Really, guys? You lose three straight, at home, against the Kansas City Royals, scoring a total of four runs, then go into Boston and suddenly look like a real baseball team again? The hell?
Of course, while the offense did look much better last night than it had in the previous few days, the real difference maker was the starting pitching. Specifically, the difference was one Kyle Lohse. It's not hard to look like a good baseball team when your starter goes out and puts up a performance like the one we were treated to last night.
I was watching the game last night with my friend Chris and his girlfriend. Immediately after Lohse escaped the fifth inning, (after which, by the way, I excepted Lohse to shout out ta da and put on cape and top hat) I turned to Chris and I asked him if you sign Lohse to an extension. His immediate answer? Absolutely. Guys been nails. You've got to keep a guy like that around. His answer did soften slightly upon further discussion, what with the whole Scott Boras factor, as well as the rotation situation going forward, and a thousand other little things that tend to weigh in on what seems like it should be such a cut and dried answer.
So let's take a look. Can the Cardinals afford to sign Kyle Lohse to a contract extension? More importantly, can they afford not to?
So far on the year, Lohse is pitching to the tune of a 3.63 ERA. That essentially puts him in the range of a solid number two starter. First off, is that kind of performance sustainable? My first inclination, honestly, would be to say no. Not based on anything concrete, just my opinion of what he's been for the rest of his career. If we look at the numbers, though, the story is a little different.
Lohse isn't striking out a ton of batters this year, only 44 in 94.1 innings. To me, that's a big red flag. A pitcher who only strikes out something in the range of 4.00 batters per nine innings just isn't missing enough bats to carry forward these numbers. However, Lohse also isn't walking anybody, with only 23 free passes on the season. It doesn't entirely put to bed the fears about his low K rate, but if he continues to force hitters to hit their way on base, with as good as the Cardinals' defense has been this year, he shouldn't absolutely just fall off the map.
Lohse currently carries an FIP of 3.63, so his ERA definitely isn't an illusion, nor does it look as if the fielders are just standing on their heads to save his ass every time out. FIP is much less vulnerable to huge variation, so again, it looks as if this pace isn't out of the question.
Early in the year, it looked as if Lohse's numbers could have been largely a product of an unusually low home run rate. He didn't allow a single long ball until something like his sixth or seventh start, if I remember correctly, and an unusually low number of balls hit in the air against him were going out. If we look at those numbers now, it appears to have evened out. This year, 4% of the flyballs Kyle has allowed have left the park. That's a fairly low percentage, but not at all a glaring anomaly. Last year in his stint in Cincinnati, the flyballs against Lohse converted into homers at a 6% clip, and after going to Philadelphia, the only NL park that's even more of a bandbox, that number actually dropped to 5%. Pitching in a pitcher's park like Busch III, when compared to what he did last year in a couple of hitter's paradises, that 4% number looks to be sustainable as well. Even if it does jump up a tick or two, though, into the 5% range, the effect on Lohse's ERA should only be enough to move him a little closer to the 4.00 range.
Of course, the biggest difference in Lohse's profile this year is the number of groundballs he's getting, along with that very low walk rate. He's throwing worm burners at a 48% rate right now, as compared to a 36% rate in Cincy and a 42% rate in Philly last season. In 2006, when Lohse first came to Cincinnati, Lohse did post a 50% GB rate, bat that's the only time in his career he's ever come close to that number. Until now, that is. Combine that with walking less than six percent of the batters faced, and you have a recipe for success.
So, what can we conclude about Kyle's performance up to this point in the season? Well, honestly, it looks as if it's probably sustainable, at least to a certain extent. He's not getting unusually lucky in any facet of the game, really. It isn't as if he's getting knocked around and the balls are just staying in the park, the fielders aren't bailing him out constantly, and he isn't walking a ton of batters. His BABIP is a little low, at .279, but that's not absurd, particularly with a strong defensive backing. The low strikeout rate does worry me, but other than that, it looks as pretty much everything is all in line for Lohse this year. I have to admit, I think he can perform right around these levels going forward. This looks like one of those situations where the combo of a pitcher and the right pitching coach and team defense has led to a very good performance, one that shouldn't disappear in a puff of smoke.
