Righthander Mark Lowe knows when to have a career season. After failing to make the Tampa Bay Rays’ opening day roster in 2014, he was released and signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians. He spent the first half shuttling between Cleveland and Triple-A Columbus, but was designated for assignment and outrighted off the 40-man roster in July. He elected free agency after giving up seven runs in seven innings for the season.
After settling for a minor league contract with the Seattle Mariners that included an invitation to spring training in 2015, Lowe kept plugging away, allowing one run with 11 strikeouts to just one walk in nine innings for Triple-A Tacoma. He was called up to Seattle in May and made the most of his opportunity, posting a 1.00 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, and 47 strikeouts over 36 innings. Lowe was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline for three minor league players, where he posted a 3.79 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP, striking out 14 batters while giving up just one walk and three home runs.
Now a free agent, Lowe could be a cheap alternative to some of the bigger names on the market. FanGraphs' crowdsourcing project pegged him for a two-year contract worth $8 million, a much more reasonable price than some of the top names on the market. Could the Detroit Tigers get involved?
Who is he?
Lowe was selected by the Mariners in the fifth round of the 2004 amateur draft out of the University of Texas at Arlington. The 6'3 righthander has spent over seven seasons in the major leagues between Seattle, Texas, Cleveland, Seattle (again) and Toronto. He has pitched in relief his entire major league career, 328 games in all. The 2015 season was only the third time he has topped the 50-inning mark, the last coming all the way back in 2009.
Lowe has had two significant surgeries in his career. In 2006, he had microfracture surgery on his right elbow, which cost him most of the 2007 season. In 2010, Lowe had a microdiscectomy in his lower back, ending his year early. He worked 64 innings between Triple-A Tacoma and the major leagues in 2015, and 49 innings in 2014, mostly in the minor leagues. He has split time between the majors and Triple-A every season since 2011.
A bit of trivia! Lowe made his major league debut pitching for the Mariners against the Tigers in the ninth inning of a 6-1 Tigers victory at Seattle. He gave up a single, ground-rule double, hit a batter to load the bases, then got out of the jam by striking out Placido Polanco and Magglio Ordonez, with Pudge Rodriguez grounding into a force at the plate in between. Jeremy Bonderman, a Washington State native, went 8-2/3 innings for the near shutout victory.
Why should we care?
Once Lowe got himself on track in 2015, he was one of the best relief pitchers in the American League. His 1.2 fWAR ranked second only to Darren O’Day among free agent relief pitchers, and his 5.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio was a career-high. He ranked among the top six free agents in ERA, FIP, and WHIP, and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Lowe had a very good season, one that should earn him a multi-year deal on the open market.
Lowe’s inconsistent history prior to 2015 should act to keep his price tag within reason, though. FanGraphs' median estimate is $4 million per year for two years, a much lower cost than many of the relievers he outperformed in 2015. He has remained mainly healthy since his lower back surgery in 2010 and appears to be on track for another successful season. Steamer forecasts another 55 innings for Lowe in 2016, with a bit of regression in his walk rate and ERA.
Why should we stay away?
Relif pitchers are always a gamble, but just one good season at the major league level is not a large sample size to go on. Lowe's career 3.80 ERA is rather average, and he owned a 4.41 ERA and 4.64 FIP in the five seasons prior to 2015. Over half of his career 2.0 fWAR came in 2015, and he had a -11.73 RE24 in his career prior to last season. Lowe's fastball velocity mysteriously dropped off in 2013 and 2014 before returning last year, and he will turn 33 in June. The Tigers should be hoping to get a career year out of a relief pitcher, not looking to overpay him after he already had it.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Depending how much salary the Tigers are going to allocate to the bullpen, Lowe could be a fit. They have already added Francisco Rodriguez, but should be looking to add one or two more relief pitchers. Based on 2015 numbers, Lowe is in a group with O’Day, Shawn Kelley, and lefthanders Antonio Bastardo and Tony Sipp, atop the leaderboards for free agent relief pitchers. Offering a second season could be the key to signing him, though it wouldn't be a surprise to see them spend a bit more money on one of the more consistent options available.