Lobbying For the Wrong Move to Be Made

A week from today, Maholm will most likely be a free agent.

The Texas Rangers took a 3-2 lead in the World Series last night, and could potentially win it all on Wednesday.  If they lose, that means the series will be decided on Thursday.  For the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the other 27 teams that are waiting for the off-season to begin, this means that we will start to see the first off-season moves being made no later than a week from today.

We know about the moves that the Pirates plan to make.  They hold options on Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit, and Paul Maholm, and they plan on buying out those options, making all three players free agents.  The moves have been discussed constantly over the last week.  There are some people who want the Pirates to keep Doumit and let Maholm walk.  There are some people who want Maholm, but don’t want Doumit.  Some people want both, and some people want neither. It’s not uncommon for every viewpoint to be covered.  There are a lot of Pirates fans, and thus, there are a lot of different opinions.  I’m never surprised by the various opinions of others.  That said, I have been surprised by the justification of some of these opinions in the last week.

You could make an argument that $9.75 M for one year is too much for Paul Maholm.  Personally I feel Maholm is worth that amount, although the price is more on the high side, to the point where Maholm needs to repeat his 2011 season in order to make the deal worthwhile.  You can definitely make the argument that Ryan Doumit’s option – two years and $15.5 M guaranteed – is too much for an injury prone catcher with poor defense.  You could also point to guys on the free agent market that would cost less than Maholm at $9.75 M or Doumit at $15.5 M for two years.  I reviewed some options in the last week, looking at some of the available catchers, and some of the available starting pitchers.

This is the point where the arguments in favor of Maholm and Doumit take a turn.  On the catching market, there are two guys who are clearly better all around players than Doumit: Rod Barajas and Ramon Hernandez.  Both have better defense, and are more reliable injury-wise.  In reviewing the starting pitchers, my preference would be Chris Capuano, then Paul Maholm on a multi-year deal, followed by a flier that Erik Bedard could stay healthy, and in a last ditch effort: Jeff Francis.  In each case, you’re looking at options that are cheaper than the $9.75 M for Maholm.  I’d have Edwin Jackson topping this list if I thought he was a realistic option for the Pirates.

The opinion that I’ve seen floated around is that the Pirates won’t sign a free agent, and that their only chance to avoid a disaster of a 2012 season is to over-pay and keep Maholm and Doumit.  The view on free agency is either that the Pirates won’t be able to sign a player (no one will come here, Pirates won’t offer enough, etc), or that the Pirates won’t sign a player that is better than Maholm or Doumit.

A lot of this is based on a small sample size.  Prior to last off-season, the Pirates hadn’t really approached free agency looking for a starting pitcher or a starting position player.  They’ve mostly looked for bench and bullpen help.  The bullpen help has been successful, and the bench players haven’t worked out, as the Pirates have gone for guys that are on the downside of their career.  Last year the Pirates took their first look in to the free agent market to fill bigger needs.  They added Lyle Overbay to start at first base, added Matt Diaz to platoon in right field with Garrett Jones, and added Kevin Correia to the rotation.

You could argue that the track record the Pirates have isn’t great.  But you’re really just basing an argument on a single year.  In fact, it reminds me of these recent arguments:

-The Pirates won’t sign Luis Heredia. Look at what happened with Miguel Sano.

-The Pirates will take a “signability” pick in the first round in 2010, just like they did with Tony Sanchez.

Just like those two cases, people are forming their predictions around a sample size of one year.  But this isn’t really about whether the Pirates will or won’t sign a free agent.  It’s about justifying the options for Maholm and Doumit by saying that this is the only hope for the Pirates to get their production.

It would cost $9.75 M for Maholm’s option.  It would cost much less for a guy like Chris Capuano, and it would cost less per year to sign Maholm to a multi-year deal.  It would cost $15.5 M for two years to pick up Doumit’s option.  It would cost much less if the Pirates offered arbitration and Doumit accepted.  It would also cost much less if they signed Ramon Hernandez or Rod Barajas.  In each case, the argument is “but the Pirates won’t sign those players”.

This is what baffles me. The Pirates aren’t picking up the options of Maholm and Doumit, and you could argue that this is the right call. In each case there are better, and cheaper, options available on the free agent market.  For those that believe the Pirates won’t sign a comparable free agent, the view is basically that the Pirates won’t pick up the options (which is fact) and that the Pirates won’t sign a comparable player (which is speculation).  What I don’t understand is why, if you’re faced with two situations where you believe the Pirates won’t make a move, would you lobby for a move that is arguably worse?  It seems to me that there are two choices: lobby for the options, or lobby for a free agent.  Lobbying for the option seems like a total waste of time, since the Pirates have said they won’t make the move, and since it’s clear that there are similar, if not better alternatives on the market.

The argument that the Pirates won’t sign a free agent is mixed.  There’s the small sample size argument that says the Pirates won’t make a move because they haven’t done so before (pointing to last off-season as proof).  There’s also the argument that no player will sign in Pittsburgh.  That second argument has limitations.  I can see that argument for a guy like Edwin Jackson.  I can’t see that argument for a guy like Rod Barajas.  I also can’t see that argument for a guy like Chris Capuano.

Barajas signed for $3.25 M last year as a free agent.  Only one catcher received more than $4 M a year last year, and that was John Buck, who was coming off a season with numbers far greater than we saw out of Barajas.  I don’t expect Barajas to receive more than $4 M a year on the open market, and he probably won’t see more than the $3.25 M he saw last year.  Even if the Pirates had to over-pay and go $5 M a year for two years, that’s a much better alternative than $15.5 M for two years of Doumit.  You save $5 M, which is important when you’re operating under a small budget, and you get a catcher with better defense, and who is much more reliable, injury-wise.

Then there’s Chris Capuano.  It’s hard to get a read on his salary, as he has signed smaller deals the last few years due to injuries.  He returned in 2011 with 186 innings pitched, which means he should be in line for more than the $1.5 M plus incentives that he received last year.  However, I don’t think he gets anything close to the $9.75 M option price that Maholm saw.  I think it would be more likely that he sees something in the $5 M range, and I think that the Pirates could over-pay and still get him cheaper than Maholm’s option.  Considering that Capuano has a better xFIP than Maholm, and better strikeout and walk ratios over the last three years, I’d much rather over-pay for him, rather than settling for the $9.75 M option from Maholm.

If I’m going to lobby for something, I’m lobbying for the free agents.  I don’t think it would cost the Pirates more than two years and $8 M for Barajas.  I also think that Capuano could be had on a two year deal for $10-12 M total, or a one year deal for $6-7 M.  In each case, you’ve got upgrades over Maholm and Doumit, and at a cheaper price.  The team lost 90 games last year.  Over-paying to keep that team together seems foolish, especially if over-paying limits the ability to add to the team.  If you can get the same, or better, production at a cheaper price, that’s the move to make.  The Pirates could spend $25 M on Maholm and Doumit, or they could spend much less on Barajas and Capuano, and have money to upgrade another position.  If you feel the Pirates won’t make either move, yet you feel the need to lobby for one of them, then why not lobby for the move that makes more sense to the small market franchise: getting the same or better production for a cheaper price?

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 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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