are going to score a lot of runs.

And even with three-fifths of their rotation seeking medical treatment for a pre-existing condition, the Rangers have some depth: Nathan Eovaldi (you either die an injury-prone prospect, or live to see yourself become the indestructible veteran), Jon Gray, Dane Dunning, Andrew Heaney, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Texas is one of several teams taking a financial hit from the ongoing collapse of the RSN bubble, so GM Chris Young has had to save his ammo, but apparently Lorenzen’s price tag had come down so far that Young could no longer pass up this deal. Lorenzen has been throwing in private workouts, but it’ll still take him a couple weeks, and probably at least one minor league start, to get into game shape. Still, if he is in the big league rotation within the next four weeks, $4.5 million is a worthwhile gamble on a pitcher who’s an upgrade from Cody Bradford now, and can be used out of the bullpen if August rolls around and the Rangers suddenly have more healthy starters than they can use. If Lorenzen turns out to be nothing more than the sixth-best reliever in the Texas bullpen, this is still a coup for the Rangers, who need relief depth even more than they need an upgrade at fifth starter. And a one-year, $4.5 million guarantee is about the going rate for middle relievers, reclamation projects, and reclamation project middle relievers.

Like Blake Snell before him, Lorenzen seems to have waited out the market a little too long. And even with that understand, it’s surprising how cheap this contract ended up being.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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2 months ago

Any idea what is happening with Clevinger? He seems pretty similar to Lorenzen, though with a slightly better track record. Does he sign for a similar deal or is he holding out in the hopes of more?