Not every failure is a function of poor design. Yes, the Braves overpaid for Derek Lowe, but you always overpay for free agents. (That’s why they’re free agents — because the team that had them and therefore knows them best decided they weren’t worth their asking price.) The Braves paid high to buy Lowe for the best of reasons: They needed him.
Let’s return to the dark days of 2008. The Braves went 72-90, their worst record since the pre-worst-to-first 1990, because they ran out of starting pitching. John Smoltz got hurt. Tom Glavine, back after his New York exile, got hurt. Mike Hampton, as ever, got hurt. Tim Hudson got hurt and needed Tommy John surgery. Matters were so dire that the journeyman Jorge Campillo started 25 games, second-most among Braves behind the rookie Jair Jurrjens.
Frank Wren, the Braves’ general manager, entered the offseason determined not to let what happened in ‘08 happen again. Being Frank Wren, he overcompensated and bought Kenshin Kawakami for three years at $23 million having already traded for Javier Vazquez and landed Lowe for $60 million over four years. Kawakami, who’d never pitched outside Japan, was the mistake. Lowe was, at least at the time, the smart hire.
Wren was fairly specific in his demands: He wanted a starting pitcher capable not just of winning games but staying healthy, and if Lowe had proved anything it was that he’d answer the proverbial bell. He’d worked between 182 and 222 over seven consecutive seasons for the Red Sox and the Dodgers, two high-profile clubs. He’d started and won Game 7 of an ALCS in Yankee Stadium, and he’d won the clinching game of a World Series for a club that infamously hadn’t won one since 1918.
Better still, he was considered a Good Clubhouse Guy, which not all starting pitchers are. He arrived at Lake Buena Vista in February 2009 and had the Braves buzzing about two things: His heavy sinker, which hitters made a point of pride to try and drive in batting practice (and not many succeeded), and his zeal for preparation. At 8 a.m., D-Lowe would be out in shorts and sweatshirt running the stadium steps. “Best workout routine I’ve ever seen,” pronounced Bobby Cox, who’d seen a few.
It should have worked. It just didn’t. Lowe was 15-10 in 2008, but it was a bad 15-10: He had an ERA of 4.67 and opponents hit .301 against him, which is indeed batting-practice stuff. Being Frank Wren, the GM tried hard to trade him over the winter. (Wren is, as we know, a tad impulsive.) Getting lucky, Wren found no buyers.
Because without Derek Lowe in September 2010, the Braves would be sitting on a playoff drought of six seasons. Lowe was 5-0 with an ERA of 1.17 over his final five starts, and if he’d been 3-2 the San Diego Padres would have snagged the National League wild card. He started two games in the Division Series, losing the first 1-0 and the last 3-2 but having finally held up his pricey end.
That stretch run seemed a sign that Atlanta had finally seen the real D-Lowe, but no. He was terrible last season, going 9-17 with an ERA of 5.17. After a 7-1 loss to Philadelphia that dropped the Braves into a wild-card tie with St. Louis, Lowe said: “I’ve always said that hitters will tell you how your stuff is,” and his, for reasons unclear, had become substandard.
That would be his final act as a Brave. Wren would say later that week that Lowe wasn’t in the team’s plans as a starting pitcher for 2012, and thus did the GM try again to dump the biggest purchase of his stewardship. He succeeded Monday, sending Lowe to Cleveland for a minor-league pitcher while agreeing to absorb two-thirds of the $15 million Lowe still is owed. That’s how much the Braves wanted rid of Lowe: The team that doesn’t have much to spend is willing to spend $10 million to make him go away.
It’s a trade that will please Braves fans, who never much cared for Lowe, but it’s also a cold reminder that the best-laid plans often land in yonder trashcan. As promised, Lowe ate innings — an average of 192 of them over his three seasons as a Brave. They just weren’t very good innings.
By Mark Bradley