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The Braves fan community was very angry and upset at Derek Lowe's 2009 season, his debut as a Brave. But was it really that horrible, and worth running him out of town on a rail over?
When you look at Lowe's conventional numbers, he had a bad year. 15-10 with a 4.67 ERA and 232 hits in 194 2/3 innings really isn't something to hang your hat on proudly. But when you dig a little deeper, you'll see that Lowe's FIP was a perfectly acceptable 4.06, and his BABIP was a very high .330. The Braves defense was dreadful in 2009, as only 4 players who got more than 500 innings at a position had a UZR/150 that was positive. 2 of those guys were discharged midseason (Francoeur & Kotchman), and 2 came after the season started (McLouth & LaRoche). The rest of the defense ranged from slightly below average (Johnson, Prado, Escobar) to horrible (Anderson, Diaz, Jones). The three horrible members of the Braves defense combined for a UZR of -22.8, which ended up being worth about 2 runs...just in the games they played in, not extrapolated over a full season. For a ground ball specialist like Lowe, you cannot have a bad defense behind you, because those hard hit grounders can turn into hits quite easily with a bad defense behind you. Chipper at third was especially bad, and I can't count the number of times a ball would get by him that someone like Martin Prado would get easily enough. It was almost painful to watch, and just another reminder of how bad Chipper's year was.
But anyway, back to Lowe. His FIP was right at the level it was 2 of his 4 seasons with the Dodgers, in the area right around 4.00. He didn't lose any velocity on his pitches, as everything was right around his career norms. His batted ball stats told a little bit of a different story, as the normally ground ball happy Lowe posted the lowest GB:FB of his career (a trend, considering 2008 was his previous career low), and also seeing his LD% tick up a tad.
Lowe is not suddenly an ineffective player, the Braves just gave him too large of a contract. He's been worth more than the $15 million the Braves are giving him per season just 3 times in his career, the most recent of which was last year when he had a career best walk rate. I don't think Lowe will be as bad as he was this year, next year. But is the best option really to trade him?
The return for a declining Lowe scheduled to make $45 million over the next 3 seasons would be minimal. The Braves need a player that can help now, not a B-level prospect for nothing but salary relief. The Braves have just under $70 million committed in salary next year to 9 players, with 3 players scheduled for arbitration (2 of which, Kelly Johnson and Ryan Church, may be on the chopping block). If you assume those 2 are cut, figuring in mild raises for the players under team control, just assume the Braves have $20 million to spend next year under the impression the payroll will be the same as the $95 million it was this year. The team needs a closer, a corner outfielder, and a first baseman. Unless the team lets someone from the minors step up, like a Barbaro Canizares or Luis Valdez, the team is in a tough place payroll wise unless a big salary gets traded. Trading Lowe for salary relief may be the best bet if the team wants to trade for or sign a big bat like an Adam LaRoche or Matt Holliday type of guy. If Frank Wren decides to dump Lowe onto someone else for little to no return, the team will have a lot more flexibility and can bring in a higher quality player like either of the two I mentioned, or resign one or both of the hot bullpen arms in Soriano and Gonzalez.
If Lowe sticks around, the rotation will be stronger, but the offense will struggle. And as last year dictated, the team needs a big bopper in the lineup in order to compete in the National League. What I'd personally advocate doing is keeping Lowe, and worry about getting a power arm for the back end of the bullpen...if not Soriano or Gonzalez, someone like Billy Wagner could be worth a look. Another interesting name is Kiko Calero, who had a dynamite year for Florida this year. As for the lineup...someone like Nick Johnson could be an interesting fit at first. While he doesn't have the power of former Braves first basemen Fred McGriff and Mark Teixeira, he's a very effective hitter when healthy. The outfield is a crappy situation all around, and the team will likely need to get creative. Hey, its the perfect time to give Brandon Jones a slot, despite his lack of power.