Did the Pirates Miss An Opportunity with Maholm?

Maholm was at his highest value in early July, and no one wanted him traded.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will have a tough decision to make this off-season when it comes to Paul Maholm.  The left hander has an option for $9.75 M, with a $750 K buyout.  Coming in to the year, the option number seemed high, based on the results of Maholm’s previous two years, in which he combined for a 4.76 ERA in 380 innings.  However, Maholm has been strong this year, with a 3.66 ERA in 162.1 innings.

A left hander who can throw around 200 innings a year, with a sub-4.00 ERA at the age of 30 is definitely worth $9.75 M.  In fact, that type of pitcher would at least command a three year, $30 M deal on the open market.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple with Maholm.

Maholm is currently on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder.  A trip to Dr. James Andrews revealed that there’s no structural damage, although there’s a good chance that Maholm won’t return this season.  That raises a question about his future value.  First of all, there’s his history of being inconsistent.  In 2010 he had a 4.03 ERA through mid July, only to fall apart in the final two and a half months.  That inconsistent play has been the story of his career.

This year, Maholm had a 2.96 ERA through July 10th.  In his final seven starts before the injury he had a 5.75 ERA in 40.2 innings.  I’ve mentioned many times that Maholm was due for a regression, and leading up to the deadline I felt that the Pirates should consider selling high on Maholm, rather than taking the chance that his value could drop with a second half decline like last year.

The Pirates obviously didn’t deal Maholm, and we saw that second half decline for a bit, only to see it interrupted by his injury.  Whatever value Maholm had when he had a 2.96 ERA in early July would now be gone.  It’s hard to say whether the Pirates missed an opportunity to deal Maholm.  We don’t know what kind of offers they received.  If I can look at Maholm’s history and realize a trend of inconsistent play, then any opposing General Manager can do the same thing.

There are some situations where General Managers ignore this type of thinking.  That’s even more common in July.  Contending teams are in the thick of things, decisions are made based on short term injuries and performances, and the present is prioritized over the future.  The Yankees sent a haul for Xavier Nady in 2008 when he was healthy and performing, despite a history of injuries.  This year we saw Cleveland send two top pitching prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez, who has a big injury red flag.  Kris Benson was in high demand back in 2004, despite inconsistent play prior to that year.

It wouldn’t be out of the question to think that the Pirates simply didn’t want to deal Maholm.  If another team can think Maholm has finally turned the corner, then the Pirates could also hold that thought.  I don’t think there’s many Pirates fans who can say the Pirates made a bad move by holding on to Maholm, at least without arguing in hindsight.  When I brought up the idea of trading Maholm and Joel Hanrahan when their values were highest in early July, I was on an island with my thoughts.  I was told about how Maholm might have made some change that allows him to pitch with unsustainable strand rates and a low BABIP.  No one wants to trade a guy when his value is high.  It’s hard to remove yourself from the situation when you’ve got a guy putting up an ERA around 3.00.  It’s hard to not think that’s legit, and to think that an option for $9.75 M in 2012 looks like a reasonable price for that performance range.

There’s nothing that can be done about Maholm’s trade value in July, although the Pirates will now have a tough decision with Maholm.  Do they pick up his option and hope for the same performance out of him in 2012 that they saw in the first two months of the 2011 season?  Will his shoulder injury prevent him from pitching on that level again?  Do they buy out his option, and try to sign him for less than $9.75 M, while running the risk that another team steps up with a big offer?  Or do they try to trade him when he is at a lower value than what we saw in July?

It’s a tough situation, and there seems to be a good chance that Maholm has pitched his last game for the Pirates.  That’s something to think about the next time the Pirates have a sell high candidate.  A month ago, no one wanted Maholm traded.  A month later, the idea that Maholm was due for a regression doesn’t seem so crazy.  No one wants to trade a guy when his value is high, but unfortunately, that’s the only time when you can trade a guy and get a strong return.

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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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

    What kind of return do you think we could have gotten?  If we were only going to end up with prospects I would rather extend him at 9.75.  

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

      If we could have received a legit major league hitter then I think we blew it.  

  • Anonymous

    The Pirates would have taken a huge PR hit.

    The naysayers would have accused them of being the same old Pirates, selling off the team instead of trying to win. It was a no win situation at the time.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

      Very true.  

    • http://twitter.com/Jcsteel Jimmy Cali

      Its tough to say we missed an opportunity when in fact we don’t know what was being offered for Maholm.  There wasn’t a whole lot of starters traded at the deadline and E. Jackson has better stuff than Maholm. 

