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.