So, what does that mean for a potential contract for Lohse? Well, that's a little more complicated. Under contract for next year, the Cardinals already have Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Joel Pineiro, and Todd Wellemeyer. If they were to sign Lohse, that's five pitchers. Sounds great, right? You need five starters, they would have them. Problem with that, of course, is that the Cardinals also have a pretty fair amount of talent in the upper levels of the minors that could very well be ready to step in to the rotation next year. Pitchers like Jaime Garcia, Mitchell Boggs, who we'll get another look at today, Kyle McClellan, Clayton Mortensen, and even Jess Todd could all potentially be ready to step in to the starting rotation next year. Obviously, you don't want to just pencil one or more of those guys in just yet, but you also don't want to block the pipeline to the point that there aren't any spots to be had when your young talent is ready to move up.
We can't assume that all of those pitchers will be healthy, I suppose. Still, Carpenter should be back next season. His recent elbow setback doesn't appear to be serious, so I feel pretty comfortable assuming he'll be there. Wainwright's finger won't prevent him from pitching next year. Welley's balky elbow is a bit worrisome, I must admit. Yes, right now, it looks as if he only needs some more rest, but how many times have we seen a pitcher come down with 'just some soreness' that ends up as a harbinger of future arm troubles? Pineiro should be healthy; his injuries this year haven't been of the arm problem nature. So it's not as if the Cardinals have reason to believe they'll need to fill one of those starters' slots.
Kyle Lohse is represented by the Scott Boras company, of course. We all know the story with this offseason, how he waited too long to sign and ended up on a one year deal with the Cardinals mid way through spring training, etc. I honestly don't know what sort of history Boras clients have of signing extensions during the season, but I can't imagine it's a particularly extensive one. Boras loves to get his guys to free agency, where they have all the leverage. And with Lohse settling for a one year, make good deal this past year, I have to imagine he'll be looking to bank on his career year.
I would think that, at this point, the 4 yr., 40 million dollar contract Lohse was reportedly seeking this offseason will be a nice starting point after this year. He and Boras will probably look for something more along the lines of the deal that someone like A.J. Burnett got a couple of years ago, at 5/$55. Lohse is right in the prime of his career, and will expect to be signed as such. The Cards might be able to get him for a little less, considering how well he seems to have taken to working with Dave Duncan, but I can't imagine you could even get close to the guy for less than 4/$40. So, what should the Cardinals do?
Is Kyle Lohse worth a 4 year commitment, at likely $10 million+ annually? You already have four pitchers under contract for next season. You have at least two pitchers in the system who will compete for a spot out of spring training, Garcia and Boggs. There are two others who could very well be in the mix, in Mortensen and Todd, and you can throw McClellan into that mix if you decide to move him out of the 'pen. I'm assuming there's no way that Anthony Reyes is still somehow hanging around next March, and I can't imagine the team being interested in what a Mike Parisi or Brad Thompson brings at this point with so many other available options. So, the Cards' list of possible starters for 2009 looks a bit like this:
all under contract, and:
all in the mix as well.
That's nine pitchers for five spots, if you don't sign Lohse. To me, the real problem here is that second year on Pineiro's deal. Of course, maybe that makes him more attractive as a trade candidate this year, but it's tough to see the Cardinals trading away a veteran pitcher if they manage to hang around in contention late into the year.
So, is Kyle Lohse worth an extension? Do you do it now? Do you wait, knowing that each successful start just drives the price even further up? Do you try to negotiate after the season, with Palpatine hanging over his shoulder? Do you let him walk and take the draft compensation?
It's a tough question, and I really can't make up my mind about it. What do you guys think?