Tuesday, January 13, 2009

(Non) Roster Move - Braves Sign Derek Lowe

The "one dumb owner theory" rears its ugly head again.

The Braves committed too many years and too much money to Derek Lowe today, completely misreading the depressed free agent market and jacking their payroll to what (for them) is an unsustainable level. The best thing about this signing for Atlanta is putting a crimp in the plans of Mets GM Omar Minaya, who reasonably thought that no one would significantly top the 3-year, $36 million he previously made to Lowe.

This is a classic panic move, directly related to the backlash that Atlanta faced for letting John Smoltz leave last week. It is the exact scenario that Lowe's agent Scott Boras thrives on.

Boras has always used the "one dumb owner" theory to his advantage. More often than not, the one dumb owner in question bears the last name of Steinbrenner. On those occasions when the Yankees aren't interested in overpaying, Boras simply does what any good agent should do - he lies through his teeth to get his client a deal. He first tries to convince teams that this particular player is worthy of whatever financial bounty he's seeking, then he creates an artificial market for that player's services by claiming that several teams are trying to sign him. Inevitably, one dumb owner caves and meets Boras's demands, even if there was no market for the player at that price.

That's exactly what happened here. Only one team made an offer to Derek Lowe - the Mets, who offered him a reasonable contract length and AAV, considering his age and his accomplishments. The Braves tacked on another guaranteed year and $3 million to the AAV, even though there is no indication that any other team was preparing to make an offer that included that many years or that much money per season.

In the worst free agent market for players since the collusion era, the Braves come out of this looking like royal suckers. Atlanta has a very solid rotation now, but will likely cut payroll just to make room for Lowe in 2009. It certainly hamstrings their financial flexibility from 2010 to 2012, no small consideration for a franchise owned by a media corporation that is generally not inclined to spend with the big boys anymore.

It hurts to lose a quality starter like Lowe to a division rival, but Minaya did the right thing here. I have been critical about Minaya many times in this space, but there's one thing he always does that I never had a quarrel with. Omar Minaya understands a very simple, but very important concept - huge free agent contracts should only be given to elite players, not to second-tier stars.

Derek Lowe is a very good starting pitcher. He's durable, he throws a lot of innings and his kept his ERA under 4.00 for the last four years. Not quite a staff ace, Lowe is a serviceable #2 or an excellent #3 starter at this point in his career. He is also turning 36 in 2009, gives up 200 hits a year and simply is not a good candidate to sustain his level of performance over the life of the deal.

The temptation to give in Lowe's demands must have been enormous, but history shows that short-term gain usually leads to long-term pain. The Mets have been burned throughout their history by adding extra guaranteed years to free agent deals - Bobby Bonilla, Kevin Appier, Julio Franco, Scott Shoeneweis, Marlon Anderson and even Pedro Martinez all are on that sad list. Giving in to Derek Lowe's demands would've made headlines, but ultimately would've only added one more name to that Pantheon of Poor Decisions.

The Mets' gaze now likely falls on Oliver Perez to fill the final spot in the rotation, although I remain hopeful that Minaya makes a two-year, incentive-laden offer to Ben Sheets at some point.


TW said...

I don't quite understand how Sheets hasn't received a single offer. No one has even tested an incentive laden type deal. There is a team like the Cardinals that are waiting for the Mets to sign their guy so they can swoop in and take the leftovers at a cut rate. Omar has done a very good job this winter, making an offer to Sheets would be a cherry on the top. Th 3 year 30 mil offer to Perez is a good offer for Ollie, whether Boras believes so or not. I wouldn't budge from it. Eventually we'll get our cut rate bargain and Boras will place his client in a bad postion rather than the right place.

LCee said...

Jack, I have a difficult time assuming that this was a "panic" signing. After all, Wolf could have been obtained with a one-year deal; Sheets quite possibly for two. One could argue that both would have been acceptable replacements for Smoltz.

As for Lowe, no four-year deal for a pitcher who is 36 is safe, but, considering Lowe's excellent health, is certainly not a reckless signing. And keep in mind too that giving up 200 hits while pitching in front of a leaky Dodgers infield defense is not the strongest indicator that he won't be effective in 2009.

Jack Flynn said...

I think it's a panic signing in the sense that the Braves didn't think a Wolf or a Sheets would be enough and went for the highest-profile pitcher available. They also get extra credit from their fans for "stealing" Lowe from the Mets.

Lowe himself is not a reckless signing, but I think the Braves' budget constraints make it reckless for them.