Kyle Lohse is not the cavalry

Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

From a pure baseball perspective, the Lohse story was always overblown, putting him in the unenviable position of having to justify the hype.

Can we move on now?

Kyle Lohse is 34 years old, coming off of what was by far the best year of his career, and if he hadn't been screwed by the rules, we wouldn't be giving him a second thought. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement detached most free agents from the old draft-pick compensation system except for those who were given a $13.3 million "qualifying offer" by their teams. Lohse, along with outfielder Michael Bourn, fell into this category. Between the draft-pick penalty and a too-high asking price, Lohse was consigned to purgatory.

In short, the long saga of Lohse and his quest for millions and millions of dollars, or failing that, just millions of dollars, was less about the pitcher himself and more about the system. Scott Boras calls that system "corrupt," based on the penalties, which force teams to choose between making immediate improvements to the major league team and building through the draft. His point is a good one. If Major League Baseball wants to give teams that lose a key player through free agency an extra draft pick to help reload, that's all well and good, but you need not rob one team to build another. The draft, particularly the first round, is too important a supply of talent, and with the recent restraints put in on bonuses, a far cheaper supply than free agency, to give away on uncertain veteran propositions. The decision to decouple free agent compensation from a draft penalty system, shows MLB and the players recognized this, but they failed to go all the way, leaving a vestigial aspect of the old system in place that provided too draconian a disincentive for players like Lohse and Bourn who are not quite stars, or have played at a star-like level for periods of time but, for various reasons, might not be expected to be stars long enough to justify risking the pick.

The free agent compensation system was always capricious and arbitrary, even when regimented by the supposedly rational Elias-generated A, B, C rankings. In 1982, the Montreal Expos signed a free agent catcher named Tim Blackwell. Blackwell was not a star, but a 29-year-old fringe player signed to back up Gary Carter, approximately the most pointless job available in the majors at the time given that Carter almost never took a day off. Over the next two years, Blackwell played in all of 29 games and batted 61 times, that's how dispensable he was. Yet, the Expos were forced to surrender their first-round pick, the 17th overall, to Blackwell's old team, the Chicago Cubs. Why should signing a Blackwell incur that kind of penalty? Why would the Expos have been willing to incur it for so marginal a player? The penalty attached to Lohse wasn't quite so disproportionate, but it was redolent of the dysfunction of the old system. In other words, Boras made a poor choice of words: the current compensation system isn't corrupt, just misguided.

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Lohse had a star-level season in 2012, but his career story is one of stolid competency, not stardom. He has had, as per Baseball-Reference, five seasons of being worth approximately two wins above replacement. Last year, he was worth closer to four. He has had an extraordinary career for a player drafted in the 29th round, but there's little that's extraordinary about him overall. He's miscast as the player who is going to boost the Brewers into the playoffs, and no one would have thought of him that way had the circumstances of his offseason not put him in the role of late-arriving cavalry.

Following baseball means certain drums get beaten all too often. As Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, "MLBTradeRumors posts tagged "Kyle Lohse" between the end of last season and now fill nine internet pages." If we were still in the era of newspapers rather than the internet, we would have pulped whole forests on Lohse's journey to Milwaukee. His story was treated like a hostage story rather than what it really was, one journeyman pitcher who, for technical reasons, couldn't find a job. As a technical matter, the story was fascinating. As a practical baseball matter, its import is close to nil. Unfortunately for Lohse, it's the baseball aspect he's going to have to live up to, and he almost certainly won't.

In other words, if you think that receiving a qualifying offer had a chilling effect, imagine the impact on next winter's free agent class if the Brewers, having surrendered the 17th-overall pick of the first round and committed $33 million over the next three years, get something less than a star-level performance? Robinson Cano will still get his money next winter regardless of whether the Yankees make him an offer or not, but say Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, or Matt Garza, all fine pitchers with relatively recent injury issues, get smacked with a qualifying offer -- they might have a winter odyssey every bit as long and tortured as Lohse's, but unlike him, they might have to wait until after the draft for resolution.

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