  • Anonymous

    He’s a LH SP who wants to stay in Pittsburgh. He’s an innings eater and not very old. Only stumbling blocks are his future health (what pitcher isn’t) and big (for the PBC) contract. It’s a great time to sit down with him and see if there’s mutual interest in re-working a deal for the next couple of years. The Pirates don’t have pitchers currently at the MLB level wo can deliver his 200 or so IP per year. He’s not great, but he’s worth keeping…at a lower cost. Incentatives and a signing bonus could get it done.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with salempirate, LHPs that are 200 inning workhorses don’t grow on trees. If Maholm really wants to stay in Pgh, then we should try to work out maybe a 3 year contract extension that will void his option for next year. Possibly, 3 years for $15 mil with incentives for innings pitched, all star appearances and wins could push it to $18mil. If he is serious about staying here, then the team should at least try. Not to mention it is easier to trade a player with a contract then one who is going to be a free agent (Nate McLouth)……..

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think we should pick up the option or extend Maholm. For the past 5 years, he’s been a below average major league pitcher, whose only real asset is durability. 4.76 ERA in 2006, 5.02 in 2007, 4.44 in 2009, and 5.10 in 2010.  That’s not worth nearly 10 million dollars or even 7 or 8 mill a year for 3 years.  I would think the Pirates could get a 4.50 ERA from Lincoln, Owens, Wilson, Locke, Ohlendorf, or someone else for a heck of a lot cheaper, and could use that 10 million to go after something else.

    By the way, Maholm has only pitched 200 innings once in his career, when he had his best year in 2008 with a 3.71 ERA.  He has, however, given up over 200 hits every full season he has ever pitched in.

    • http://twitter.com/Jcsteel Jimmy Cali

      From what I saw of Ohlendorf a few days ago, you’ll be lucky to get a 6.50 ERA from him.

      Wilson and Locke are intriguing although I probably would like to ease them in the rotation then officially count on them in 2012

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DZTPQRGTPEAWJ3G4S5PLNIQ6AY Jacob J

    If they can pay him something the Pirates can afford and still have money to spend on the rest of the team, I agree that we keep him. He’s just now entering the age when a pitcher is at peak performance. He could surprise with a couple decent seasons, and he’s valuable as a mentor to the young ones. Considering the prices for merely mediocre lefties on the open market, he’s still a bargain at this point, and he’s better than mediocre.

    • Anonymous

      Average National League ERA in 2006 – 4.49…Maholm 4.76.
      National League ERA in 2007 – 4.44…Maholm 5.02
      National League ERA in 2008 – 4.30…Maholm 3.71
      National League ERA in 2009 – 4.20…Maholm 4.44
      National League ERA in 2010 – 4.03…Maholm 5.10

      I don’t know how you can say Maholm is an above average pitcher.  In his 5 previous years as a Pirate, only in one year was he an above average pitcher, and considering his peripherals were similar that year, he was probably more lucky than good in 2008.

      I like Paul as a person and he seems to fit in Pittsburgh well, but he’s 29 years old, meaning from the ages 24-28, he’s been basically the same pitcher.  And there are no indications that he will be any better.  His HR, K, and BB ratios are pretty consistent year to year (his K rate is actually lower than his poor career average this year).  In his two most successful seasons 2008 and this year (well, the first half of this year) his OBA was way down from his career average, with constant peripherals.  Meaning, Paul Maholm has to be lucky to be an average to above average major league pitcher.

      In reality, Maholm is not worth 9.75 million dollars.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DZTPQRGTPEAWJ3G4S5PLNIQ6AY Jacob J

    I said he’s an above mediocre left hander. Decent lefthanders are not as easy to come by as righthanders.
    He keeps the Pirates in games and doesnt often get blown out so far that an average hitting team cant come back to win. Thats the main thing. And compared to the price of even sub-mediocre lefthanders on the market, his 9.75 million price tag is not bad at all.

     In major league baseball reality, he is worth 9.75 million dollars.

    • Anonymous

      Maybe it’s just me, but for a starter, how valuable is it really to be left handed?  Sure there are teams that profile poorly against lefties, as there are teams that rip lefties.  After the first start of the season, it’s really just luck who a pitcher starts against  (It seems like Charlie Morton has started every game against the Reds this year).
      Starting Pitcher is not a situational position, Paul doesn’t get to start every series against, say the left-handed dominated Phillies.  I don’t see how his left-handedness should mean he gets overpaid to be a below average pitcher, as his career numbers show he is.
      For me, it boils down to this- the Pirates can get Paul Maholm’s production for less than $9.75 million next year, and less than $18-20 Million over 3 years

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