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The Free Agent I Want: Derek Lowe

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Over the past few months, I've mentioned a number of times the one free agent I really want the Braves to sign: Derek Lowe. He's a bit of an odd object of desire, a 35-year-old sinkerballer with a pretty sizable home/road split, a nice perk of pitching in Dodger Stadium, commonly known as one of the better pitcher's parks in all of baseball. I've explained why I don't want the number one free agent pitcher, C.C. Sabathia, because of health concerns over the duration of his contract. I think Derek Lowe is the best pitcher on the market, and here's why.

Perhaps his most extraordinary quality is his consistency: since he became a Dodger he's been very steady in innings pitched, success, and health. His ERA+ the past four years: 114, 124, 118, 131. Innings: 222, 218, 199 1/3, 211. Games started: 35, 34, 32, 34. In other words, he's the anti-A.J. Burnett: he gives you a steady number of innings, and while he doesn't have ace-level stuff, he's a #2 who is very reliable in his results. Considering that Ben Sheets and Burnett are known to be fragile, and that Ryan Dempster and Oliver Perez's careers have featured more mediocre or bad years than good ones, Lowe's consistency and health are strong points in his favor.

Moreover, Dodger Stadium does not always play like a pitcher's park. According to ESPN.com's park factors, in two out of the last four years, 2006 and 2007, it was actually a modest hitter's park, and Lowe posted good home numbers there anyway. (In 2005 and 2008 it was a pretty extreme pitcher's park, like you'd expect.) That suggests, at least, that he might succeed at Turner Field, itself no bandbox.

Similarly, while the tale that sinkerballers pitch better on short rest appears to be a myth, they are supposed to age well. (Remember that year Kevin Brown had in 2003?) In fact, Lowe has been improving his components: he actually decreased his walk and homer rates substantially this year, while keeping his strikeout rate pretty constant.

2008 may have been Lowe's career year, not coincidentally his walk year, and it may be unreasonable to assume that he'll repeat it. (He posted a stunning 2.30 ERA at home.) But even if his homers and walks bounce up a tick, and his strikeouts slip slightly, he'll still be a solid pitcher if healthy. In fact, he was strongest down the stretch: in August and September, he was 6-2 in 11 starts with a 2.27 ERA and 42 K against only 11 BB in 67 1/3 innings. Surprisingly, his GB% actually slipped from 65% to 60% last year, which could be a bad sign of things to come. But he's still got wiggle room, especially if he can maintain the drop in his walk and HR-rates, and as long as it stays above 60% he'll have plenty of success.

The age of our rotation last year, and its myriad attendant injuries, may be a reason many fans won't want to add another pitcher in his mid-30s. But there's a difference: John Smoltz has battled arm problems his entire career, Mike Hampton has been a walking injury for years, and Tom Glavine appeared done at the end of 2007. They were oldsters who were showing their age. Derek Lowe is still pitching like a man who has years ahead of him. Keith Law has him at #5 on his free agent rankings, just below A.J. Burnett, and writes: "At 36, Lowe probably is headed for a decline, but he has shown no sign of it to date and probably has a good two -- or even three -- seasons left at something close to his level of 2006-2008." (Lowe will turn 36 on June 1.)

He's not worth a 5-year deal, but he likely won't get one. More likely, offers will be in the 4/$50 - 4/$60 range. It may be, as Law suggests, that the last year of that contract will be ugly. Until then, though, he's the one pitcher on the free agent list who is most likely to deliver what he'll be paid to do. We saw last year what injuries can do to decimate an otherwise promising roster, and how much it pays to invest in players who have proven to be good at staying healthy. Lowe's the right place to start.
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