Lowe, Kawakami can eat innings for Braves
Their rotation doesn't have a traditional power-pitcher No. 1, but Derek Lowe should be more than adequate as the nominal No. 1 for as long as he remains a strike-throwing ground-ball machine, a skill that seems to age better than the ability to miss bats. Lowe's success is somewhat dependent on the skill of the fielders behind him; Atlanta is solid at short and third base, and has one of the best defensive first basemen in the game in Casey Kotchman. Second baseman Kelly Johnson, however, has well below-average range.
If there's a downside to Lowe's deal, it's the length combined with his age. Lowe never misses a start and has reached 200 innings five times in the past seven years (missing by two-thirds of an inning in 2007), but his ability to pitch this often and this well is likely to decline, perhaps gradually, over the next few years. Atlanta has now signed Lowe through his age-39 season, giving a four-year contract to a pitcher who has already passed his 35th birthday, both an uncommon move and a risky one, as pitchers -- even durable ones -- are prone to things like major injuries or sudden velocity loss once they reach their late 30s.
Kenshin Kawakami is a solid fit for the Braves despite his propensity to surrender the long ball. Atlanta has generally been a good park for fly-ball pitchers, and as long as Kawakami continues to throw strikes, he should provide value at the back of the rotation.
Kawakami posted solid strikeout rates in Japan, but without a clear out pitch he doesn't project to miss as many bats in MLB. His fastball is fringe-average, and he'll likely have to change his approach and pitch more with his offspeed stuff. Like all pitchers coming from Japan, he'll also have to adjust to the larger baseball used here.
Lowe was more valuable in 2008 than any of the starters Atlanta used, and Kawakami should be worth a win or two from the bulk innings he'll provide.
Atlanta did get value from Tim Hudson in 2008 that won't be there in 2009, so the net result is an extra two to three wins, perhaps four if Kawakami exceeds my low expectations.
Given the team's clear focus on contention in 2009, the potential downside toward the end of these two deals is probably just the price of doing business in the free-agent market. By 2011, the Braves will have help from the farm system (Tommy Hanson, Jeff Locke) if either Lowe or Kawakami is no longer able to fulfill his obligations in the rotation.