I am a baseball fan optimist at heart, but moments like this test even the most optimistic of fans. Today, the Brewers have signed Kyle Lohse to a 3 year, $33 million deal pending a physical. As a condition of the deal, the Brewers forfeit their 17th overall pick in the upcoming June draft, and the Cardinals get a pick at the end of the first round. This has the additional effect of adding to the pool of bonus money the Cardinals can use, and reducing the amount the Brewers can use in the later rounds due to the new, and stupid, slotting system.
Let us get one thing out of the way very quickly: Kyle Lohse is a better pitcher than Jeff Suppan. He is, in fact, a pretty good pitcher. In his 3 seasons with St. Louis before joining Milwaukee, Suppan recorded FIPs of around 4.5, which was slightly worse than the league average for a starting pitcher at that time. Lohse is coming off seasons of 4.4, 3.6, and 3.5-- reflecting that his peripherals actually "deserved" ERAs in that range and was not just riding fluky defense. In his past 8 seasons, Lohse's worst FIP was 4.5; Suppan beat that only 4 times in his career, and 2 of those instances were in the 1990s.
In addition, Lohse is a different style of pitcher than Suppan. He's not what a scout would classify as a groundball pitcher, which for pitchers in this class often means that there stuff is so poor that they do things like "pitch to contact" and hope somebody makes a play on a line drive. His stuff is not mind-blowing but he has averaged higher swinging strike numbers than Suppan at similar points in their career, and his fastball still averages around 90 miles per hour. Suppan could not make a baseball go that fast unless it was riding with him in his car.
In terms of pure market value this deal is comparable, for me, to the Randy Wolf and Aramis Ramirez signings-- ones that make team decidedly better in the first year, possibly better in the second year, and likely worse in the third year. Add in the dollar costs on the draft pick and it's like adding another $4-6 or so million to this deal. The important thing to keep in mind, however, that we are not out here rooting for the Brewers to maximize the expected present value of all future revenue streams-- we want them to win baseball games. If the front office thinks that the window of contention is closing for the current core built around the drafts between about 2004 and 2008, who am I to say that this is not the right move? It is not my money, and dangit I want the Brewers to contend. It is not difficult to see this team riding a good first half to contention in the NL Central and then making a play at the trade deadline to improve the squad enough to make the team playoff-caliber.
If there is anything I have learned in the past 5 or so years of writing about baseball it is how overconfident we can become in our own predictions. If you firmly think the Brewers are an 80-82 win team, it is very true that this team does not gain much by signing Lohse this year, sacrifices resources for the next two years, and hurts the future by not only losing a draft pick but giving the Cardinals one. But along that line of thinking, you almost need to get upset that they did not just blow up the team and rebuild everything this offseason. Optimal baseball strategy would involve tanking, and tanking hard, for years at a time (like the Rays did in the 2000s) in order to build up such a cheap talent core that you cannot help but make the playoffs and go to multiple World Series. But when the time comes that the team is capable of a run, sometimes you have to do something stupid and see what happens. And the Brewers tanked pretty hard for much of the early 2000s, got some nice players out of it, and now there's stuck between contention and mediocrity. It is hard for me to get mad at them for improving the team, especially when they had the NL's best offense in 2012. We all know there are going to be some lean years coming, and paying Kyle Lohse 11 million in 2015 isn't going to change that any more than paying Aramis Ramirez $12 million in 2014 will.
This is not a great signing, and it's not even a particularly good signing. If I had to choose one word to describe this signing, I would likely end up with a 3-way tie among "bad", "unwise", and "naive". But it makes the Brewers better. Even if you think that replacing Peralta or Fiers with Lohse is a downgrade, there is no question that having one of those two available to step in for an injured pitcher does make the squad stronger-- not to mention that stashing one in the bullpen could help there as well. That is not a good way to judge a baseball signing rationally, but it is a way to rationalize it. And damned if I am not just a bit more excited about our chances this year now. This is clearly a guy capable of putting up 210 innings of a sub-3 ERA; I know this because he did it last season, and a significant portion of that damage was done against the Brewers.
This is basically another Randy Wolf signing, if Randy Wolf had also kidnapped the Brewers first round draft draft pick in 2010 and delivered a slightly worse version of that player to St. Louis. The Wolf deal worked out just fine for the Brewers overall. The fact that the team is likely lower on the win expectancy curve now, and the draft pick scenario, makes this whole thing less than desirable, but all is not lost. We ended up with a pretty good starting pitcher who is not a stupid Cardinal any more, and there are worse things to have.
P.S.: Change your stupid new draft rules, MLB. They suck.