We've seen this act before, but this year's performance is surprising even for Kyle Lohse.
After missing out on the big bucks during free agency back in 2008, Lohse signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals in the middle of Spring Training. He proceeded to outperform his contract and everybody's expectations in a big way, leading Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak to sign him to a four-year, $41 million extension at the end of the '08 season.
The results of that contract have been a mixed bag of not-so-good and fairly impressive seasons, but when his contract expires it's all-but-certain that Lohse, in terms of wins above replacement (WAR), will have underperformed given his salary. But, as I said, we've seen this storyline before: in this, his walk year, Lohse is pitching like a guy who deserves to be paid.
I don't want to even begin to speculate what Lohse would command on the open market. Some very high-profile pitchers have been paid a ton of money in the past few months (more below.) He's not on that level, but the market they've set will certainly raise his asking price this winter. If nothing else, Lohse will be receiving a raise from the $11.875 million he's making this season. The number of years will be an interesting negotiation as well.
The reasons the Cardinals should let Lohse walk aren't limited to the idea that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Lohse may actually be pitching so well that he's sealing his fate in St. Louis.
The Cardinals have spent years and many draft picks building up a farm system that was left barren by poor drafts and expensive (prospect-wise) trades for major league talent. A decade's worth of contending teams suggest the system was decimated for a worthy cause, and fans of good baseball would be hard-pressed to disagree. But mid-market teams, like the Cardinals believe themselves to be, can't live like that forever.
Continuously successful mid-market teams rely on acquiring and developing young talent with the select expenditure added when possible. It's the formula the Tampa Bay Rays used to build a winning franchise. The New York Yankees paid $2,134,515 per win last season; the economical Rays paid just $463,421 for each of theirs. Inexpensive talent is absolutely critical to the success of mid-market teams.
With that in mind, Mozeliak & Co. made it a point to begin accruing young talent, power arms in particular. A few years later, those efforts are beginning to pay off in the form of Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal. Minor leaguers Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez and Tyrell Jenkins are close behind. The Cardinals suddenly have one of the most impressive stables of young arms in baseball.
If the Cardinals are to continue to field a winning team, those young arms will play a vital role. History has shown us that it's unrealistic to expect all those arms to develop into major league contributors, but the odds of at least one of them becoming a passable member of a major league rotation are considerably better. Lynn is Exhibit A. In 2008, his best year as a Cardinal to date, Lohse posted a fWAR of 3.1. So far this year, Lynn has already posted a fWAR of 2.3 and, assuming he continues to pitch close to the level he has thus far, will probably provide another win before the season is over. For $11 million less, Lynn has been just as productive as Lohse this year.
Lohse's age is also an issue, albeit not as large an issue as it may seem. Because he relies more on weak contact than strikeouts, the loss of velocity that comes with pitcher aging is less of a concern for a pitcher like Lohse. In fact, by the end of the season Lohse will have actually posted two of the highest fWARs of his career in the last two seasons. But Lohse isn't a freak of nature. The fact is that pitchers get worse, not better, the further they get from 30.
Even if it's expected that Lohse won't drop off a cliff, any regression in coming years would greatly impact his value. As said, his ceiling is about a 3-win pitcher; his floor is a replacement-level starter. To justify a contract that averages eight figures per year, Lohse would have to be at or near his 2012 level for the duration of the deal. And the harsh reality is that over the course of his career he's proven to be closer to replacement level than his contract year performances suggest.
Adam Wainwright has proven quite the opposite. Wainwright is in the discussion of the game's true aces, and in short order he will want to be paid like one as well. In early April, Matt Cain was given a six-year, $127.5 million deal, averaging just over $21 million per year. Just this week the Phillies signed Cole Hamels to a six-year, $144 million deal, or approximately $24 million per year. Wainwright will be in that ballpark. He's making $9 million this year and $12 million next, so a conservative guess would be that Wainwright would receive a $10 million raise in 2014.
The Cardinals aren't in a terrible spot here. Lance Berkman's $12 million will be coming off the books after this year, and both Carlos Beltran and Chris Carpenter will likely be gone after next year. The Cardinals will have the funds to pay Wainwright. But Matt Holliday will still be making $17 million annually, and Yadier Molina will make no less than $14 million each year until 2017.
There's also no telling how much guys like Allen Craig, David Freese, Jon Jay, etc., will command in the coming years. Like cheap pitching will help in coming years, cheap hitting has allowed the Cardinals to contend the past few years. Soon, that cheap hitting will be less cheap. The more the team can save on marginal upgrades to the back end of the starting rotation, the more it can afford to keep around elite-level pitchers at the front end.
There's no doubt that Kyle Lohse is having a spectacular season. Even though he'll turn 34 in October, Lohse is a nice pitcher who will almost certainly get paid by someone. But the Cardinals are in a position where they don't need to be, nor do they have the luxury of being, one of his suitors.