By Cliff Corcoran
On the 148th day of his free agency, Kyle Lohse has agreed to a contract with the Milwaukee Brewers worth a reported $33 million over three years with an addition $1 million worth of performance bonuses. The addition of Lohse gives the Brewers a strong number-two starter for a rotation that was lacking behind ace Yovani Gallardo, but it will also cost them their first-round draft pick this June, along with the associated bonus pool money, while awarding an additional pick to the division-rival Cardinals.
That draft pick, necessitated by Lohse turning down a qualifying offer from the Cardinals in November, is the primary reason that Lohse took this long to sign with a team for 2013. Though Lohse has been one of the National League’s better pitchers over the last two seasons, going 30-11 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 63 starts for a pair of playoff teams in St. Louis, he had gone 88-98 with a 4.79 ERA (93 ERA+) in his career prior to the 2011 season and he turned 34 in August, putting just enough doubt in the minds of prospective suitors that the additional price of the draft pick caused the market for his services to dry up completely.
Milwaukee finally caved. Looking to build on a 38-23 (.623) finish to the 2012 season, the Brewers were disappointed by the spring performances of young starters Mark Rogers (7.00 ERA, 2.44 WHIP), Mike Fiers (6.98 ERA, 1.91 WHIP) and Wily Peralta (5.74 ERA, 1.72 WHIP) and thus increasingly desperate to reinforce a starting rotation that received 42 starts from the since-departed Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum last year. Lohse, who finished seventh in the Cy Young voting in 2012, was by far the best available option, though it remains to be seen if his fly-ball and contact-oriented pitching is a good match for Milwaukee’s homer-happy home ballpark.
It also remains to be seen just how soon Lohse will be ready to join the Brewers’ rotation. Lohse, who was in their camp Monday morning for his physical, has been working out on his own and had gotten up to 90 pitches in a simulated game last week, per Yahoo!’s Tim Brown, but he hasn’t seen actual game action since last year’s National League Championship Series. Thanks to an off day in the seasons’ first week, Milwaukee won’t need a fifth starter until May 10, which would give Lohse a little more than two weeks to get ready and three full-rest starts if he were to start in a minor league game on Tuesday (the Brewers don’t have a major league game scheduled for Tuesday). There's no guarantee, though, that even with those three starts he'd be ready to start on May 10 against the Cubs in Chicago.
As for the draft pick exchange, it widens the already tremendous gulf between the Brewers’ and Cardinals’ farm systems, which were ranked 23rd and 1st overall, respectively, by SB Nation’s John Sickles last month. That's not only because of the exchange of picks (the Brewers lose the 17th overall pick in June’s draft while the Cardinals gain the 28th) but also because of the associated bonus pool money. The Brewers now have approximately $2.1 million less to spend on the draft picks they do make, while the Cardinals have roughly $1.8 million more, per figures tweeted by Baseball America’s Jim Callis. Ultimately, while Lohse undoubtedly improves the Brewers' rotation, he seems unlikely to improve them enough to catch the Cardinals and Reds in the short term, and the draft pick exchange with a division-rival could haunt Milwaukee in the long term. That makes this deal a big role of the dice by the Brewers, but given their middling position as a central division also-ran with a weak farm system, it just might have been one worth taking.