The Cleveland Indians pulled off the first major surprise deal of the season Monday afternoon when they landed Derek Lowe (and $10 million towards his $15 million salary) from the Braves in exchange for minor league quasi-prospect Chris Jones.
Like most Indians fans, my first reaction to the news was shock. There hadn’t been any speculation around the blogosphere even suggesting that Lowe would fit with the Indians, and the teams’ negotiations were apparently kept remarkably quiet. Not to mention that Lowe is a big name with a big contract—the kind of player who Tribe fans are accustomed to thinking of as out of the question (Atlanta is paying most of his salary and he’s not the ace he once was, but the point stands).
But once the surprise wore off, it became clear that there was only one way to describe this trade: a huge win and a fantastic deal for Chris Antonetti and the Cleveland front office.
Lowe’s poor 9-17 record and 5.05 ERA (34 percent worse than the league average) this year don’t speak well for the 38-year-old’s skill, but in reality he was far better than he looked. His .327 BABIP was tied for the second-highest of his 15-year career—his career mark is .295—and his 66-percent strand rate was the second-worst since he became a full-time starting pitcher. His defense-neutral ERA estimators make him look much more impressive: consider his 3.70 FIP, 3.65 xFIP, and 3.75 SIERA, and it doesn’t appear that there’s much to worry about for Lowe.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Lowe has a history of underperforming his peripherals. Over the last 10 years, he owns a 4.01 ERA, compared to his 3.85 FIP, 3.66 xFIP, and 3.68 SIERA. It’s not a huge disparity, but there’s definitely a noticeable trend.
But there’s more to it than that. Just because Lowe’s results don’t match his DIPS numbers doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant. The nearly run-and-a-half discrepancy between his 2011 ERA and ERA estimators was the greatest of his career and went well beyond the usual degree of underperformance we’ve come to expect from him. Just because the difference can’t totally be attributed to luck doesn’t mean random chance didn’t have something to do with it. I’m not saying we should project him to post an ERA in the mid-3.00’s next year (unless that’s what ends up happening, in which case: you heard it here first), but he wasn’t as bad as his 5.05 ERA suggests.
And that’s not to mention the most valuable aspect of Lowe’s game: his durability. He’s made at least 32 starts 10 years in a row, including at least 34 in five of the last seven years. He’s thrown at least 182 innings since he became a full-time starter in 2002 (for good measure, he topped out at 109.1 innings out of the bullpen in 1999), and he’s one of only seven men to have thrown over 2,000 MLB innings in the last decade. Health is never a sure thing for a pitcher—especially one that turns 39 next year—but Lowe is as consistent as innings eaters come.
Over the past three years, Lowe has posted fWARs of 2.6, 2.7, and 2.5; as long as he’s close to being a league-average run preventer, a starter who throws as many frames as Lowe does should have no trouble accumulating at least two wins above replacement, which would be the lowest in a season since for Lowe he left the bullpen. That’s terrific production from a back-of-the-rotation starter, and to a contending team that’s very well worth the $5 million the Indians owe him.
And all the Indians had to give up for Lowe was Jones, a 23-year-old relief pitcher who has yet to reach Double-A. Jones is a potentially useful player—Baseball America‘s Kevin Goldstein sees him as a future lefty specialist and says southpaw hitters “can’t touch him”—but given his age and development his ceiling likely isn’t very high. Jones’ inclusion is even easier to accept given the possibility that Lowe could net the Indians a compensation pick in the 2013 amateur draft; there’s no telling whether he will qualify when his contract expires after the season, but as of now he would rank as a Type B free agent and could bring Cleveland a sandwich-round pick.
All in all, this trade looks like a huge win for the Indians. Antonetti was able to take advantage of the Braves’ desperation and bring in a valuable player at a low price (in terms of payroll) and a low cost (what he gave up)—with apologies to Jack Hannahan and Jim Thome, this looks like the best move of his tenure so far. Bringing in Lowe was a bold move, and there’s no question that it makes this team better.
How would you grade the Lowe trade?
- B (49%, 41 Votes)
- A (21%, 18 Votes)
- C (19%, 16 Votes)
- D (6%, 5 Votes)
- F (5%, 4 Votes)
Total Voters: 84