Looper vs. Lohse: Fight to the Death!

Aug 14, 2008 at 9:42 am

What in the hell was Tony La Russa thinking last night, using Kyle McClellan in the eighth inning? Jesus, I am so sick and tired of watching this team mismanage the bullpen night after night after night...

See what I did there?

I will admit, I was more than a little bit nervous last night, watching McClellan struggle through the eighth. Mostly, of course, because I care deeply about what happens to this team, but also, to be honest, a little bit because I flat-out didn't feel like having to write about a blown save by the guy I've been advocating for to anyone and everyone who would listen. Selfish? Maybe, but hey, I'm a selfish guy.

Luckily, in the end, Chris Perez came to the rescue, inducing a double play to escape the eighth and then slamming the door shut in the ninth.

Have I mentioned before how much I like the McClellan-Perez combo at the end of the game? I'm pretty sure I have.

I was also really, really impressed with Braden Looper last night. The weird thing is, Braden Looper has sort of taken the place of Jeff Suppan for me in the hierarchy of Cardinal pitchers. By that I mean that Looper is just fine.

Looper usually gives you a fair number of innings, he keeps the team in the game, and you can't really complain about the results. Also like Suppan, though, I have to confess: I hate watching Braden Looper pitch.

I don't know what it is about the guy. Seriously. No idea. But watching Braden Looper throw a ballgame is, to me, the baseball equivalent of watching paint peel off the walls. It's just torture.

Thus, what I am about to say hurts me. Deeply. Given the choice between signing Kyle Lohse (who has become a folk hero to the people of St. Louis), and bringing back Braden, I think that, at this point, I would actually have to take Looper.

As I said, this goes against my own personal preferences. Lohse is, in my ever-so-humble estimation, simply a better pitcher, and I vastly prefer watching him pitch. However, when you look at the whole package, Lohse makes less sense for this team, at this time, than what Looper does.

First off, you might be surprised to note that their performances are roughly equivalent this season. Don't believe me? I provided the links above; check it out for yourself. I know, I know, I was surprised too.

It certainly seems that Lohse has been the vastly superior pitcher this season. But look at the numbers. Lohse's ERA is 3.92; Looper's 4.08. I realize that the three something looks a whole lot better than the four something, but those two numbers are damn near identical. I will admit, Looper's FIP (Field-Independent Pitching) is higher, at 4.77 vs. 3.92 for Lohse, but that's almost entirely a function of Looper giving up a few more home runs. Lohse has been a bit lucky in that measure this season, and even just a few fly balls carrying out would even that up in a hurry. Really, the two pitchers have been surprisingly similar.

Next, there's the matter of age. Lohse is only thirty years old at the moment, while Looper is thirty three. Braden will actually turn 34 at the end of October, so he will play all of the 2009 season at that age. Advantage Lohse, right? Ah, but not so fast.

The fact that Kyle Lohse is younger does seemingly make him more attractive. By the same token, though, his age is also going to net him a big, long term deal. Most of the recent rumblings have his agent, Scott Boras, seeking a contract somewhere in the four-year range, for anywhere from $44-$52 million total. Sadly, that's about what the market calls for these days, when a proven mediocrity such as Carlos Silva receives four-year, $44 million. Lohse will turn 31 during the season next year, so you'll essentially be paying for his age 30/31, 31/32, 32/33, and 33/34 years. So, at the end of the contract, Lohse will be the same age as Looper will be next season.

Now, with Looper being 33, there is every reason to believe he'll be much more willing to accept a shorter-term deal. Most likely, you could lock up Looper on a two-year contract as opposed to the four-year deal for Lohse. That would give you Looper's age 34 and 35 seasons on the contract. One of those two seasons will be the same as the last age of Lohse's contract, the other one year older.

Now, if you're not following me, what I'm essentially saying here is that locking up Looper on a two-year deal is much less risky than locking up Lohse on a four-year. The ages are roughly comparable for the two over the life of the contract, so it's not as if you have to worry about Looper being especially prone to breaking down. Where the difference lies, of course, is in the length of the contract. If Looper were to tear his labrum or something else similarly career threatening in the first year of his deal, you have to pay him the rest of that season and then the next. After that, he's free to take his gimpy arm elsewhere. If the same thing happened to Lohse, though, on a four-year deal, you're stuck with a guy that can't break 85 on the gun anymore for three more years after he's injured.

But wait, you say. Looper's older, therefore more of a chance he breaks down, right? It's still a higher risk!

Consider, though, that Looper has thrown a total of 930.2 innings in his career. Lohse, on the other hand, has thrown 1,320 innings.

Despite being three and-a-half years younger, Lohse already has 400 more miles on his arm than Braden does. It's tough to directly compare relief inning and those of a starter, yes, but I still think the reduced mileage makes up for the greater chronological age of Looper.

And, of course, you have the ultimate consideration. The money.

As I said before, I, and many other analysts, are pretty sure that Lohse will get that four-year deal, and he'll probably get his $11 million or $12 million a year. And really, why not? As I said, other pitchers, with much longer injury histories and track records of mediocre performance are getting eight figures a year, so why not Lohse? He's coming off of a career year, and oddly enough, the fact that he didn't get a contract last off-season may actually help him get one this year. Why? Because now he's known for something.

Last year, Lohse was just another free agent starting pitcher represented by the Scott Boras Empire of Evil. This year, though, everybody knows the whole story of how he signed a one-year deal in spring training, feeling like he had something to prove, and then proceeded to prove it quite emphatically. Never underestimate the power of a good story, even when the people making the decision should be above being fooled by it.

We all know that the Cardinals have pledged to produce more of their talent from within in the coming years. The first fruits of that labor are mostly pitchers, and many of them are just about ripe. By next season, Jaime Garcia should be ready to contribute in the rotation. Mitchell Boggs will certainly be a consideration. Guys like Jess Todd and Clayton Mortensen will also bear watching in the spring.

What would a four-year deal to a pitcher like Kyle Lohse do to all of that? Well, it would certainly throw up a pretty considerable road block. On the other hand, a two-year deal for Braden Looper would be much, much less damaging. He's in the rotation next season, and provides insurance for 2010, just in case there aren't quite enough arms to fill in all the spots. If there is a surplus, that's when you look to deal. And his short term deal is going to be much more attractive to any team you might be looking to trade with than three more years of being tied to Kyle Lohse.

If the Cardinals were to extend either of these pitchers, I think I would actually prefer it to be Looper. Let Lohse walk, take the draft picks, and see if there's any possible way you can trade Joel Pineiro. Your rotation for next season would look something like this:

1. Chris Carpenter 2. Adam Wainwright 3. Todd Wellemeyer 4. Braden Looper 5/6. Jaime Garcia / Mitchell Boggs

I don't know about you, but that doesn't look so bad to me. Still plenty of depth in the minors, too, in case of injury. Of course, you could also just keep Pineiro around and let Looper walk too, but as much as I hate watching Looper pitch, at least he usually gets results. The same cannot be said for Jo-El, who never met a lead he couldn't give back.

I really do hate watching Looper pitch, you know. But, when I really think about it, it might not be such a bad thing to have to put up with for another couple seasons.

- Aaron Schafer