A lot of trade rumors have surrounded Paul Maholm this off-season. The left hander is entering the final year of his three year contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, earning $5.75 M this year. He also has an option in 2012 for $9.75 M, with a $750,000 buyout. However, because Maholm is coming off a year where he put up a 5.10 ERA in 185.1 innings of work, the popular opinion is that the Pirates won’t exercise that option, or will try to trade Maholm this year before the trade deadline.
Fueling that opinion is the fact that the Pirates should see a few of the 2010 Altoona starters make their way to the majors this summer, which could force Maholm out of the rotation. But while the popular opinion is that Maholm is good as gone by the end of the year, that’s not stopping the Pirates’ starter from expressing a desire to stay. According to Rob Biertempfel, Maholm would be open to an extension with the Pirates.
It’s not uncommon for a player approaching free agency to mention that he’s open to staying with his current team. No player wants to remove a potential bidder from the table, especially not a guy like Maholm, who is coming off a down year in 2010. At the same time, that doesn’t mean Maholm would come at a discount just because he currently plays for the Pirates. So what would Maholm command in an extension?
First of all, any extension would cover what would be Maholm’s free agent years, so it’s not hard to determine his value. This past off-season there were six pitchers who signed free agent deals for an overall value of $10 M or more. Looking at those pitchers, we can get an idea of what Maholm would command in an extension, buying out his free agent years.
The six pitchers were Cliff Lee (5 years, $120 M), Ted Lilly (3 years, $33 M), Jorge De La Rosa (3 years, $32 M), Carl Pavano (2 years, $16.5 M), Jake Westbrook (2 years, $16.5 M), and Hiroki Kuroda (1 year, $12 M). Looking at the FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) numbers from the last three years for each player (excluding the injury filled 2008 for Carl Pavano and 2009 for Jake Westbrook), we can get a feel for the value each player will be expected to have. Here are the average numbers for each player from the last few years, as well as the average annual salary from their free agent deals:
Lee: 6.97 WAR, $24 M
Lilly: 2.97 WAR, $11 M
DLR: 2.6 WAR, $10.7 M
Pavano: 3.45 WAR, $8.25 M
Westbrook: 2.3 WAR, $8.25 M
Kuroda: 3.33 WAR, $12 M
The average cost per one WAR among those six pitchers was $3.47 M. With this number, we can figure out how much Maholm would be worth on the open market. First, we need Maholm’s average WAR, which was 2.67 over the last three years (using the same time period as the six pitchers above). From there, we just multiply the 2.67 WAR by $3.47 M to get Maholm’s expected average annual salary. That salary comes out to $9.26 M a year.
That annual value sounds like a lot for Maholm, mostly because he’s coming off a down year. His annual value, based on his 2010 WAR (2.0) would have been $6.94 M. However, you can’t just discount the previous two years, which saw him average a 3.0 WAR.
I don’t doubt that Maholm would get $9.26 M a year on the open market, assuming he doesn’t repeat his 2010 season. He will be 29 years old next off-season, he’s a left hander, and he’s capable of pitching 200 innings a year. Furthermore, he had a 3.71 ERA in 206.1 innings in 2008, a 4.44 ERA in 194.2 innings in 2009, and he had a 4.03 ERA in 14 innings through July 18th in 2010, before falling apart and finishing with his 5.10 ERA in 185.1 innings.
The problem with Maholm is that he is inconsistent. He was successful in 2010 up until mid-July, and his late season struggles led to some poor overall numbers. In 2009 he had decent numbers, but struggled at times during the season, and only finished up with a 4.44 ERA because he put up a 2.89 ERA in his last seven starts of the season, taking his ERA down from 4.93 on August 13th. Even in his best season, 2008, Maholm had a 5.11 ERA on May 25th, before putting up a 3.11 ERA in his final 144.2 innings. The inconsistencies mean that in any given year, Maholm’s contract could look bad, or look like a value, depending on how inconsistent he is.
Based on the free agents this year, any deal Maholm signed right now would require around $9.26 M to be considered a fair market value. The question then becomes whether that type of deal is worth it for the Pirates. The thing the Pirates lack the most is pitching. They have guys coming up from the minors, starting this summer, but pitching is a thing you can never have enough of. If Maholm is better than the options coming up, then it would make sense for the Pirates to try and extend him. If Maholm is similar to, or worse, than the options coming up, then it wouldn’t make sense for the Pirates to spend $9 M a year to keep him.
I personally think that Maholm is a little bit of both. Due to his inconsistent nature, I think all three results from 2008-2010 are legit. One year you might get a great performance, like the 2008 season, but the next year you might get a bad one, like the 2010 season. There is the chance that Maholm finally fixes his inconsistent ways, which would make him a steal at $9 M a year. However, with the inconsistent performances, he might not be the best fit for a team like the Pirates. With the limited financial resources the Pirates have, it’s not really a wise decision to spend $9 M a year on a guy who has been such a boom or bust performer the last three years.