Lohse's long, strange offseason ends in Milwaukee
Due to change in CBA, right-hander remained unsigned through bulk of spring
MILWAUKEE -- Kyle Lohse tried hard to keep things as normal as possible during his decidedly abnormal offseason, and he mostly succeeded.
Then everything unraveled on March 22, the day he threw a 95-pitch simulated game against the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes. That was strange enough. When the "opposing pitcher" turned out to be a Korean billionaire trying to break into American baseball, Lohse slipped into bizarro world.
"This guy is out there throwing 45 mph knuckleballs," he said. "He had an agent there, cameras following him around. He had his own dude massaging him between innings. It was really hard for me to concentrate.
"I'm looking around thinking, 'What in the world is going on here?' I kept waiting for Ashton Kutcher to walk out and tell me I was being punk'd."
This was no practical joke. It was Lohse's weird reality during a foray into free agency that lasted months longer than anyone could have guessed.
On Friday -- finally -- Lohse will get down to business. After signing a three-year, $33 million contract with the pitching-needy Brewers and working one Spring Training game, Lohse will make his official debut against the D-backs at Miller Park.
This time, left-hander Wade Miley will start opposite Lohse. According to Arizona's media guide, he is not a Korean billionaire.
"It's stuff like that that I would have missed had I gone through a normal offseason," he said.
To understand why Lohse's offseason was so abnormal, one must understand baseball's latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. It scrapped the old "A" and "B" classifications for free agents and instead instituted a system in which teams could qualify their own free agents for Draft compensation by offering a one-year deal worth at least the average of the top 125 player salaries from the previous season.
If the player rejected that offer -- and all nine did so last year -- then his former team would receive a bonus pick after the first round of the subsequent First-Year Player Draft, while his new team would have to forfeit one of its first two Draft picks, along with the signing dollars allocated for that pick. The financial component is key, because in the new system, teams are each assigned a spending cap for their Draft picks, and a team that exceeds its pool faces penalties up to the loss of picks in the following year.
For the Brewers, signing Lohse meant surrendering the 17th overall pick and about $2 million with which to sign players.
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said all winter that he liked Lohse but was unwilling to pay that extra price. Other suitors, including the Rangers, made similar public pronouncements.
Meanwhile, Lohse sat at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., without a job. This was not the winter he expected, not after he'd gone 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 33 starts for the Cardinals and finished seventh in National League Cy Young Award balloting. He was widely considered one of the best pitchers available, yet as other arms not connected to Draft compensation found work -- Edwin Jackson with the Cubs for four years and $52 million, Anibal Sanchez with the Tigers for five years and $80 million, Zack Greinke with the Dodgers for six years and $147 million -- Lohse sat idle.
Lohse's agent, Scott Boras, has been a vocal critic of the new system.
"In November, we had five or six teams immediately call on Kyle, and their statement was always the same: 'We want him, but we have to sit down as an organization and work through the Draft issue,'" Boras said. "So we have a grand impediment, where we had a great pitcher following a great year with great demand for his services, but the types of teams that wanted Kyle were playoff-caliber teams, and those teams wanted to see if they could add a talent like Kyle, yet not give up 25-30 percent of their Draft dollars."
But Brewers officials say they prefer the new system to the old one, as does Major League Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred. In a USA TODAY story days before Lohse's deal with the Brewers, Manfred pointed out that the number of compensation-eligible free agents was dramatically decreased when the "A" and "B" system was scrapped, leaving more players completely untethered.
"The fact that one Scott Boras client has not signed does not convince me that the system is broken," Manfred told the newspaper.
Lohse, a former Players Association representative who remains involved in the business side of baseball, has strong thoughts about the circumstances that delayed his deal. But he asked to push that conversation to a later date, saying he does not want his dissatisfaction with the process to distract from his first handful of Brewers starts.
"I'll let my pitching do the talking first," he said.
In the end, it came down to the Brewers and Rangers, each of whom were keeping their distance from Lohse publicly. Other teams stayed in touch, Lohse said, in case he decided to sign a desperation deal.
In February, camps opened in Arizona and Florida. Lohse was still at home.
"I was asked by one of the teams we were talking to, 'How are you doing mentally?'" he said. "It was tough. It wasn't what you were expecting. There were days where you thought, 'OK, this is going to be cool,' and then other days where you thought this was the worst thing ever.
"I had to have perspective on it. I told myself, 'This is going to be fine as long as you do your work. Be ready.'"
So as Spring Training began, Lohse began his usual routine. He found a catcher through Brett Fischer, who runs a physical therapy and conditioning center in Phoenix. He threw simulated games at Grand Canyon University and later at Scottsdale Community College, and says he owes a debt of gratitude to those college players and their coaches -- Andy Stankiewicz and Alex Cherney.
"Our guys were asking a lot of questions, trying to pick something up from this guy who is in the position they want to get someday," said Cherney, who added that it was different once Lohse took the mound for that simulated game. "Our first three hitters went up and hit absolute seeds, and [Lohse] came back into the dugout and said, 'All right, no more first-pitch fastballs for you guys. I'm not working thirds any more, it's time to hit corners and start spotting up the breaking ball.'
"After that, it got real ugly for us in a hurry. The intensity level was ratcheted up significantly after those first three hitters."
Meanwhile, Boras worked the phones. He had identified the Brewers at the start of the offseason as an ideal destination for Lohse, so when he was met by resistance from Melvin, Boras went directly to the team's principal owner, Mark Attanasio.
After a series of compromises, the two ultimately struck a deal the night of March 24. Lohse will earn $4 million this season, with $7 million deferred to 2016-18. He will then earn $11 million apiece in 2014-15, with another $1.05 million available in incentives.
"Scott is a very persistent agent," Melvin said.
The Brewers have been burned by similar agreements before. Jeff Suppan signed a four-year deal on Christmas Eve 2006, and Randy Wolf inked a three-year deal at the 2009 Winter Meetings; both were released before those contracts were up. Lohse is 34 -- older than both Suppan and Wolf at the time they signed.
Yet Lohse was expecting a richer deal at the start of the winter, both in terms of years and dollars.
"You can look at guys coming off similar years, and it's obvious they got more than I got," Lohse said. "But I'm happy with a lot of things. I'm not going to sit there and complain about the deal I signed, because I know people are having their own problems putting food on the table. I'm not going to be that guy who complains about getting paid $33 million to play a game."
Manager Ron Roenicke offered the bottom line: "All I know is he makes this team a lot better."
As of Friday, only two weeks will have passed since that weird game against the Korean billionaire. They have been a whirlwind for Lohse, who meets someone new at Miller Park every 20 steps or so.
"If there is a quiz," he said, "I will definitely fail."
There will be time to learn names later. On Friday, it's time to pitch.
Is he ready?
"For what? To be midseason-ready?" Roenicke asked. "He's not midseason-ready."
The Brewers are wary of pushing Lohse too hard, too fast, so Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz will err on the side of caution Friday. If Lohse keeps his per-inning pitch count low, he will work deep into the game against the D-backs. If he endures some high-pitch, high-stress innings, the Brewers will have long reliever Chris Narveson ready.
"I took care of my business, and now I'm here on a team that we all feel has a good shot of getting to the postseason," Lohse said. "I've been on a team that shows you -- just get there, and who knows what can happen. I'm ready to get going."