Fans of the Washington Nationals have much to be excited about, because a team that already won 98 games last year looks like it could be geared to be even better in 2013. This year’s edition won’t have to worry about shutting down Stephen Strasburg, and they surprised many by adding Rafael Soriano to what was already a solid bullpen.
They can expect improved outfield performance given that Bryce Harper has a year of experience under his belt, Jayson Werth has returned from yet another injury — don’t forget, he was excellent (.312/.394/.441) in 52 starts after coming back last year — and they’ve finally filled the leadoff/center field hole they’ve been trying to patch for years by trading for Denard Span.
GM Mike Rizzo capped off his busy offseason by adding Dan Haren to the rotation, retainingAdam LaRoche on the club’s terms and rebuilding some farm depth by trading the somewhat overrated Mike Morse to Seattle.
All in all, it has been a very good winter for the Nationals, and they’re the consensus pick to win the National League East, especially given the teardowns in Miami and New York, and the continued aging of the Phillies. But for a team that’s truly built to win now, there’s one more move they could and should make — they need to be the club that swoops in to signKyle Lohse, the one big-ticket free agent remaining.
How good is he?
In some ways, the fact that Lohse remains unsigned headed into the second half of February seems like proof of the education of an industry. He brings 30 wins, a 3.11 ERA and one championship ring over the past two seasons into free agency, numbers that ordinarily would generate something of a feeding frenzy on an open market that is always desperate for quality starting pitching. Yet here we are, with camps open to pitchers and catchers across Arizona and Florida, and Lohse is still out there.
It’s not hard to see why, of course. Teams have wisely begun to look beyond misleading win-loss records to dig a little deeper, and what you have in Lohse is someone on the wrong side of 30 with a long history of inconsistency who doesn’t miss bats and missed time in both 2009 and 2010 because of arm injuries.
Thirty wins over two years may seem elite, but a 3.58 FIP and a 5.72 K/9 — the latter among the 10 lowest figures of all qualified starters over the past two seasons — indicate someone who is much more of a mid-rotation starter. Throw in the presence of Scott Boras and the anchor of draft pick compensation due to the qualifying offer St. Louis extended, and you can see why Lohse’s stock isn’t as high as he might have thought back in the fall.
Lohse may not be among the elite group of pitchers in baseball, but a veteran mid-rotation guy still brings considerable value. He has seemingly become so overrated that he might actually now be underrated, because he’s still a good, solid picher, and his market may have fallen to where he might be a steal at this point. While he won’t miss bats, he has made himself into a control artist, walking only 1.62 batters per nine innings last season — better than all but four other starters — and finishing in the top 25 in home run rate (0.81 per nine). On the right terms, he would be an improvement for nearly every team in baseball.
The Nationals make the most sense because two of the issues that may scare off other clubs — Boras and the draft pick — simply don’t apply here. Rizzo famously has a good relationship with the super-agent, counting Boras clients Harper, Soriano, Werth, Strasburg and Danny Espinosa among the current Nationals already. Boras also represents Edwin Jackson, who waited until February to sign with Washington last year before moving on to the Cubs this winter. The Nationals already forfeited their first-round draft pick to sign Soriano, so picking up Lohse would cost them only their next pick, which would be in the high 60s in what is expected to be a shallow draft.
That’s important because Washington is in exactly the right position on the win curve to continue to try to improve. That is, it wouldn’t make sense for a team such as Houston to go after Lohse, because spending millions and a draft pick to simply improve from 60 wins to 63 wins ultimately makes little difference. For the Nationals, who do still have to fight off the reloaded Braves on their way to another division title, every win counts — far more than a late second-round pick would.
Given that Washington already has a solid rotation in Strasburg, Haren, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermannand Ross Detwiler, collecting Lohse may seem like an unnecessary addition that would merely lead to an embarrassment of riches. Perhaps so, but there’s ample reason for the Nationals to want to seal some of the cracks that are easily visible here.
Gonzalez may yet have to deal with the repercussions of his alleged involvement in the South Florida PED mess that has caught up Alex Rodriguez and others, while concerns over Haren’s back and hip were serious enough that he managed only a one-year deal, coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. If either one misses time, the team is without an obvious or appealing replacement because safety blanket John Lannan moved on this winter.
Adding Lohse probably would bump Detwiler out of the rotation, and that would not only improve the starters, it could solve one of the team’s more glaring holes — the lack of a real lefty option in the bullpen. Washington lost Sean Burnett to free agency and missed on available lefties such as J.P. Howell, which currently leaves them with only the mediocreZach Duke as a southpaw reliever.
Detwiler had a decent season in his first full year in the Washington rotation, contributing 164 1/3 innings of a 3.40 ERA, but advanced statistics are not a huge fan; he misses even fewer bats than Lohse does and brings neither elite velocity nor a great out pitch. Having him pitch in relief might allow his velocity to play up somewhat while also helping the club more than he would in the rotation, given that he has been very effective against lefty hitters over his career (.214/.307/.300 line against). He would not only be a better option than Duke, he would be available to return to the rotation should injuries require it.
The real question is whether the Nationals could find the money for Lohse, because they have spent so much elsewhere. That said, Lohse doesn’t look to be in much of a position to demand a massive deal at this point and Boras has shown a willingness to be creative with Washington, deferring a sizable portion of Soriano’s deal. Assuming Boras is never going to allow Lohse to sign for less than the $13.3 million qualifying offer he declined, a back-loaded two-year deal in the $28 million to $32 million range, perhaps with a third-year vesting option, seems appropriate for both sides.
From a baseball point of view, it almost seems like a no-brainer for everyone. Washington would improve its rotation depth and bullpen while fully gearing up for a World Series run; Lohse would get a chance to win another ring while remaining in the National League and playing in front of a good defense that should also score plenty of runs to support him.
There are other places that might make sense for Lohse — teams such as the Los Angeles Angels or Cleveland Indians, who both already have lost draft picks and could use another starter. After pricey offseasons for each, those clubs could be at their spending limits, and Lohse may not have interest in returning to the more difficult American League for the first time since 2006. Washington is the best fit if the money is there, and Boras and Rizzo always seem to find a way.
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