By signing Michael Bourn, the Indians have added a high quality top-of-the-order bat, turned Drew Stubbs and Michael Brantley into a good platoon partnership (or trade bait), and opened up the ability to occasionally play Nick Swisher at 1B and Mark Reynolds where he belongs – DH. The Bourn Signing should also somewhat help their dismal pitching staff if Francona starts an OF of Stubbs-Bourn-Brantley, which could track down pretty much any fly ball.
However, the Indians pitching staff is still very poor. Unless you’re counting on Ubaldo and Masterson to completely turn it around, the Indians have a clear need for a good SP at the top of the rotation. The Indians could easily fill this hole by signing a desperate Kyle Lohse to a very cheap 2 or 3 year deal. Kyle Lohse provides something of an anchor at the top of a rotation filled with 4s and 5s and Trevor Bauer, even after docking him for the switch to the AL. The Indians NEED a quality starting pitcher, and do not have the prospects to acquire one, nor is there a quality starter left available this season. And the (presumably very cheap at this point) deal Lohse would require would not handcuff them heading into next offseason, when Lincecum, Wainwright, Garza, Halladay, and Josh Johnson become available (there is also no guarantee any of those names hit FA).
The benefit to the Indians is even greater when you consider their likely current position on the marginal win value curve. The slope is steepest at ~ 86 wins, meaning each additional win in that range adds increases playoff chances much more than an additional win to a 75 win team or a 95 win team. If you believe the Indians are about an 85 win team, that means they’re in a position to benefit greatly from each additional win they get from a guy like Lohse). That link shows an 85 win team has roughly 20% chance of making the playoffs, and an 88 win team has roughly 70% chance of making the playoffs. If you think Lohse could provide 3 WAR, and I do, that’s a staggering increase in playoff odds.
The Indians also have a great advantage when it comes to signing Kyle Lohse, and this is where a potentially innovative rebuilding strategy can be implemented. Because the Indians have already signed two players tied to draft pick compensation, the pick they would forfeit to sign Lohse is not a particularly high one. It would be a pick at the top of the third round, which is not likely to be a great player, nor does it carry a sizable pool allotment (whereas other teams who might want to sign Lohse would have to forfeit their 1st round pick). Even if it carries ~ $300k in pool allotment, that does not give them much extra for their top pick. The Indians lose very little in the draft by signing Kyle Lohse at this point. Each consecutive compensation-tagged player signed results in an increasingly marginal draft penalty, and immediately improves the team, which makes the original sacrifice more acceptable.
Any team with a protected first round pick could easily follow the example set forth here by the Indians, who have pioneered what I think is an intelligent rebuilding strategy:
If a team with a protected 1st round pick is able to sign one player who is worth forfeiting their second round pick, it is advisable to sign as many compensation-tagged players they can fit on the field and in their budget.
Considering that compensation-tagged players will likely to continue to come at a steep salary discount, that picks beyond the second round have dubious MLB futures and carry little pool money, there isn’t a whole ton of downside. The team retains what is likely its most valuable pick in the draft, and forgoes one year of stocking their system with future role 4 players for immediate and drastic improvement on the major league field. Such a move turns ancillary pieces (like Drew Stubbs or Michael Brantley) into trade chips that can be used to further improve holes in the MLB team. And the loss of the 2nd round pick is made less painful by surrounding that player with the pieces needed to win in the immediate future.
Teams that apply this approach also have an advantage in signing such free agents as well. for example, if you were to value a 1st round pick at $10mil in value to your organization, and a 3rd round pick as $2mil in value to your org, the team forfeiting lower draft picks can throw more money at top free agents. The team dropping the 3rd round pick can throw that additional $8mil at the free agent, as the overall loss in value to the organization is the same as the team dropping the 1st round pick.
I am interested to see if any team tries to emulate this strategy in the coming off seasons, assuming the free agent compensation structure does not change too drastically.