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Lowe down dirty mean

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Boy, there sure is a lot of vitriol being tossed around toward Mozeliak and DeWitt regarding their lack of any "major" acquisitions so far this offseason. The thing is, that quote from September about "being aggressive" and "having a chunk of money coming off the books" – referring to the $30 M that last year was allocated to the likes of Mulder, Izzy, Encarnacion, etc – was from Joe Strauss and Derrick Goold. Nowhere do they quote anyone from the team that said they intend to spend $30 M in the offseason. But we’ve known for some time (link to updated roster matrix) that a bunch of those younger players (Ankiel, Ludwick, Wainwright, Molina, etc.) were due for big raises in ’09 and that the team wouldn’t have as much to spend as Strauss and Goold seemed to suggest.

After the team traded for Greene and signed Trever Miller, we estimated that the team had $10 – 15 M left to spend and now every Cards’ fan is calling Mo and DeWitt liars. You may have been misled, but it was by the people at the p-d IMO, not by Mo and DeWitt. And even if you do feel that Mo and Bill led you astray, I’m proud to say that we’ve been pretty close here at VEB. One caveat is that the "updated" roster matrix hasn’t been completely updated. It doesn’t include the Royce Ring signing ($475 K) and it also predated the Hamlet-esque "to be (a Cardinal) or not to be (a Cardinal)" that led to Miller’s guaranteed salary falling from $2 M to $500K. So let’s make that $11 – 16 M left to spend.

The bottom line is that it would have been extremely tough for the Cards to acquire any starting pitching – their biggest area of need, IMO – had they signed Brian Fuentes. I’m not here to rehash that debate, but the dilemma now, as it has been all along, is to spend the $ on a starter OR a reliever, and not both. Sure, if we add a starter we can probably spend $2 – 3 M on a setup man/middle relief type, but we could never have gotten a good starter if we had dished out $9 M to Fuentes.

So, w/ $10 – 15 M (pardon me, $11 – 16 M) to spend, how can we best spend that money? There’s one guy out there on the market who has flown somewhat under the radar this offseason and who, if acquired, would be a significant shot in the arm for the Cards. I’m speaking of Derek Lowe. Yes, I realize that Lowe conjures up some bitter memories for many of us, but he is quite possibly the best free agent starter still on the market. I realize, of course, that Ben Sheets has outstanding stuff but there are also legitimate concerns about his ability to stay healthy. There are no such concerns re: Lowe.

Early on, I never really considered Lowe a viable option. He is 35, after all, and the rumors had him wanting something like a 5 year, $90 M contract or even a 6 year contract. It should be clear now, however, that there is a pretty strong buyer’s market and, while Lowe (and Scott Boras) may have scoffed at the Mets’ 3 year, $36 M offer, I haven’t heard of Lowe being linked to anyone else.

What’s Lowe worth, then? Yes, he is older than the average bear but this guy has thrown 1456 innings over the previous 7 seasons (208 per year) w/ a low of 182.2. Joe Sheehan calls Lowe "the best pitching bargain in this market" here and here. Sky Kalkman said that Lowe deserves all the articles declaring him as the most underrated free agent pitcher. I defy you to find one person in the know who doesn’t think Derek Lowe is a pretty solid bet going forward. I just never thought the market might bring him back into our price range.

If 3 years is the market we’re dealing with, then, is there any doubt that Derek Lowe will make 75 starts over the next 3 years? I’d say that’s the minimum. He’s averaged about 6.1 innings per start over the 135 starts he’s made in the NL. So, that’s 472.1 innings or so over the next 3 seasons. Let’s be conservative and say that Lowe’s ERA will be 4.00 over those 472 innings. Mind you, his ERA’s never been above 3.88 since coming to the NL but he is getting older so we’ll go w/ 4.00. So, compared to a replacement level pitcher:

IP ERA ER
Lowe 472.1 4.00 210
Replacement level 472.1 5.50 288.6

Derek Lowe, over 3 years, saves the team 78.6 runs above a replacement level pitcher – if the stipulations are that he starts just 75 games and averages a 4.00 ERA. These are extremely conservative assumptions. Those 78.6 runs above replacement translate to 7.86 WAR over 3 years and if we assume that 1 WAR = $4.8 M on the free agent market (and that there’s no salary inflation over 3 years), Lowe is worth $37.7 M over 3 years.

How realistic is that? As I said, it’s probably being extremely conservative w/ his value. Last year, Justin Inaz had Lowe worth roughly 5.2 WAR. Over at statcorner, they estimate that Lowe was worth 3.8, 4.7, 4.0, and 5.9 WAR over the last 4 seasons. Even if we take that lowest number, 3.8, and assume it for 2009 and say he gets .5 WAR worse each of the next 2 years, he ends up being worth 9.9 WAR over the 3 year contract. Again, we’ll assume no salary escalation to be conservative and now Lowe’s worth $47.5 over 3 years – about the $16 M he wanted. FWIW, Sky (in the BtB article linked above) estimated Lowe’s worth at $19 M next year (he only evaluated 1 year based on next year’s Marcel projections) and fangraphs has him worth about $45 M over 3 years. Mo’s got a phone call to make.

The truth is, as we all know it, the Mets can outbid the Cards if they want to, but that doesn’t mean the phone call’s not worth making. If all we end up doing is forcing the Mets to increase the amount of money they pay Lowe, does that hurt us? In fact, given these numbers, I see no reason not to offer a fourth year or at least a 4th year option. What about an option that vests automatically based on the number of starts Lowe makes over the next 3 seasons? He doesn’t make 75 starts and we’re free of him after 3. It’ll probably take that 4th year, or at least an option w/ a pretty good buyout, in order to get him to St. Louis but, w/ our infield defense and our desperate need for a good starting pitcher, he seems to be a great fit. And, he’d fit just barely in the top end of our available salary range.

Is there anyone else on the market who makes us 4-5 wins better next year? Right now he replaces Boggs in the rotation or, if Carp is healthy, Pineiro. It’s at least a 3 win upgrade and probably 1 or 2 more and makes us a legitimate contender, now and down the road, in ways that Brian Fuentes or Kenshin Kawakami could not. It would also get some of those fans (and Tony) off of Mo’s back!