Where to go, Lohse? Here are some ideas
Weighing the pros and cons of signing veteran hurler, two teams make the most sense
We're down to one. Some bench players and relievers remain available for teams to sign as Spring Training gets under way, but only one major free agent is unsigned: right-hander Kyle Lohse.
The former Cardinal may not be an ace, but he's been a reliably average to above-average pitcher over the past seven years, save for chunks of two seasons he lost due to a bizarre forearm injury. Lohse has never missed time due to any other arm injury, and he's topped 180 innings seven times.
If not for the Draft-pick compensation assigned to Lohse, he almost certainly would already be in camp somewhere, revving up for another 30-plus starts. Instead, he's still seeking a club willing not only to commit the dollars and years it will take to sign him, but also to part with an early selection in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.
Still, as Michael Bourn's move to the Indians shows, there's value to be gleaned by an aggressive team on a good player at this point in the winter. Lohse wouldn't make much sense to the Rays, a team on a budget with a deep starting staff, nor to the Marlins or Astros, who aren't in position to win right now. But plenty of clubs could use quality innings in bulk, even at an eight-figures-per-year price tag.
A team pondering a move on Lohse must consider four primary variables: opportunity, baseball sense, payroll and the Draft. If there are no spots available in the starting rotation, it makes no sense to sign a starter. If it has a poor defense, especially in the outfield, then signing a pitcher with relatively low strikeout and ground-ball rates is not a good idea.
As for the payroll, Lohse is a solid pitcher but not the sort for whom a team blows its budget. If the payroll is maxed out, the owner isn't going to sign off no matter how much the general manager thinks it makes baseball sense.
And if the club values its first Draft pick especially highly, for whatever reason, that affects the equation quite a bit as well. That may mean a team has a high but unprotected pick (teams picking among the top 10 need only sacrifice their next pick), or it may mean a particular team leans more heavily on drafting and developing players than other teams do.
Taking those factors into consideration, a list of contenders emerges. But first a few eliminations. The Rangers could use a starter, they have an extra pick and they have money to spend. But Lohse's fly-ball ways in Texas' ballpark might be a bad combination. It's also just not the Rangers' style to sacrifice the long term for the short; they're inclined to hold onto their picks.
It's a similar story with Baltimore, though the Orioles have a large number of potential starting candidates to sort through. The O's have a late first-round Draft pick, so losing it wouldn't be as costly as for some teams. But their homer-friendly ballpark could be ill-fitting for Lohse.
The Mariners have a pitcher-friendly ballpark and could still use a starter even after signing Joe Saunders. But they hold the No. 12 pick in the Draft, and that would be a very stiff price to pay. No. 12 selections in the past two decades include Jered Weaver, Matt Morris, Nomar Garciaparra and Billy Wagner.
St. Louis has made it clear that it has little interest in adding a starter, even after Chris Carpenter's bad news. The Cards have confidence in their cadre of young starters and would be hesitant to make a long-term commitment to someone else.
Though nearly anyone could surprise, we're left with two logical fits for Lohse -- neither of which might seem immediately obvious.
The Indians certainly fit as far as opportunity: the back of their starting rotation is screaming for dependable innings. Their outfield defense, as of now, looks to be absolutely first-rate. Their ballpark is friendly to left-handed hitters but is not an extreme hitter's park, and Lohse has actually had very little platoon split in recent years.
As for the money, well, it's clear that Cleveland's front office has decided that this team is worth spending on, and it still has needs. And the Draft pick? The Indians are perfectly set to withstand the loss. For them, it would only be a fourth-rounder, since their first-round pick is protected and they're already surrendering their second- and third-rounders due to other signings.
And then there are the Yankees. Neither Ivan Nova or David Phelps is anything like a sure thing in the fifth rotation spot, and it's not as though Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes are certain to have nothing go wrong. The money is there this year, and though New York wants to get under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold next year, it shouldn't be a problem. The Yanks actually have very few big commitments, salary-wise, for 2014.
Their outfield defense looks strong, with lots of innings for Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki alongside Curtis Granderson. Yankee Stadium is very lefty-friendly, but overall it doesn't extremely favor hitters. And, again, Lohse has shown more skill than many righties in neutralizing lefty hitters.
And thanks in part to the Indians, who signed Nick Swisher, New York already has two extra picks in this year's Draft. It could give up its first-rounder, which is the third-to-last pick in that round, and still have two picks not that long after. It's not an obvious fit, but it's a good one.
That doesn't mean it will happen, of course. But New York and Cleveland at least ought to give Scott Boras a call and see what it would take to secure Lohse's services.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.