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Free Agent Bargain: Derek Lowe

For our final free agent bargain, we take a look at another starting pitcher who simply doesn’t get the recognition he deserves – Derek Lowe. I’ve written about him several times this year, but it bears repeating: Lowe had the 7th best FIP of any starting pitcher in baseball this year. Better than Brandon Webb. Better than Johan Santana. Better than breakthrough stars Ervin Santana and Ryan Dempster or established aces like Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt.

Lowe was tremendous for the Dodgers this year, continuing his run as a durable, front line starter. Because he’s one of the most extreme groundball starters in the majors and he’s learned how to command his sinker, his success is built off limiting walks and home runs. He did both of those better than almost everyone else in baseball, which makes up for the fact that he posts just average strikeout rates. Getting batters to swing and miss is great and all, but it’s not the only way to succeed – Lowe has gotten so good at the other aspects of baseball that he doesn’t need to blow hitters away. Weak groundballs turn into outs with enough frequency too.

Because of his age, Lowe isn’t going to be in the market for the five to seven year deal that CC Sabathia will be looking for. The length of the contract we should expect Lowe to get is three or four years, which makes him more attractive than others on the market just for that reason. How much should Lowe get?

If we assume that Lowe’s true talent level will see him give up 4.25 runs per nine innings next year, and we project him to throw 200 innings, that makes him about 38 runs above a replacement level starting pitcher. Given that, we can call him a +3.5 to +4 win pitcher. Given an expected going rate of about $5 million per win this winter, we’d expect Lowe to get something like $17.5 to $20 million per year if he was valued correctly.

I highly doubt that Lowe will get that much money, though – the perception of his abilities across the game don’t match his actual abilities, and I’d put the expected range of his salary at about $15 million per year. If I’m right, Lowe’s going to be worth about $2.5 to $5 million in asset value to whoever signs him for 2009.

Teams like Atlanta, who are considering giving up the farm for the right to pay Jake Peavy the same amount that we’re projecting Lowe will sign for, should look at him as a viable alternative – similar caliber of pitcher, similar money, and you get to keep all your prospects.