And then there was one.
Monday night's news that Michael Bourn had agreed to terms with the Indians left Kyle Lohse as the only big name free agent remaining on the market. The 34-year-old righty is still out there, though not because of any defect in his performance. In fact, he's actually coming off a career year, having set personal bests for Wins Above Replacement (3.9), wins (16), ERA (2.86), innings (211) and walk rate (1.6 per nine) and a near-best for home run rate (0.8 per nine) while cracking the National League's top 10 in all of those categories. There's no mistaking him for an ace given his modest 3.90 ERA and 5.6 strikeouts per nine during his five years in St. Louis, but he's a good midrotation option, particularly if he can maintain the 3.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio of his past two seasons.
Lohse's problem is that he's one of the nine players who received a qualifying offer from his old team, which under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement requires the signing team to surrender its first-round draft pick unless it's one of the top 10. He's also a Scott Boras client, which means that he's not just going to give his services away, particularly coming off a four-year, $41 million deal that he finished on such a high note after injuries derailed his first two years. Bourn and Rafael Soriano, the last two big name free agents to sign, are also Boras clients, and they stand as proof that the überagent can pull a rabbit out of a hat even after the groundhog has come out of his hole.
Here's a quick look at seven teams for whom the addition of Lohse may make some sense, ranked roughly in order from best fit to worst; lower down the list, the cons start to give the pros a run for their money.
Royals: General manager Dayton Moore made waves in December by trading top prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay for James Shields in an effort to accelerate Kansas City's chances at making the playoffs. As I've noted before, the problem isn't so much that Shields isn't an ace, it's that none of the pitchers behind him — Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen, Wade Davis — bear much resemblance to the type of mid-rotation starters a legitimate contender needs; of that quartet, only Davis had an ERA below 4.76 last year, and he was pitching out of the bullpen.
Lohse would be a significant upgrade over Chen, the man most likely on the bubble given the team's current investment in him ($4.5 million remaining in the final year of his deal), and because the Royals are slated to pick eighth, they would only have to surrender a second-round pick to sign him. Given the dearth of ready pitching in their organization, a multiyear deal would make sense here, as the team could desperately use the quality innings he provides in bulk. Since 2004, the only KC starters to provide back-to-back seasons of at least 162 innings with ERAs under 4.50 are Zack Greinke (2008-2010) and Gil Meche (2007-2008). Owner and notorious miser David Glass has already squawked about the Royals' payroll limitations, but given their current state, it's apparent that it will take far more than $73 million for this team to truly contend. With Santana, Chen and Jeff Francouer coming off the books after the season, freeing up some $24 million, it would make sense to offer a backloaded deal.
Cardinals: The recent news that Chris Carpenter is likely out for the season due to the recurrence of numbness in his right arm is certainly a blow. St. Louis has fared pretty well minus one of its two co-aces in each of the previous two seasons, winning a world championship while Adam Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011 and coming within one win of a return to the World Series despite receiving just three regular season and three postseason starts from Carpenter.
That has much to do with Lohse's work, though he had a 5.45 ERA and just one quality start out of seven in those two postseasons. The Cardinals have the depth to withstand the loss of Carpenter, with prospects Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal and 2012 rookie Joe Kelly all providing reasonable options behind Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia. Even so, Garcia's shoulder woes add an additional question mark to the mix. The Cards wouldn't have to surrender a draft pick to retain Lohse, and they'd be bringing back a pitcher who has rejuvenated his career in their organization.
Nationals: With Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler, Washington appears to be well-stocked in its rotation, and in Haren it alread has a pricey one-year rental, à la Edwin Jackson in 2012. Gonzalez's connection to the Miami Biogenesis mess has created the slim possibility of a suspension for PED use, and while it will take more than just a newspaper report to sideline him for 50 games, the Nats do lack the depth that John Lannan afforded then last year. Having signed Soriano already, the Nationals have shown that they're serious about fortifying this team for a trip to the World Series, and in adding Lohse, would only be giving up a second-round pick around number 68 overall (the Braves gain the 31st pick with the loss of Bourn).
