By Jason Wojciechowski on January 8, 2014 at 8:26 PM
Jed Lowrie is in the running (with Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson, and maybe Sonny Gray, though that's premature) for Most Pleasant A's Surprise, 2013. Oakland gave up what felt like a metric ton (that's slightly more than a regular ton -- google it, I promise) of talent to acquire him (Chris Carter, Brad Peacock, Max Stassi, with the latter feeling like the biggest loss after a breakout .529 SLG season in Double-A) and had to be hoping for or dreaming of, but not expecting, 154 games played, 662 plate appearances, and the second best offensive season of his career behind only a mere 55-game stint in 2010. Even with Lowrie's shoddy defense (anywhere from -3 to -21 runs, depending on your metric, and I'll take the midpoint between those based on the eye test), he set a career high for WAR(P) and was an above-average player. All that for $2.4 million. Here's what that got you on the free-agent market in 2013, more or less:
- Jeff Karstens -- didn't pitch
- John Lannan -- missed 98 games with injuries, 5.33 ERA
- Kelly Johnson -- some pop, some versatility, but he's not 2010's Kelly Johnson
- Mike Gonzalez -- passed away in 1977
- Nate Schierholtz -- 503 PA of .274 TAv hitting and solid defense; best player on this list, very good signing by Chicago
So: not much then. Of course, the Rays didn't give up three future/present big-leaguers (even if they're all role players) for the right to pay Johnson $2.4 million. On the other hand, the A's also have the right to pay Jed Lowrie something like 80 percent of his true value in 2014 and then have the inside track to re-sign him if he wants to re-sign (and if he wants to play second base, because Addison Russell Is Coming -- more on this later).
Visually, it's hard to say what Jed Lowrie does to make him Jed Lowrie. He switch-hits, I guess that's one key, and he had no real split in 2013 (more power vs. lefties, more singles and thus more OBP vs. righties). He hits a lot of doubles? He definitely looks like a guy who would hit a lot of doubles -- he's built like an offense-minded shortstop is what I'm saying, not overly tall but not short, wiry strength more than bulk. Not Jhonny Peralta. More like a shorter Derek Jeter. The swing looks like a line-drive swing (though it also gives me the impression of length, which is why I'm not a scout -- I have no idea if his swing is what scouts would actually call "long" in the pejorative sense), and if you believe in batted-ball data, he fell just outside the 90th percentile in line-drive percentage in 2013.
Lowrie is also one of Billy Beane's "who needs grounders" wunderkinder, finishing fourth from the bottom among qualifiers in ground-ball percentage. The "bottom" ten is a little bit of a Sesame Street game:
(I should note my major debt to Andrew Koo in even bringing up groundballs and fly balls and all that.)
I could keep listing names and you'd keep going "wow, that's a good hitter" all the way up until around number 103 (Dan Uggla), but what's interesting is how slugger-y all these players are, and how not-slugger-y Lowrie is. Moss, Carter, Davis, these are guys who take big roaring cuts and rip big roaring home runs when they connect. And very frequently they do not connect: Carter led baseball in whiff percentage; Chris Davis was seventh; Brandon Moss was 12th. Jed Lowrie? Thirty-second lowest rate of misses on his swings. And for what it's worth, the whiff and grounder rates are in line with the rest of Lowrie's career:
(All of the above data is from ESPN Stats & Info. I couldn't tell you which data provider gives them their batted-ball stuff.)
Lowrie turns 30 around the beginning of the season and (so?) I think it's fair to expect more of the same hitting-wise, more of the same fielding-wise, and ... well, let's just hope for more of the same health-wise. Depending on the progress of Russell and the A's place in the pennant race, a late-season injury could present an interesting decision for the front office: Do you hypothetically throw Russell into the mix with the A's one game back in the West on August 10th? What if he's hitting .250/.310/.390 at Triple-A? What if the A's are four games up instead of one back? What if he's hitting .270/.330/.420? What if his defense has lagged? What if he missed a month in May due to injury himself? Do you just play Nick Punto or Eric Sogard every day and hope for the best? Do you call up Andy Parrino?
Teams could and should be (and presumably are) asking themselves these questions in November and December and January and February and all the months after that because they don't want to be caught flat-footed at any position, not given the ease with which a groin is pulled or a hamstring is torn or an ankle is rent asunder, but in particular when you have a player who's physically a little stretched at shortstop and who has made six disabled list trips in his career (though one was for mono, which doesn't really count), you'd like to be ready at a moment's notice with your backup plan, whether on-roster or off-. It's not doomsaying so much as it's just saying.
One also wonders, though we're getting ahead of ourselves not only on Lowrie's health but on his and the A's willingness to extend their relationship beyond 2014, whether a 2015 Lowrie in Oakland would be a second baseman. Lowrie's versatility is more theoretical than it is Puntoical: Compared to 2,921 innings at short, he's played 432 at second (half of them in 2013, the other half in 2010) and 525 at third (half in 2008, the other half in 2011). He's not moving back to third, not on this team, but the A's second-base prospect depth amounts to Daniel Robertson and Chad Pinder, both currently shortstops, both slated for some form of A-ball in 2014, and neither of whom projects as a star. Which leaves second, and which recalls the A's apparent plans for Lowrie when they acquired him last winter -- with Hiroyuki Nakajima aboard, Lowrie looked like a second baseman or maybe even a superutility sort who could start at four infield positions and also get frequent rest himself to stave off injury. Instead, Nakajima did what he did (no need to speak harshly and actually say what he did) and Lowrie became the shortstop. But just like he was pressed into duty, he could be pressed out of duty if the A's feel Russell is ready.
On the other hand, baseball teams seem understandably reluctant to simply shunt aside established veterans for rookies, even when those rookies are hot hot hot prospects and especially when those veterans aren't mere placeholders but are legit "third best player on this entire damn team" contributors. What's interesting to ponder is whether that could lead the A's to simply let Lowrie walk while making the usual noises about price tag and Oakland's ballpark and the lack of a huge TV deal etc. etc. etc. rather than risk perceived slight to Lowrie (and thus perceived injustice in the remaining clubhouse) by offering him a reasonable free-agent deal but telling him that he'll be the second baseman.
It's probably moot. If Lowrie stays healthy in 2014, he'll be a rising 31-year-old shortstop with back-to-back good full seasons to launch into free agency -- that age makes him both young enough to get a nice long deal and old enough that he'll know he has one chance to really cash in. Depending on what happens with Asdrubal Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez with their current teams (and depending on whether anyone still sees Ramirez as a shortstop), Lowrie could be looking at a market where he's the best shortstop available and start pondering that Jhonny Peralta ($50 million-plus) money. (Peralta 2010-13 OPS+: 104; Lowrie: 112; Peralta's defensive reputation: utter crap; Lowrie's: probably the same except nobody knows who Jed Lowrie is.) The A's aren't paying that for a second baseman.
Bah, the future. Who needs it?