By Marc Normandin
At this time last year, starting pitcher Roy Oswalt was still a free agent simply because he felt like it. His desire to play as close to home in Mississippi as baseball city geography allowed was an open secret, one that caused him to shun potential suitors all off-season long. It was odd to see a pitcher with his potential impact on a season still available so late, but it was mostly his doing.
One year later, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse does not have nearly the same control over his free agency. Despite being more available than Oswalt ever was, Lohse can't get a single club to bite on him. The rumors make it seem as if more teams have specifically said they aren't interested in Lohse than are, and he rejected the only contract offer we know he received. Turning down the one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer extended by the Cardinals is the basis for Lohse's current availability, as it attached draft pick compensation to any major-league deal he signed this winter.
Qualifying offers are a new wrinkle, added to the baseball lexicon in the previous off-season when the new collective bargaining agreement was finalized. They are meant to take the place of the old Elias Rankings system that attached player compensation ratings to free agents, and do so by handing the power of deciding who is worthy of compensation over to the teams themselves rather than a formula that had to be reverse-engineered by MLB Trade Rumors. Unlike under Elias, when arbitration figures determined by previous salaries had a lot of say in contract offers, qualifying offers are a set amount regardless of player, as they're based on the average of the top 125 salaries in the game. If a player doesn't perform in a way that merits that kind of paycheck, they aren't likely to get an offer.
If the Cardinals had not decided that the loss of Kyle Lohse was worthy of compensation or a $13.3 million salary for a year, he likely would have signed a deal that fell in between Anibal Sanchez's five-year, $75 million contract and Edwin Jackson's four-year, $52 million agreement already. Lohse fits in well with that duo as a mid-rotation type who can give a team innings, but, unlike Lohse, neither of those hurlers received a qualifying offer. Sans baseball's scarlet letter, they were free to make bank during an era of ever-escalating salaries.
Until recently, Lohse was not alone in his ignored state. Michael Bourn was a candidate to pull in the largest free agent outfielder deal this winter after Josh Hamilton, but instead, he sat waiting by the phone until the Indians surprised everyone and inked him in mid-February thanks to the Braves' qualifying offer. Rafael Soriano, given the qualifier by the Yankees after opting out of his contract, signed with the Nationals a month earlier after watching every other major reliever come off the market. By virtue of being the lone player from the original nine offer recipients to remain unemployed, Lohse has become something of the poster boy for how qualifying offers can harm players looking to be fairly compensated.
This is just an assumption, but, given that the Cardinals have declined to re-sign Lohse even as he remained available and they lost one of their best pitchers in Chris Carpenter, it's fair to say they were more interested in receiving compensation for Lohse than they ever were in retaining him -- this is the danger, for players, in having teams control the compensation process. After two strong years, the expectation was that Lohse would reject the qualifying offer and venture into free agency. Now, the rest of the league doesn't need to consider Lohse to be worth the sacrifice of a draft pick in order for this gambit to work. All that needs to happen is for Lohse, or any player, to be optimistic enough in the off-season's early weeks to decline the qualifying offer and let their previous team off the hook for any future considerations. Lohse did exactly what the Cardinals hoped, and while part two of this two-part plan hasn't come to be just yet, the Cards are satisfied enough knowing that Lohse can't be foisted back upon them in this new system thanks to his early off-season rejection of the only contract offer he's seen all winter.
That closed one of 30 doors, but the other 29 have remained shut. The Cardinals, in essence, let Lohse do this to himself by tagging him with the qualifier. What's keeping clubs from signing Lohse at this point? For the right price and contract length, he's a valuable pitcher. He might not be the number two starter he looked like with the Cardinals, given how much, contextually, his park, division, and league helped him the past few years. However, he could easily be a mid-rotation arm capable of delivering around 200 average-or-better frames, just like Jackson and Sanchez, and at this late stage, he could likely be signed for much less than either. Thanks to increased sinker usage leading to more grounders and weaker contact, Lohse would likely even work out in the AL, should someone offer him a second tour of duty on the junior circuit.
If it's not performance or monetary concerns, then it's all about the draft pick that would have to be surrendered. Are some clubs overrating draft picks by shunning Lohse? Building through the draft is huge, especially with the rising costs of free agents. These new compensation rules mean fewer draft picks for many clubs as well, so holding on to what you can get is important. However, it's hard to believe that there isn't a single team on the bubble, just one starter short of realistic contention in this new dual wild card format, who would benefit by sacrificing a single pick for multiple years of Lohse.
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin has said, "I'd rather be on the cover of Sports Illustrated than Baseball America." The inference here is that trading a few prospects to put your team in contention, in a position to win now, makes sense when the opportunity arises. Hoarding makes sense for certain teams who have no hope of contending, but those a pitcher or player away should not have the same hesitance. You can make the same kind of statement about money, as well: even if you overshoot your budget in order to sign Lohse, if he's the final piece of the puzzle, then you'll earn back both good graces and dollars.
The teams that most come to mind for Lohse's services are the Indians and Royals. Cleveland signed Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, and sacrificed a draft pick for both in doing so. Their first-round selection is protected due to their 2012 record, so they gave up a second-round pick, as well as one of the new competitive balance sandwich selections. Signing Lohse would cost them the next pick in line, and likely send them well past their budget, if Bourn didn't already. However, their rotation is by far the weakest component on a team that Baseball Prospectus is currently projecting for 80 wins -- shoring up the rotation with Lohse when they've already come this far in terms of punting the draft and building for both now and later would make all kinds of sense.
Kansas City already took Doug Melvin's advice by trading away top prospect Wil Myers among others to the Rays in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis. Their rotation is still a mess, though, despite that pair and Jeremy Guthrie's re-signing. While Prospectus is nowhere near as rosy on the Royals as they are on the Indians, putting them in fourth place, the Royals clearly think more of themselves, as evidenced by their actions. They shouldn't trade away someone like Myers if the plan was to go halfway to contention, and by not going the extra mile to bring in Lohse, that's essentially what they're doing. It might be hard to believe, but combine Lohse with Shields, Davis, Guthrie, and Ervin Santana, and add that to the Royals' young lineup developing as they believe it can, and this team could actually make some noise in the AL Central. That's the kind of dreaming you need with two wild cards to win, but instead, Kansas City is content with the far less realistic Lohse-less rotation.
Lohse deserves a job, qualifying offer or no, but baseball doesn't want to give him one. Lohse is unlikely to be the only player affected by this, either -- there are at least four more off-seasons of this setup in the future, until the next CBA goes into effect, and you can be sure we'll see dreamy-eyed free agents like Lohse rejecting qualifying offers in each of those. For the players' sake, teams need to smarten up and realize that sometimes, giving up a draft pick in exchange for someone who can help you isn't necessarily a negative. Maybe, after Lohse finally does sign and justifies the fact he received the qualifier at all, a few teams will take notice in time to keep this from happening again next time around.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, and also contributes to Baseball Nation. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @Marc_Normandin.