Flashback to 2007: the Phils, on the outskirts of the playoff race, trade one of their Top 10 prospects, Matt Maloney, to Cincinnati to acquire right handed starter Kyle Lohse. Lohse goes 3-0 with a 4.72 ERA in 13 games, 11 starts, en route to making one of the most improbably comebacks of all-time and capturing the NL East outright on the final day of the season. Lohse is last seen as a Phillie coming in against the Rockies in the 2007 NLDS inexplicably as a reliever despite likely being among their most consistent starters to finish the season.
Fast foward to 2013: the Phils, likely on the outskirts of the playoff race, sit behind the Nationals and Braves on paper for the upcoming season. Lohse, coming off a career year, is now 34 and very available as Spring Training starts. The Phillies are relying on Kyle Kendrick to replicate his strong 2012 second half and John Lannan to pitch as well as he does against everyone not named the Phillies. Neither are huge stretches but neither are slam dunks either in a year where the Phillies seem to have everything but certainty. The question that nobody is asking is: with Lohse still available, should the Phillies pick up the phone and call?
Lohse seemed to make a giant leap in 2012, going from above average to very good, building on what was an excellent 2011. For Lohse, command of his 88-90 MPH fastball is key and that’s where most of his improvements came. Lohse is more of a contact pitcher but saw real improvement in missing bats (-1.6% drop in contact on pitches in the strike zone, -1.3% drop in contact on pitches outside of the strikezone). For the second straight year, over 50% of his pitches were in the strikezone.
The pitch that has hurt Lohse the most is his curveball, which sits between 74-76 MPH. In 2010, Lohse threw a curve 9.6% of the time and had a 6.55 ERA; in 2012, Lohse threw it just 4.4% of the time and had a 2.86 ERA. The drop in ERA is not completely related to his reduction of the use of the curve, but mixed with his improvement of locating his fastball and his reliable slider, Lohse was able to find the strikezone more effectively which absolutely did help his ERA. His skillsets are improving in ways you’d expect pitchers over 30 to do and there has not been a precipitous decline in his velocity. His risks associated to aging are smaller than most and isn’t a large threat to injury.
Can the Phillies even afford Lohse? Highly unlikely. There are not a whole lot of rumored numbers for Lohse but his last contract was around five years, $34 million, ~$7 million a year. After the career year he just had, he’s likely looking to settle for nothing short of $10-14 million a year. At this point in free agency, Lohse may look to settle for something for less years but a bigger annual value, which would actually decrease the Phillies’ chances of signing him even more.
Secondly, the fan perception of adding someone for big bucks who is 34 to a team who already among the oldest in the Majors is not likely a road the front office wants to go down. The Phillies can do a lot worse than Kendrick and Lannan was on my radar since day one when the Nats non-tendered him.
Third, will Lohse even be that much of an improvement over Kendrick or Lannan? Based on projections, Lohse would net the Phillies a net gain of about one win replacing either of those pitchers. The Steamer projections at FanGraphs have Lannan worth 1.3 fWAR and Kendrick worth 1.4 WAR in 2013 while they have Lohse at 2.2 WAR. Is the gap between those pitchers worth adding $10-14 million plus the extra $5-7 million in luxury tax payments? Probably not.
Finally, despite the Mets best efforts to dance around the compensation rules when talking to Michael Bourn, Lohse, as a Type-A Free Agent, is still tied to the Phillies draft choice in 2013. If Lohse is still around after the 2013 Draft, then any team can sign him without compensation penalty, but that possibility is best very, very slim and at worst non-existent.
Lohse is absolutely a fine middle of the rotation starter and it is puzzling why he is available into Spring Training but the Phillies should not make a call to him: he’s too expensive and he’s not much better than what they already have.