No-Trade Protection to Players like Kyle Lohse is a Recipe for Disaster

Sep 30, 2008 at 9:28 am

Well, the info is officially in on the Kyle Lohse deal. Four years, $41 million.

First off, I'll say this: the money is much better than what I was expecting. I was expecting more in the $44-48 million range, so, by that measure, this deal isn't so bad.

I still don't like it, though, and I'll tell you why.

Wikimedia Commons

Lohse in May 2008.
Lohse in May 2008.

Lohse in May 2008.

Three words.

No. Trade. Clause.

I hate no-trade clauses. Absolutely despise them. Don't get me wrong; I completely understand why players want them. They get to keep their families in one spot, they don't have to try and possibly get used to new teammates on a team they didn't choose, they can't be moved into a situation that doesn't work as well (i.e. a non-contender, or a team that doesn't have the same role available as the old team, etc.), and a hundred other reasons. From a player perspective, no-trade clauses are great. It's when you start looking at them from a team perspective that they start to get real ugly, real fast.

Let's just take a walk down a long, hypothetical lane here, shall we? Let's say that Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals' newest member of the Long-Term Contract Club, pitches reasonably well the next two years. No reason not to assume this, of course; he's young enough, talented enough, and has a strong enough team behind him to think that Lohse will be fairly successful going forward. Do I think he'll be as successful as he was this season? No I do not. But I also don't think he's going to fall off a cliff by any stretch of the imagination.

So anyway, let's say that over the next two seasons, Kyle Lohse puts up an aggregate ERA of right around 4.25. That's really not too shabby; 4.55 is approximately league average, if I remember correctly. That would be his age 30 and 31 seasons, putting him right around the age that Jeff Suppan left St. Louis. (I bring up Suppan here because he just happens to be Kyle Lohse's Number 1 most comparable player according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system, which is a really, really good performance projection system.)

If we apply a standard aging curve to Mr. Lohse, we would expect his performance to begin tailing off right around that age 32 season, which will be the third year of his deal. In said season, Lohse will make almost $12 million by the terms of this deal. Now, I'm not going to throw a whole bunch of fancy algorithms at you as far as aging curves go. Let's just assume that in that third year, Lohse puts up an ERA of 4.60, just a tick worse than league average. (For reference, Lohse's career ERA is 4.67. I don't think it's a bad assumption that he could perform right around that by age 32.)

So what we have now is a pitcher putting up league average numbers and costing the team $12 million a year. By 2011, you would expect the Cardinals to have developed oh, say, two pitchers who could probably produce right around league average numbers. (Personally, I would hope they could do better than that, but let's not get too carried away with the passion for the youth movement.)

In 2011, Wainwright will still be under contract, as will Carpenter. Whether or not he's pitching is anybody's guess, but he will still be under contract. I have no clue if Wellemeyer will still be around, but he certainly could be.

Anyhow, say the Cardinals have a couple of pitchers producing league average numbers for somewhere between $500,000 and $2 million each. In addition, you also have a pitcher producing approximately the same numbers for $12 million (Lohse.) Oh, and he's also 32 years old and thus, a higher injury risk. Which of those pitchers is the least desirable? That's right, Monsieur Lohse. So, at that point, maybe you would like to try and move him.

Oops. That's right. You can't move him. He has a no-trade clause.

Of course, you could always get him to waive that no -trade clause. Unfortunately, doing so usually requires some sort of inducement. Since there is no option to be picked up on this deal, getting Lohse to waive a no-trade would probably require the team acquiring him to work out an extension with him in advance; one that would most likely end up paying him more. Ah, but wait! At that point, what team is going to want to work out a longer, more expensive extension with a pitcher on the wrong side of 30, in addition to giving up the talent it was going to take to get the deal done anyway?

Or maybe Lohse does agree to waive the clause. Even when players do that sort of thing without any kind of monetary inducement, they usually do it conditionally. Maybe Lohse will waive the clause, but only to go to a list of about eight teams that he would really like to play for. He's a California boy; maybe he would like to go back to the West Coast. But hey, none of the teams on the West Coast teams have a need for Lohse's services. A couple of them are heavy on pitching and looking for corner infield help; a couple others are in full scale rebuild mode and aren't looking to take on a veteran player and the salary that goes along with it. One of the other teams probably could use him, but just aren't willing to pony up any sort of decent talent to get the deal done. So now what?

You see, this is the problem with no-trade clauses. They are a truly great ruiner of flexibility, and flexibility is increasingly becoming the name of the game in Major League Baseball. It's been the watchword of John Mozeliak's tenure so far as Cardinal GM. Unfortunately, he just deprived himself (and the team), of a pretty serious chunk of it yesterday.

I've accepted that no-trade clauses are just going to be a part of the game for your core players on a team. that doesn't necessarily mean that I like them, even for the top players. But giving full no-trade protection to players like Kyle Lohse is a recipe for disaster. Again, please don't think that I'm picking on Kyle Lohse here; that's not my intention at all. But locking yourself in so strictly to your middle of the road players, guys like Number 3 and 4 starters, .280/.350/.430 hitting outfielders, and the like, just isn't a good idea, in my book.

I expect Kyle Lohse to be worth his deal in years one and two of his contract. In years three and four, though, I don't think he'll be worth it. If you draft even a little bit well, you should be able to generate the same level of production from cost controlled players.

OK, I'm done. I know I've said it all before. Just doesn't seem like anybody wants to listen.

- Aaron Schafer