Kyle Lohse couldn’t have seen this coming. Really, no one could. How might anyone imagine that a pitcher coming off a 16-3 season in which he pitched 211 innings to the tune of a 2.86 ERA would receive a big old goose egg on free agent offers this winter? Somehow, that is exactly what has happened this winter.
Though Lohse’s continued availability is unexpected, it shouldn’t be considered surprising. It is a trend we should start to see more and more regularly. This offseason is the first under the new free agent compensation rules as part of Major League Baseball‘s collective bargaining agreement. The new rules make GMs tread the market more lightly than in years past. Under the old CBA, free agents had the option of first accepting an offer for salary arbitration over a one year contract with their current club. If the player declined arbitration they became a free agent and were classified in terms of value, or “player types” which were divided in to Type A, B, and unclassified players.
Any team that chose to sign a Type A player would give up a first round pick and a supplemental, or “sandwich” round pick that fell between the first and second rounds in the next amateur draft. Type B players would cost the signing team only the supplemental pick, and unclassified players had no restrictions tied to them. The new rules do away with Type As and Type Bs and now state that all free agents must be offered a contract equal to the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball (this year it is $13.3 million). If the player rejects the qualifying offer, he becomes a free agent with a first round draft pick attached to him. The only loophole in this is if the signing team has a top 10 pick, which instead gives up its next pick, or if the signing team has already given up their first round pick.
This new set of rules drastically changes the value of players like Lohse. Lohse was statistically one of the top pitchers in his league last season. He does everything that a pitcher should do extremely well, including fielding his position well and being able to bunt and occasionally run the bases. Conventional wisdom says a pitcher like Lohse should get a contract somewhere in the four year $60 million range, which is what Lohse was probably thinking when he rejected a $13 million offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.
Unfourtunately, prospective clubs aren’t giddy about the idea of ponying up two early picks for a 34-year old pitcher who has had his run-ins with injuries over the years, especially considering the money the team would already be giving up to sign the player. It is now almost March and the man that finished seventh in the National League Cy Young vote has not received a contract offer. If Lohse can’t get a contract in the value range that he is seeking, we will most likely see him sit out until after the June draft and then jump on a team that needs to replace a hurt starter or a pitcher who isn’t living up to expectations. His only other moves would be to lower his asking price in order to make him more attractive to teams that are concerned with losing a draft pick, or sign a heavily discounted 1-year contract and give free agency another go next year.
This might be a situation that we see play out more and more in the coming years. Outfielder Micheal Bourn and closer Raphael Soriano took to well into the new year to settle on an offer from their respective clubs for similar reasons as Lohse. It could also make players much more likely to accept the 1-year qualifying offers from their teams as they are getting up into their mid-thirties. However it works out, the new set of rules are certainly taking some degree of bargaining power away from players and giving it to the clubs.