The Pirates in 2011 improved from 105 losses to 90, certainly a significant step forward even though they remain a bad team. With the playoffs still underway, however, they’ve made it clear that they intend to move quickly backward toward another 100-odd losses in 2012. It’s long been known that they don’t intend to exercise catcher Ryan Doumit’s two-year, $15.5M option. Team President Frank Coonelly has now added the news that the team is “unlikely” to exercise left-handed starter Paul Maholm’s $9.75M option for 2012, or to sign Maholm to a multi-year extension.
Make no mistake, these are significant downgrades. Maholm has been an underappreciated pitcher for years, struggling along with a Keystone Kops defense behind him. The absence of fielders who can catch the ball has left him with ERAs that have often been much higher than his fielding independent pitching ratings, which roughly attempt to measure what a pitcher’s ERA would have been had his team fielded an average defense for him. The Pirates finally made significant defensive improvements in 2011 and, largely as a result, Maholm posted a career-best 3.66 ERA. What’s more, once you adjust for the terrible defense that has burdened Maholm in most years, he’s been a very consistent starter. Now the Pirates will go into 2012 with four established starters. All of the four are major question marks. Well, actually, Kevin Correia isn’t a question mark. He’s simply a replacement level pitcher who wouldn’t start for a competitive team. But the three remaining starters all lack track records, and now we know that Charlie Morton will be coming back from major surgery. The rotation hung on by a thread for four months last year. As soon as any adversity hit them, the team fell to pieces. A pitching staff with so little margin for error can’t afford to lose its most reliable starter.
Doumit has his problems behind the plate, but in 2011, when he was available, he was one of the few bright spots in an atrocious lineup. Here’s where the Pirates ranked in the NL in OPS at each position:
That seventh ranking at catcher came despite Doumit missing half the year. If Mike McKenry had been the catcher all year, the Pirates would have ranked 15th, well below the #14 team. Without Doumit, the Pirates’ “offense” goes from being terrible at all but three positions to being terrible at all but two.
Declining these options might make sense if the Pirates could use the money to upgrade, but they can’t. In fact, they’re very unlikely even to be able to replace Maholm’s and Doumit’s production, a reality that makes upgrading their 90-loss team nearly impossible. Catchers who can hit simply aren’t available. At this stage, the Pirates are probably looking at the position being shared by McKenry, Jason Jaramillo and Matt Pagnozzi. McKenry and Jaramillo are decent backups, but neither has the bat to play regularly, especially on a team that already gets bottom-feeding offense from the corner positions. Pagnozzi’s lengthy minor league hitting performance makes McKenry look like Johnny Bench. The Pirates no doubt will add some other cheap option to compete for the starting job, but the odds of it being somebody noticeably better than McKenry or Jaramillo are slim. The free agent ranks are filled with catchers who are in their mid- to late-30s and nearing the end, and catchers who simply can’t hit at all, or both. Guys like Dioner Navarro, Matt Treanor, Gerald Laird, Brian Schneider and Josh Bard, all of whom will struggle to put up a .600 OPS. Probably the only ones with average-ish bats, apart from Doumit, will be Ramon Hernandez and Rod Barajas, both of whom will likely be scarfed up by more competitive teams that are more concerned with improving than getting bargains. Letting Doumit walk can only lead to a significant downgrade on offense for a team that’s seen its hitting slide steadily downhill under Neal Huntington.
Maholm won’t be any easier to replace. As with catcher, the Pirates don’t have any ready prospects, at least not ones who figure to be anywhere near as good as Maholm, much less better. Whether they go into the free agent market or try to trade for a pitcher, in the unlikely event they find one they can acquire who’s similar in ability to Maholm, they’ll most likely have to pay him at least as much as they’re already unwilling to pay Maholm. The upper-seven and lower-eight figures are the going rate for a mid-rotation starting pitcher. Just a few examples: Jake Westbrook, who’s basically a right-handed Maholm, is signed for $8.5M next year even though he’s five years older and much more of a health risk. Ted Lilly, who’s a little better than Maholm but also six years older, is signed for $22.5M over the next two years. Aaron Cook, another pitcher who was very similar to Maholm until arm problems hit him, signed three years ago for three years and $30M. Randy Wolf is another similar pitcher who’s been a little better than Maholm recently but has been more erratic over his career. He got a little under $28M for three years. Maholm’s option very closely reflects his market price, except it’s a one-year commitment rather than the two or three years the Pirates would have to commit to an equivalent replacement. If you’re not going to pay market value for a player, how are you going to replace him in the open market?
If letting Doumit and Maholm walk was a move intended to free up money to make the team better, it’d make sense, but it’s not. There’s very little chance the Pirates can use that money to improve the team. They probably can’t even use it to replace Doumit and Maholm. Maybe they have some valuation model that tells them that the two players aren’t “worth” their option costs. The trouble is, the goal in baseball isn’t to have the lowest cost per win. It’s to win the most games. The Pirates don’t seem to understand that a player’s abstract “value” and the cost of improving a team often don’t correlate. That’s because players aren’t often available at an amount equal to their “value.” In fact, they rarely are because the free agent market artificially inflates the cost of veteran players, while younger, cost-effective players are rarely available unless a team develops them itself, because nobody wants to trade them. Moves like this call into question whether the Pirates are focused as much on winning as they are on getting bargains for the sake of getting bargains.
Addendum: Neal Huntington has now confirmed that the Pirates will not pay Maholm $9.7M to play for them next year, but states that they’ll hang onto his option until the last moment in case they can trade him. So now they’ve slightly weakened their bargaining position by telling the world that, if nobody trades for him, he’ll be on the free agent market.