Rangers: The departures of Ryan Dempster, Roy Oswalt and Scott Feldman, the loss of Colby Lewis until midseason and the failure to land Zack Greinke leave the Rangers with a rotation of Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and either Martin Perez or Justin Grimm, both rookies. Holland was hit hard last year (4.67 ERA, 1.6 homers per nine) while Ogando, Perez and Grimm combined for just 13 major league starts.
Lohse would provide another healthy, established righty to pair with Darvish, and he'd give Texas the option to trade the cost-controlled Holland if it wants to open a spot for Lewis or one of the rookies. The Rangers would surrender the 24th pick of the draft, but they'd still have the 29th pick after losing Josh Hamilton to the Angels. That said, with a groundball rate of just 43 percent in each of the past two seasons, Lohse's flyballing ways could be a rough fit for Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Orioles: The O's made the playoffs last year despite a rotation that ranked ninth in the league in ERA (4.42) and quality start rate (48 percent), and the biggest move they've made this offseason, the signing of Jair Jurrjens — he of the 6.89 ERA — to a $1.5 million deal, is in jeopardy due to ongoing concerns about his right knee. That leaves the team banking heavily that last year's breakouts by Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman — who combined for just 50 starts — are all legitimate.
Given that the Orioles had just one pitcher who threw more than 133 2/3 innings in Wei-Yin Chen, Lohse's ability to provide bulk would be a big help, though the question of how well his flyball tendency would fit into the AL East has to rate as a concern. Additionally, losing the 23rd pick of the draft — a spot that has yielded Jacoby Ellsbury, Phil Hughes and Francouer (as uneven as they may be) as well as pitching prospect Alex Meyer — means giving up a shot at a potentially useful major leaguer.
Red Sox: Boston's rotation was a disaster last year, ranking 12th in the AL in both ERA (5.19) and quality start rate (44 percent). Among the eight pitchers who made more than one start, only Franklin Morales had an ERA under 4.56, and he made just nine starts. Jon Lester (4.82) and Clay Buchholz (4.56), the team's top two returning starters, were both subpar, and come into the year with question marks about conditioning and durability. The Red Sox signed Dempster to a two-year deal and will have a much fitter John Lackey back from Tommy John surgery, but that still may not be enough even with the return of former pitching coach John Farrell as manager.
Boston's first-round pick (No. 7 overall) is protected, so it would only lose a second-rounder at number 45, and having cut payroll from $175 million to around $152 million before pre-arbitration extensions, the team can obviously afford him. That said, as with Dempster, there's concern about how well Lohse's stuff will play in the AL East, and he may not want any part of the media circus that Boston has become in the wake of so many recent disappointments.
Brewers: After coming within one win of a trip to the World Series in 2011, the Brewers fell short despite a late run in 2012, but they've done very little to enhance their chances this winter. In fact, they've slashed payroll from $98.2 million to just over $71 million, not counting pre-arbitration renewals. In the rotation, they've lost Shaun Marcum to the Mets, and like the Orioles, they're betting heavily that the emergences of pitchers who spent less than a full season in their rotation — in this case Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Wily Peralta, who combined for 60 starts last year — can pick up the slack in a unit where only one pitcher (Yovani Gallardo) exceeded 142 1/3 innings. Don't bet on Lohse going to Milwaukee; beyond his poor fit for Miller Park (where he owns a career 6.95 ERA in the admittedly small sample of 44 innings), the Brewers have the sour taste of Jeff Suppan — a former Cardinal midrotation staple with a low strikeout rate who turned into a free agent disaster in Milwaukee — in their mouths. Furthermore, they'd be surrendering the 17th pick by signing Lohse, a spot that has produced Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge and Roy Halladay, among others.