Time to buy low on Lohse

In ambition, expectations, and comfort with high-stakes risk, the distinctions between the Phillies and the Mets were never as much on display as last week, when the Phils signed Pedro Feliz on Monday, and the Mets traded for Johan Santana the day after.

For $8.5 million over two years, the Phils are making a modest bet that Feliz's strengths--defense and mistake-hitter power--will outweigh his broad-based offensive futility. For about twenty times as much money over seven years, the Mets are pushing a huge stack of chips to the middle of the table that Santana will add another Cy Young or two to his mantle and pitch them back into the NL East pole position, and well beyond to championship glory.

As we discussed then, the move vaults New York into the favorite slot in the battle for divisional supremacy. But not only does Santana give the Mets an ace whom you'd take over Cole Hamels in a head-to-head (if just for Santana's clean bill of health and more extensive big-game experience, for those into that sort of thing), he greatly reduces the risk factor throughout their rotation. Aging and injury-prone vets Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez are now #2 and #3--though expecting them to effectively combine as a #2 is probably more realistic. Highly skilled but inconsistent younger starters John Maine and Oliver Perez, both 15-game winners in 2007, are now #4 and #5; for much of last season, they were #1 and #2. Talented young underachiever Mike Pelfrey is the first replacement, and the Mets might not be done yet--but more of that in a bit.

Now consider the Phillies. Hamels is a bona fide ace whose health is the only concern. Brett Myers, the once-and-again #2, is probably solid but did miss significant time last season. And then it gets scary.

For the moment, the Phillies' #3 starter is 45 year-old slop-baller Jamie Moyer. That description isn't an insult; when he's locating, Moyer is an absolute delight to watch, and not just because you read the speed gun and think "I could almost do that!" Particularly against young, aggressive hitters, it's a thrill to watch how he wins battles with sequencing and psychology. But he's 45, the ERA nosed over 5 last season, and even the young guys in the Braves, Marlins and Nationals lineups have seen him a time or three now. In every sense, time isn't on Moyer's side, and his projected results under various systems show as much: most have him around a 5 ERA in about 180 innings pitched.

The #4 is Kyle Kendrick, who's half Moyer's age but was as or more important in the Phils' unlikely run to the division flag last year. If you're a regular reader of this blog, or any other site coverage of the team aside from Phillies Pravda or whatever bobblehead the Daily News has on the beat these days, you probably understand why Kendrick can't really be counted on either: the low strikeout rate (3.64/9 IP), the flukishly great numbers with RISP last season (.207/.271/.310 allowed), the near-total lack of prospect pedigree before injuries forced him into the rotation. Let me add another one: workload. In 2007, Kendrick pitched 206 innings between AA and the majors--a pretty big jump from the 176 he threw in two levels of A-ball the previous year, and a lot for any 22/23 year-old. Charlie Manuel was pretty responsible with Kendrick's pitch count within games, but the nature of young pitchers is that he could wind up on the shelf. The projection systems aren't optimistic about Kendrick, either: the most optimistic have him turning in an ERA under 4.50 with 175 or so IP, while the bears (prominently including Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA) peg Kendrick for an ERA north of 5, in fewer innings.

But he looks freakin' great compared to the incumbent #5, Adam Eaton. The good news for Eaton in 2007 was that he stayed relatively healthy, approaching his career highs in starts and innings pitched. The bad news for the Phillies was that he stayed relatively healthy, approaching his career highs in starts and innings pitched. Eaton's ERA+ was 73, meaning he was 27 percent less effective than the average big-league hurler. Now, he'd never been that bad before--but he'd also never been particularly good. About the best-case scenario for Eaton is that he reverts to his 2003-2005 form, during which time he won 31 games for San Diego with ERAs of 4.08, 4.61, and 4.27. Of course, in OFJOAB it's probably safe to add a bit less than a run to those ERAs, so something around 5.20-5.30 might be a reasonable "bounceback' expectation. But it's more likely he'll just get hurt and/or suck again. Eaton's projected ERA under various models range between PECOTA's 5.18 and 5.61 from our own MattS. Nobody expects him even to reach his modest 2007 innings total of 161.2.

This is a hell of a long windup to get to the point, which is that the Phillies need to re-sign Kyle Lohse. A savior he ain't; I'm not even sure he's a particularly reliable stopgap. But he is a good bet to turn in 180-200 innings of more or less league-average performance--and I'm not sure the same can be said for anyone currently in the rotation, including Hamels and Myers.  

Superficially, Lohse's career actually looks a bit like Eaton's: the middling W/L records, the one disaster year (2006 for Lohse, '07 for Eaton). But there are two vital distinctions: one, Lohse pitched for most of his career in the tougher league, which inflated his numbers while Eaton's were deflated by pitching in San Diego, and two, Lohse is pretty durable. He pitched 192.2 innings in 2007, and has cracked 175 in every full season he's been in the big leagues (Lohse split his nightmarish '06 between the majors and minors).

Nobody sees Kyle Lohse as a breakout star for 2008: the projection systems all peg him for an ERA in the mid-to-high 4s, with another record around .500. It's become clear that his hopes for a contract analogous to what Gil Meche got from the Royals last winter (5 years, $55 million), or Carlos Silva's deal from December with the Mariners (4 years, $48 million), won't be realized. But Lohse does have suitors with at least some interest: Baltimore is rumored to be sniffing around--as are the Mets and Phillies. At last report, the Phils were willing to go to two years with a third-year option; given the pervasive uncertainty in their #3 through #5 slots, if they can bring him in under $10 million per on such a deal, they need to bite their collective lip and do it.  

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