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November 1, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The Derek Lowedown

by Ben Lindbergh and Kevin Goldstein

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Exercised RHP Fausto Carmona's $7 million option for 2012. [10/31]
Traded for RHP Derek Lowe. [10/31]

By exercising their option on Carmona and trading for Derek Lowe, the Indians have assembled a rotation that might as well be referred to as the League of Extraordinary Groundballers; last season, Lowe, Justin Masterson, and Carmona ranked third, eighth, and ninth, respectively, in groundball percentage among hurlers with at least 100 innings pitched.

In light of all those wormburners headed their way, it's only natural to wonder how the Indians are fixed for infield defense. After July 22, when Jason Kipnis joined the infield and gave it the shape it would take for the rest of the season, the Indians were the fourth-best team in the AL at converting grounders into outs, yielding 211 hits on 860 balls in play (a .245 average). Over the course of the season, both the Indians and the Braves allowed a .242 batting average on groundballs, so Lowe can’t expect a huge boost in defensive support from the switch. Most of the Indians’ infield is young and entrenched, so that’s likely as good as things are going to get.

In Lowe, the Indians have acquired a pitcher who in one sense seems primed to bounce back from a subpar season but in another, perhaps equally important sense, seems like a poor bet to improve. On the one hand, Lowe posted a 3.67 FIP, a quarter of a run better than the 3.92 he managed while recording an ERA over a run lower than last season’s 5.05 in 2010, and his walk and strikeout rates have remained fairly stable over the past few seasons. It would take only a small step from there to look at Lowe’s high BABIP and sizeable ERA-FIP differential and forecast a return to form.

There is another hand, though, and what it holds for Lowe isn’t quite as encouraging. The righty will turn 39 next June, and his fastball has lost roughly 3.5 miles per hour since 2007, the start of the PITCHf/x era. He’ll also be moving from the NL to the AL, which won't help cushion him from the effects of age. More frightening still, he’ll go from having the best of battery mates to having some of the worst. As Mike Fast’s research revealed, Braves backstops David Ross and Brian McCann have excelled at securing extra strikes for their pitchers, but Indians catchers Lou Marson and Carlos Santana have fallen down on the framing job. While Lowe has shown some ability to expand the zone on his own by continually testing its limits, he'll suffer some from being deprived of those helping hands behind the plate.

That said, Lowe is still durable, having made at least 32 starts for 10 straight seasons while avoiding the DL entirely, and the Braves will be paying two-thirds of his salary. He’s not likely to be any better than a back-of-the-rotation arm, and the downside is even worse, but for the first time in a few years, the Indians have the makings of a rotation free of the likes of Mitch Talbots and Jeanmar Gomez.

They are still stuck with Carmona, however, and that's not much better. When Carmona was at his best, rivaling rotation-mate CC Sabathia for the Cy Young Award voting in 2007, nearly 65 percent of his balls in play were hit on the ground. Over the last three seasons, that percentage has settled in around 56 percent, a significant decline given Carmona's inability to miss bats. Striking out just over five batters per nine simply doesn't cut it without pinpoint control, and Carmona's relationship with the strike zone has ranged from superficial to outright estranged. Unless Lowe proves to be as adept at reminding other pitchers how to throw their sinkers as he is at throwing his own, it's hard to envision Carmona justifying the Indians' expense. His return will leave them with at least two starters whose groundball rate has seen better days, though at least Ubaldo JImenez is still affordable.—Ben Lindbergh

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Traded RHP Derek Lowe to Cleveland for cash and LHP Chris Jones. [10/31]

Derek Lowe; Tim Hudson; Brandon Beachy; Jair Jurrjens; Tommy Hanson; Mike Minor; Randall Delgado; Julio Teheran. These are the pitchers who started games for the Braves in 2011, in descending number of starts. The list of pitchers who started games for the Braves in 2011 and are under contract for 2012 is identical. So what do you do if you’re Atlanta and you don’t feel like trying out an eight-man rotation? You have a few options, really: you can get rid of the pitcher who A) is the oldest, B) has the highest ERA, or C) makes the most money. Or you can bid farewell to the one who is D) all of the above. Derek Lowe was D.

The Braves get $5 million in salary relief and a rotation spot they wouldn’t otherwise have had, not to mention the undying gratitude of their fans, some of whom might be a bit overexuberant about his departure in the wake of his conspicuous September collapse. They also got a prospect of sorts, which means it's time for Kevin to take it away.—Ben Lindbergh

While this trade was all about salary relief for Atlanta, the Braves did receive a potential minor part in Jones, a 2007 15th-round pick out of a Florida high school. Converted to relief in 2010, Jones has whiffed 151 over 162 innings over the past two year, but he's also 23 and and has yet to reach Double-A, where he'll likely begin the 2012 season with his new organization. A six-foot-two left-hander, Jones has average velocity and an effective, yet slurvy breaking ball, but it's his quick, funky delivery and low arm angle that give him big-league potential. The stuff is nothing special, but the deception makes him highly effective against left-handed batters, who hit just .145/.265/.217 against him in 2011, going 12-for-83 with 29 strikeouts.—Kevin Goldstein

Thanks to Bradley Ankrom for research assistance.


Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Derek Lowe,  The Who

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