Paul Maholm: Trade or Extend?

Player A: 3.71 ERA, 6.1 K/9, 2.7 BB/9

Player B: 4.44 ERA, 5.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9

Player C: 3.77 ERA, 5.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 86.0 IP

Player D: 6.25 ERA, 4.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 99.1 IP

Player E: 3.12 ERA, 5.8 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 89.1 IP

What do all of the above players have in common?  Spoiler alert: they’re all Paul Maholm.

Player A is the 2008 version of Paul Maholm, putting up the 3.71 ERA in 206.1 innings, which earned him a three year extension and an option year with the Pirates.  Player B is Maholm in 2009, the year after signing the extension.  Player C is Maholm in 2010, through 14 starts, the same amount of starts he currently has in 2011.  Player D is Maholm in the remainder of his starts during the 2010 season.  Player E is his performance to date in 2011.

Should the Pirates extend Maholm, or trade him?

The big question today is whether to extend Maholm, or trade him at the deadline.  This topic follows Maholm’s seven shutout innings last night against the Mets, which follows six, one-hit innings in his previous start.  You could make the argument that Maholm has been one of the best pitchers in the Pirates’ rotation this year, and that argument wouldn’t even need to be made if he actually received run support in the majority of his starts.  So what do you do with Maholm?  Extend him, or trade him?

The problem with basing too much off of 14 starts in 2011 is that we’ve seen this before.  Maholm was solid in his first 14 starts in 2010.  He then went on a rapid decline in the second half of the season.  Maholm really hasn’t had a single year where he’s been strong the entire year.  He struggled at the beginning of 2008.  In 2009 he struggled early, and improved greatly in the final two months of the season.  We know that he was good in the first half of 2010, but couldn’t sustain that.

The Pirates have an option on Maholm for $9.75 M in 2012, and that option is looking good right about now.  However, realistically, the Pirates have about a month to make a decision on their left handed starter.  It’s difficult to even suggest trading Maholm right now.  The team has been starved for pitching the last few years, and they’ve got a guy who is under control for another year, and who is actually performing well.  At the same time, I feel like we’re in the middle of one of those situations where a player is at his highest value, thus making it difficult to see that this might be a great time to deal Maholm and get the biggest return.

Let’s look at the facts:

-Maholm has been incredibly inconsistent throughout his career.  You can blame the defense all you want, but I feel the problem extends beyond the defense.  In 2009, Maholm had a 4.70 ERA in 128.1 innings when Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, and Adam LaRoche were on the team.  In the final two months of the season he had a 3.93 ERA in 66.1 innings with Delwyn Young, Ronny Cedeno, and Garrett Jones holding down the fort the majority of the time.

-Maholm has seen his walk rate increase over the years.  In 2007 he had a 2.5 BB/9.  It was 2.7 in 2008, and 2.8 in 2009.  In 2010 that walk rate jumped to 3.0.  So far this year it’s 3.2.

-Maholm has also seen his ground ball rate decline.  He was consistently in the 53% range from 2006-2008, dropped to 52% in 2009, then just under 51% in 2010.  This year he’s at 48.5%.

-Maholm has been very lucky this year with a .243 BABIP and a 5.9% HR/FB ratio.  The league average for starters is typically around .300 and 10%.  Maholm’s averages are .308 and 9.8%.  There’s definitely room for some regression here.

-Maholm’s average fastball velocity has gone from the 89 MPh range in 2005-2009, to 88.3 MPH in 2010 and 87.5 MPH this year.

-The big differences this year are that Maholm is using his changeup more (18% of the time, up from 13% in his career), and is getting more swings out of the zone (31.4%, up from 25% in his career).  The problem here is that he’s not missing bats.  His swinging strike rate is 6.4%, down from his career 6.9%, and way down from 2008 when he had an 8.4% rate.  His contact rate is 84.5% , which is in line with his career numbers.

Looking only at Maholm, and ignoring the Pirates’ situation, I’d be more inclined to say that he’s been lucky this year, and we’re due to see another regression.  His performance so far has been great, but we’ve seen this before.  What we haven’t seen is a full season of this type of performance from Maholm.  So should the Pirates ignore history, ignore all of the signs that Maholm isn’t really this good, keep Maholm, and hope that this year is different from the previous years?  Or should they deal him when his value is the highest, hoping that the return improves the team in the long run, while also hoping they were right in thinking Maholm was at his highest value?

I discussed Maholm’s trade value last month.  In the article, I pointed out that if Maholm pitched like a 3.0 WAR pitcher, the Pirates could receive a top 51-100 pitching prospect, or a 76-100 hitting prospect.  Considering his performance so far this year, it might be easy to convince teams that he’s at least a 3.0 WAR pitcher.

The alternative is extending Maholm.  His $9.75 M option in 2012 is almost a guarantee at this point.  Any team trading for Maholm will be picking that up.  If the Pirates keep him, they either pick up the option, or he goes on the free agent market and easily gets that amount or more.  It would be hard to imagine Maholm getting less than $10 M a year when guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Jorge de la Rosa, and Randy Wolf all received $10 M or more per year in the last two off-seasons.  At the very least, Maholm would see something in the 2/$16.5 M range that Carl Pavano and Jake Westbrook received this past off-season.  When you consider that Maholm will be 29 this off-season, and Pavano and Westbrook were 35 and 33 respectively, it would be easy to imagine Maholm getting more than that amount, plus more years.  Any extension would probably be in the three years, $30 M range that guys like Wolf and de la Rosa received.

That sort of extension would cover the 2012-2014 seasons.  The Pirates have Charlie Morton becoming arbitration eligible in 2012.  Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and James McDonald join the list in 2013.  Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata follow in 2014.  I’m not saying the Pirates can’t afford to pay these guys while paying $10 M a year to Maholm.  However, with Maholm’s track record, there’s a good chance that any extension could eventually look like a bust, especially if he shows the inconsistent play that we saw for the first two years after his last extension.  The last thing the Pirates need over the next three years is a bad contract on their hands, especially when they could see young guys like Rudy Owens, Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Kyle McPherson, and eventually, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, arrive in the next few years.

The Pirates have a great chance to deal a guy when his value is high, and replace him with some young options.  It’s not like Maholm is the only pitcher in the rotation who is performing right now.  The other four starters are also performing.  It’s also not like the Pirates are contenders right now.  All you have to do is look at how bad the offense can be at times to realize this.  If you feel that the offense might come around, you have to at least credit the fact that the pitching might regress, as a lot of players are playing over their heads.

This is a perfect time for the Pirates to trade a guy at a high value, and try out some of their young options, like Wilson, Owens, and Lincoln.  The good news is that the Pirates only need one of these guys to stick, since the other four spots in the rotation are fine right now.  The good news for those prospects is that they won’t be thrown in to a situation where they have to be the savior of a Major League rotation, again because the other four starters are pitching very well.  It’s difficult dealing a guy when his value is high.  What’s even more difficult is waiting until that player struggles, and realizing you missed your chance to make a deal.  Based on Maholm’s inconsistent history, and a lack of evidence that things have truly changed this year, I’d say it’s very possible that the Pirates could regret their decision if they decide to keep Maholm.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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