Tribe acquires veteran Lowe from Braves
Cleveland sends Class A southpaw Jones to Atlanta in return
The first trade of baseball's offseason might linger into the winter as the most surprising. For the Indians and general manager Chris Antonetti, Monday's trade with the Braves for Derek Lowe made sense.
They knew the market for veteran starting pitchers, and they had a good idea what it would cost to add a free agent, both time and money, and the teams they'd be battling for it. With what essentially ends up being a one-year, $5 million deal for Lowe with a chance to catch him on a rebound, they didn't have to wait.
"We feel like we were able to add a quality durable Major League starter to our rotation, a guy who's pitched 180 or more innings every year since 2002," Antonetti said on a Monday afternoon conference call. "He has demonstrated durability. He has pitched on some very good teams, and we feel he has a leadership ability that could rub off on some of our starters."
The Indians gave up Class A left-handed reliever Chris Jones in the deal. The Braves, in turn, will reportedly cover $10 million of the $15 million salary Lowe has coming in 2012, the final season of the four-year contract Lowe signed with the Braves in 2009.
It's a major move for a team that made a race out of the American League Central in 2011 with a relatively young starting rotation, but it provides a proven arm behind Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Fausto Carmona. That right arm has a lot of wear and tear on it, but the Indians clearly believe Lowe has something left to give in the right situation.
A large part of that reason is durability. Lowe has made at least 32 starts in each of the last 10 years since he jumped from Red Sox closer to Red Sox starter. Nobody in the big leagues made more starts this year than the 38-year-old Lowe's 34 outings for a banged-up Braves rotation. He hasn't been on the disabled list since breaking into the Majors in 1997.
Until this year, that durability generally came with success, at least 12 wins over nine straight seasons and five years with 15 wins or more. He won 31 games over his first two seasons in Atlanta and still had an outside chance at a .500 season this year going into September. Then his year fell apart.
Lowe's 17 losses set a career high and led the National League, while his 5.05 ERA was his highest since 2004. Five of those losses came in a winless September, part of the late-season collapse that cost Atlanta its NL Wild Card spot to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. He carried a 4.52 ERA into September before giving up 23 earned runs over his final 23 2/3 innings.
Take away September, and his numbers look more typical of a back-end rotation starter, including just 14 home runs allowed over 187 innings pitched. The Indians didn't take it away, but they took a look at the whole package.
"There were a number of different things that we looked at," Antonetti said. "He's very reliant upon his defense, and there's been different times in his career when his success has been largely predicated upon the defense behind him."
When they looked at his struggles in Boston, where he posted a career-high 5.42 ERA in 2004, the factors were similar. He rebounded from that to go 16-8 with a 3.63 ERA two years later with the Dodgers.
"We certainly expect Derek to be better in 2012 than he was in 2011," Antonetti said.
That 2004 season was the last time Lowe pitched in the American League. His stats against AL teams in Interleague Play have been mixed since then.
"I think if Derek continues to do the things that he's done throughout his career -- if he continues to throw strikes, get the ball over the plate, get ground balls -- I think he has a chance to be successful wherever he pitches," Antonetti said.
Added to that is the chance to have an impact on the starters around him. Nobody older than 27 started a game this season for the Indians, whose rotation was an inconsistent mix after Masterson, who was an All-Star.
Carmona, whose 2012 option was exercised on Monday, struggled to a 7-15 record and a 5.25 ERA. Like Lowe, he's a sinkerballer who relies on ground balls. Josh Tomlin was the only Indians pitcher aside from Masterson to win in double-digits, and 10 of his 12 wins came before the All-Star break. Jimenez won 10 games for the year, but went 4-4 over 11 starts with Cleveland to go with a 5.10 ERA after his arrival in his Trade Deadline deal from Colorado.
The Indians talked with scouts and others around the league to get an idea how Lowe would react in a leadership role. Antonetti said they also talked with his former teammates about his clubhouse presence.
"And by all accounts," Antonetti said, "he embraces that type of role."
He was an elder statesmen in the Braves rotation alongside 36-year-old Tim Hudson. Once injuries sidelined Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, Lowe was one of the few experienced healthy starters Atlanta had. Though Lowe had been mentioned in trade rumors over the summer, Atlanta couldn't afford to work out a deal.
With Hanson and Jurrjens expected back, they could. Once the Indians expressed interest, they found a quick fit.
Jones, the player the Braves received in return, went 7-1 with a 3.36 ERA in 43 games for the Indians' Class A affiliate at Kinston. The 23-year-old southpaw struck out 66 batters over 72 1/3 innings. He's likely a better prospect than the Indians might have had to give up had they taken on more of Lowe's salary.