It seems that every year there is a big story in the off-season that always leads to the same result. The Pittsburgh Pirates make a move, the move is unfavorable to the fan base, and the immediate reaction is to speculate on what this means for the remainder of the off-season. Usually the thought is “the Pirates will do nothing, and will go in to the following season with what they have”. In the past, history has shown us that this immediate reaction has been wrong.
We saw this reaction in 2009 when the Pirates non-tendered Matt Capps. Following the move there was outcry, and despite the Pirates saying they would reallocate the funds, there was speculation that the team wouldn’t add anyone to the bullpen. The Pirates ended up signing Octavio Dotel to be their closer, and eventually flipped him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo.
At the time, I was in the camp that felt they gave up on Capps too soon. I felt that Capps was a prime candidate to bounce back. Letting him go was a mistake. They off-set that mistake by signing Dotel. I felt they should have spent the money, had Capps turn his numbers around, all so they could get some trade value. Instead they took the money they would have given Capps, gave it to Dotel, and got the same result. Side note for those asking “why not both”: Dotel only signed with the Pirates because he was given the closer’s role. He doesn’t sign with Capps on board, making $4 M.
In 2010 we saw this reaction on a matter that wasn’t player related. In late September, the Pirates fired Altoona Curve manager Matt Walbeck. The move followed a season where Altoona won the Eastern League championship series. The outcry focused on the obvious: they fired a manager who just won a championship. The situation was bigger than normal because the Pirates still had John Russell as their manager (the MLB regular season was still going on).
Because Russell was still the manager, we saw about a week of speculation in the form of “they fired Matt Walbeck, so they must be keeping John Russell for another year”. Of course, Russell was fired after the 2010 season, and the Pirates eventually hired Clint Hurdle. Meanwhile, Walbeck dropped down to manage the low-A Rome Braves, and was let go mid-season.
Today Rob Biertempfel of the Trib reported that Paul Maholm’s 2012 option wouldn’t be picked up by the Pirates. That of course led to some immediate reactions on all Pirates sites. Maholm is coming off a year where he posted a 3.66 ERA. His 4.03 xFIP shows that those numbers might have been a bit lucky, but that he’s a solid pitcher. His strikeout, walk, and home run numbers all improved from 2010 to 2011. He missed time with an injury, but that shouldn’t affect him in 2012.
The immediate reaction is a mixture of “why aren’t they keeping Paul Maholm” and the usual “they won’t do anything to replace him”. To the latter part, all I can do is point to the history of these situations to say that it’s probably too early to make those statements. We’re about two months away from free agency really heating up. We don’t know who will hit the market, and we don’t know who the Pirates will target. So we’ll save that for another day (and that day will probably be Monday, when I look at the possible free agent starting pitchers).
We know that the Pirates aren’t keeping Maholm. We don’t know yet whether they will replace him, or how they will replace him. The remaining question is: why? Why aren’t the Pirates keeping Paul Maholm?
My preference during the season, which I mentioned all throughout the month of July, was to trade Maholm in a big seller’s market. That sounds reasonable now, but when the Pirates were technically contenders, mentioning the idea of flipping Maholm for prospects got the reaction you would see if you tried to take food away from a person who hadn’t eaten for 19 years. The idea of selling Maholm at his highest value was meant to improve the team for the long term (and we don’t know that the Pirates didn’t try). That’s not to say that I want Maholm gone under any circumstance.
Maholm has a $9.75 M option in 2011. I’ve mentioned many times that this option is fair with the production that we saw out of him in 2011. Maholm was a 2.6 WAR pitcher in 2011. The price for a win on the free agent market last year was around $5 M in most cases. So Maholm’s 2.6 WAR would be worth $13 M on the open market.
This situation is similar to the Matt Capps situation. The Pirates are potentially letting a guy go with no compensation, rather than keeping him around for one more year. That’s fine if they plan on using the money on another similar option. You could see why the Pirates took that approach with Capps. He was coming off a down year, and the performance of relievers can be hard to predict. He was set to go to arbitration, a process which heavily favors saves.
That situation doesn’t apply for Maholm. He’s coming off a great year, arguably the second best year of his career. His price is a fixed cost: $9.75 M. He’s also been somewhat consistent. Sure, the ERA has been all over the place, but his xFIP, which is a better indicator of future results, has seen the following numbers since 2008:
Outside of 2010, he looks like a 4.00-4.20 ERA pitcher. Last year I looked at the average rotations across the league. The average number three starter had a 4.15 ERA. The average number two starter in a bad rotation had a 3.91 ERA. Maholm ranks as an average number three starter, or a number two starter in a bottom 15 rotation.
Furthermore, as mentioned earlier in the year, Maholm is a perfect match for PNC Park. He’s left handed, which obviously favors PNC Park, as it shuts down the advantage that left handed batters have. The advantage Maholm has is that he’s one of the best ground ball left handers in the Majors, with a career 52.3% ground ball rate. In his career, Maholm has only once posted an ERA north of 4.14 at home, and only twice has he been above a 3.59 ERA at home. That’s a big advantage when you consider he pitches about 100 innings a year at PNC Park.
There are some concerns with Maholm. His innings have dropped consistently every year since 2008, going from 206.1 to 162.1. His ground ball rate has also seen a similar decline, going from 53.6% in 2008 to 49.9% in 2011, a number that is still well above average. Overall these concerns don’t really hide the fact that Maholm is a good pitcher.
Maholm wasn’t a weakness for the Pirates in 2011. In fact, he was the opposite. He was part of the reason the team was so successful in the first half, and his performance was consistent until August, at which point he struggled, then went down with a minor shoulder injury. We don’t know how the Pirates will replace him, or if they will replace him. We do know that, in order for this move to make sense, the Pirates will need to replace Maholm with someone that is equal to, or better than Maholm.
I would actually be surprised if Maholm receives $9.75 M a year on the open market. I think he’s more likely to get a multi-year deal that pays less per year. My guess is that, if the Pirates want to land a replacement, they’re going to have to do something similar, paying $7-8 M a year on a multi-year deal for a pitcher that is similar to Maholm. So why not keep Maholm and avoid the hassle? Yes, it will cost about $2 M extra, but that $2 M is basically insurance that you enter the 2012 season with a guy of Maholm’s talent level.
It seems like the Pirates are taking a gamble here. They’re letting a pitcher walk after he’s coming off a strong season. The move will probably make sense once we see what their approach is in the off-season. However, even if their approach is to find a replacement, the move is still a gamble, as they already had a guy under team control.
There’s also the possibility that we’re getting ahead of ourselves here in dismissing Maholm. All we know is that they won’t pick up the option for $9.75 M. We don’t know whether they will try and negotiate with him on the open market. I’ve seen a lot of people suggest “give him a three year deal”. If you’re Maholm, why would you take a three year deal without at least testing the open market? Testing the open market doesn’t prevent Maholm from re-signing with the Pirates.
Again, this is a picture that will probably clear up in a few weeks, you know, when the off-season actually begins. We’ll probably get a better understanding of this move, and the Pirates’ focus on the off-season. At that point, we’ll be in a better position to either say “this makes sense” or “they should have just kept Maholm”. For now, we can only wait for that clarity, because the idea of letting one of your best pitchers walk for no compensation makes little sense based on the information we’ve got.